Friday, September 16, 2022

Coffey, comma, ay caramba

Who gives a darn about an Oxford comma, as The New York Times might ask? That would be Thérèse Coffey — Liz Truss ally, head of the UK’s Department of Health and Social Care, and punctuation peever. Coffey hates the Oxford comma, is unashamed to say so, and wants it removed from her department’s written communications.

I of course stand by the Oxford comma. I’ll quote myself:

Items in a series should be separated with commas. What do I mean by “items in a series”? Wine, women, and song. Life, love, and laughter. John, Paul, George, and Ringo.

There’s no consensus about using a comma before that final item — the so-called “Oxford comma” or “serial comma.” Keeping that comma seems to me the better choice, simplifying, in one small way, the problems of punctuation. If you always put the comma in, you avoid problems with ambiguous or tricky sentences in which the comma’s absence might blur the meaning of your words.
The real question, as asked by Vampire Weekend: “Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?” It made for a hilarious moment (with bleeps) on The Colbert Report in 2010. Great for classroom use, at least for my classroom.

Related reading
All OCA punctuation posts (Pinboard)

comments: 5

Joe DiBiase said...

I'm a devoted Oxford comma fan. For years I've encouraged others to use it and have stood by the saying that "the Oxford comma never introduces confusion." But today, while doing some quick Googling, I came upon this sentence, and to say that I am shaken isn't too strong a statement:

“To my mother, Ayn Rand, and God.”

I'm still on team Oxford comma, but I've got some thinking to do.

Michael Leddy said...

Now I’m confused. Is that sentence about three figures, or two? If it’s two, it might go better as “To God and my mother, Ayn Rand.” How’s that look?

Fresca said...

MICHAEL: Or could it mean, for some, "To my mother and God, Ayn Rand"?

Joe DiBiase said...

I thought the same, it could be two or three. I, too, thought about changing the order, as you suggest. Or, if it's three figures: "To my mother, God, and Ayn Rand." But, regardless of whether it's two or three figures, the order could be meaningful, so changing it is less than ideal. It's the first example I can remember seeing where the Oxford comma introduces confusion.

Michael Leddy said...

It’s awkward, for sure.

If it’s two and the order is crucial, I’d suggest “To my mother Ayn Rand and God.” Or “To my mother Ayn and God.”

If three: “To my mother, to Ayn Rand, and to God.”

I hope those still look plausible in the morning.