In the long list of grammar terms implemented into the English language, there’s one two-word concept called an Oxford comma. Its definition goes like this:
A great way to start a fight.
The Oxford comma seems like a fitting follow-up topic this week since, last Thursday, I showed you how to annoy an editor. And certainly, double spaces between sentences are a heady weapon to whip out against all those annoying little grammar snots you might have to interact with.
But why limit yourself? Why stop with double spaces when there are even crueler cards to play on them and their nefarious editorial ways?
Actually, this is a pretty decent way to start a fight with anyone who has to do any kind of writing for their jobs. Ask them about the Oxford comma.
I dare you.
Just be properly prepared first. Suit up in your most agile clothing, strap on your nunchuks and put your game face on. ‘Cause if you happen to say anything along the lines of, “I actually disagree with you there.” or some such closeminded bit of insensitivity, then it’s on.
Doesn’t matter how long you two have been friends and how even your political differences haven’t been able to keep you apart. Saying you disagree on the Oxford comma is an act of war.
Don’t ask me why. Maybe it’s because writers and editors lead otherwise boring lives, and this is their attempt to escape the monotony.
In which case, that’s really sad. But to each their own.
For anyone out there who doesn’t know what an Oxford comma is, it’s when you put a final comma in a list like this: I’m going to the store to pick up nunchuks, a ninja mask, and some throwing stars.
That comma in between “ninja mask” and “and some throwing stars” is what the fuss is all about. Because some people think it should be there and some people don't.
I’ve never done a scientific study on the topic before, but it does appear to me that, as a general rule, editors hate the Oxford comma and everyone else loves it. Passionately.
Personally, I don’t hate the thing. Editor though I am, I even use it from time to time when it helps clarify a sentence. And sometimes, it definitely does. More often than not though, I just don’t see the purpose.
Why make me pause when I don’t have to pause? That is, after all, what commas do. They make you stop and take a mental breath. Which begs the question: What’s so mentally taxing about “nunchuks, a ninja mask and some throwing stars?”
I can already hear the pro-Oxford comma argument running through my head. I’ve heard it enough to have it memorized. “It’s not mentally taxing,” advocates will retort. “It’s clarifying that ninja masks and throwing stars are to be considered separate entities or categories from each other, just like nunchuks.”
They’ll then immediately follow up with, “You know, court cases have been decided based on the Oxford comma.”
They’re not wrong there. People have lost lawsuits because that silly little comma wasn’t put in place. The winning legal argument determines that its absence leaves readers to connect the last two items on a list together.
More often than not though, that’s nonsense. (I know. I know. Fighting words.) It’s grammatically silly to write, “I’m going to the store to pick up nunchuks, a ninja mask and some throwing stars.” – with or without the Oxford comma – when there’s some dire reason to set the latter two apart from the first.
If you want to set them apart, you write, “I’m going to the store to pick up nunchuks, and a ninja mask and some throwing stars.”
There’s an extra word in there. A crucial word. A word that explains without a shadow of a doubt that one of the nouns involved stands alone while the other two are grouped together.
Okay. There. I’ve said it.
Let the fighting begin!
This little editor, however, is going to duck out to get a soda, some popcorn and Twizzlers with which to watch the Oxford comma rumble go down.