Who Gives a Fuck About an Oxford Comma? Me!
Linguist Fieke Van der Gucht declares her love to a comma.
My elementary school teacher told us that sentences should never start with “and”. And that there should never be a comma in front of “and”. For a long time, I was docile and obeyed as only first-class book geeks do. It wasn’t until years and two or three linguistic opinions later that I began to write sentences with “and”, “or”, “but”, and “because”, and put down commas where, according to schoolteachers, they shouldn’t be placed. But there is no rule without an exception of course: at the end of an enumeration of three or more items, an optional comma can be placed when it clarifies an ambiguity. After all, it does make a difference whether you love ‘your partner, your lover and your best friend’ or ‘your partner, your lover, and your best friend’. With an extra comma, you eventually have to maintain more relationships than without.
Or take the phrase, ‘I love my friends, Joaquin Phoenix and Arnon Grunberg.’ You are either a lucky bastard that has both a great actor and writer as friends. Or reality is more prosaic, then you just love an actor, a writer and your friends. Or ‘I ate fries with stew and ice cream.’ You are either pregnant with a strong stomach and you eat the ice cream, like mayonnaise, with the fries. Or reality is less spectacular and you enjoy the ice cream for dessert after the fries with stew. A possible misunderstanding you clear up with the use of an extra comma for the last item in the list: ‘I love my friends, Joaquin Phoenix, and Arnon Grunberg’ or ‘I ate fries with stew, and ice cream’.
That clarifying comma has a name: a serial comma or an Oxford comma. That’s because the punctuation mark was first and frequently used at Oxford University Press, whom praised the Oxford comma as ‘a hallmark of OUP house style’. However, not all editors are fond of it. Opponents avoid the Oxford comma and prefer to talk about: ‘I love Joaquin Phoenix, Arnon Grunberg and my friends’. (Or they just think you’re a poser. As if anyone would even believe that you, of all people, can consider both Joaquin Phoenix and Arnon Grunberg as your friends.)
To be honest? Up until 2008, I belonged to the club that avoided ambiguous enumerations without using a comma. Sometimes it was difficult, writing around the misunderstanding. When the pop group Vampire Weekend released the third single from its first album in May 2008, my life became easier. Vocalist Ezra Koenig thought, after all, that the ‘Oxford Comma’ was worth a song.
He first got to know the punctuation mark through the Facebook group Students for the Preservation of the Oxford Comma. A few months later Koenig was playing the piano when suddenly the well-known ‘who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma’ came to his mind. Koenig sings about his contempt for those who busy themselves with such subtleties as an Oxford comma. In a lost moment, I googled the source of his annoyance. The disambiguated child had a name. And suddenly I became a big fan. Of Vampire Weekend much less since then.
This column is an adaptation of a previously published column from 2015 in the no longer existing Taalunie:Bericht.