“You know you’re an English language nerd when you know about and have a strong opinion on the use of Oxford commas.”
Guilty! I’m a real English nerd and a perfectionist. The Chicago Manual of Style, the Bible for all things English, says:
“When a conjunction joins the last two elements in a series, a comma—known as the serial or series comma or the Oxford comma—should appear before the conjunction.”
However, Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves and arbiter of all things punctuation, is on the fence:
“One shouldn’t be too rigid about the Oxford comma Sometimes the sentence is improved by including it; sometimes it isn’t.”
And the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage says:
“In general, do not use a comma before and and or in a series.”
I edit for different publishers, and some require the comma while others do not. And some have no preference. So what’s an editor to do?
In the dark ages, when I went to school, we, as English majors, were taught to always use the Oxford comma. Period. No exceptions.
However, in the field of journalism and any other media where moveable type was used, the pesky comma added another character. In order to pack more words into the same amount of space, the final comma in a series was eliminated. This also happened with some publishing houses, and for the same reason.
But where does that leave those of us who always want to do things correctly?
In my case, I put them in my own writing and trust that the publisher’s editor will remove them as their style sheet requires. As an editor, I try to follow the publisher’s preference. (For private edits, however, I put them in unless the author has indicated otherwise.)
In a recent online article on the subject (http://tinyurl.com/63lk4n4), Harry Mount sums it up pretty well:
“These are choppy grammatical waters. Usually, the answer is to follow the grammatical rule that removes confusion.”
Some of us still think the Oxford comma should be used on a regular basis. Others argue that it should only be used rarely. The debate will probably continue to rage for some time. I vote with Lynne Truss:
“There are people who embrace the Oxford comma and those who don't, and I'll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken.”
How about you? What’s your feeling on the subject?