Oxford comma: yes or no?

I was caught in a storm a while ago. Nothing to do with gale force winds or torrential rain; it was instead a seemingly innocent comment on social media that caused a surprising stir.

Here’s what happened: I was checking Twitter at 4am (as you do while you’re hoping that your teething one-year-old is sufficiently soothed and will go back to sleep) when I was asked a simple question: “The Oxford comma: yes or no?”

I’m always chuffed when someone shows an interest in punctuation, so to have a dairy farmer from New Zealand seek my opinion out of the blue was a genuine delight.

My reply was simple: “Generally speaking, I just say no.”

He agreed with me, and tweeted his friend to say so: “JUST SAY NO TO THE OXFORD COMMA.”

By then, my grumpy son was safely asleep, so I went back to bed. And that, I thought, was that.

But within minutes, a novelist in LA, a lighthouse enthusiast and an economist had joined the fray. Or – as some would have it – a novelist in LA, a lighthouse enthusiast, and an economist had joined the fray. And that’s what we’re talking about right there. Did you spot it? A comma before the last item on that list; the comma before the “and”: the Oxford comma, so named because it was house style at the Oxford University Press.

Anyway, while I snoozed, the tweeters enjoyed another round of a good-natured ding-dong they had (it became apparent) rehearsed several times before. Appeals to ease of understanding (“I cannot condone this. What possible reasonable argument is there against it? Against order and clarity itself?!?”) were met with points about brevity (“It’s a whole extra comma! We only have 140 characters.”) and citations from The Guardian. Of course, the argument has raged many times, with mid-2011 being a particularly heated time for debate. This was when the University of Oxford issued the following style guidance:

“As a general rule, do not use the serial/Oxford comma: so write ‘a, b and c’ not ‘a, b, and c’. But when a comma would assist in the meaning of the sentence or helps to resolve ambiguity, it can be used – especially where one of the items in the list is already joined by ‘and’ [for example]: They had a choice between croissants, bacon and eggs, and muesli.”

Twitter went berserk, with our friends in America particularly upset that this icon of the punctuation world had been cast aside by the very institution for which it was named.

And then life went on. We in the UK did without; those across the pond had an extra helping. I imagined all the unused British commas being sent to the States as if they were part of some emergency relief effort: here are the Scottish commas helping to build lists in Texas; now see the Welsh commas patching up confusing sentences in New York.

This was fine, until one day, some copy amendments came back from one of our US-based clients, instructing us that the final comma was unnecessary. “B-but…” I said to the boss, “that’s the American way!”

B-but it’s not. At least not always. It turns out that the bible of US newspapers, the AP Style Guide, gives the same advice as the University of Oxford – that is, for a simple list, a serial comma is not required.

I quote: “Put a comma before the concluding conjunction in a series, however, if an integral element of the series requires a conjunction: I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast.” (For some reason, breakfast items seem to be the default example – a valuable reminder that food is never far from a sub-editor’s mind.)

So, if journalists on both sides of the Atlantic agree that the serial comma should be ditched, who is in favour? The answer is: literary editors. These are the people who fix and trim and polish all the hundreds of thousands of words tucked into your bookshelf or Kindle. Novels, nursery books, memoirs, maths texts… they have quietly improved them all with their encyclopaedic grammatical knowledge and expert ear for the music of a story.

Literary editors and sub-editors have much in common, but they work to different rules: novels use single quotation marks to introduce speech, newspapers use double; book editors favour the serial comma, subs leave it out.

And then, the two camps – each convinced that it is correct – like to argue about it. Especially on Twitter.

Casual observers may be surprised that such a fuss can be made over such a seemingly innocent little tadpole-shaped inky mark. But, as I tweeted to my dairy farmer: “In my experience, few things incite stronger passions than punctuation.”