Comma, comma, comma commotion

2011-07-02 00:00

LONDON — Comma commotion has caused the Twittersphere, where commas and punctuation in general adhere to no rules at all, to erupt.

A report that Oxford University has changed its comma rule left some punctuation obsessives alarmed, annoyed, and distraught. Passions subsided as the university said the news was imprecise, incomplete and misleading.

Catch the difference between the two previous sentences? An “Oxford comma” was used before “and” in the first sentence, but is absent in the second, in accordance with the style used by The Associated Press.

Guides to correct style differ and the issue became heated on Twitter after reports of the Oxford comma’s demise.

But have no fear, comma-philes: the Oxford comma lives.

Oxford University Press, birthplace of the Oxford comma, said on Thursday that there has been no change in its century-old style, and jumped into the Twittersphere to confirm that it still follows the standard set out in New Hart’s Rules.

The only explicit permission to dispense with the Oxford comma — apparently the cause of the alarm — was in a guide for university staff on writing press releases and internal communications.

“It’s not new, it’s been online for several years already,” said Maria Coyle in the university press office.

Yet the report caused a Twitterstorm.

“For teaching me that the Oxford comma resolves ambiguity, I’d like to thank my parents, Sinead O’Connor and the Pope,” said Twitter user Aaron Suggs (@ktheory), deftly illustrating the potential damage that can be caused to a sentence’s meaning.

The kerfuffle at least answered the musical question posed by indie band Vampire Weekend: “Who gives a ---- about an Oxford comma?”

Well, people like Heather Anne Halpert (@blurryellow): “Are you people insane? The Oxford comma is what separates us from the animals.”

Some style guides advocate the comma, others advise against it. Most also counsel using common sense to make the meaning clear.

William Strunk jnr, who has guided generations of writers through The Elements of Style, wrote in the book’s first edition of 1918: “In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.”

That position is backed by The Chicago Manual of Style and the style manual of the U.S. Government Printing Office. The style guide of the British Broadcasting Corp. also commends liberal use of commas “in those pesky lists”, and advises a comma to separate each item.

But style guides from The Associated Press and the London newspapers The Times and The Guardian dispense with a comma before the conjunction. The Queen’s English Society agrees that “there is no need for a comma before the ‘and’ unless the sense demands it.”

And there is even a third school, exemplified by Henry W. Fowler.

In The King’s English (2nd edition), published in 1908, he gave this example his approval: “Industry, honesty, and temperance, are essential to happiness.”

“We unhesitatingly recommend the original and fully stopped form, which should be used irrespective of style, and not be interfered with by rhetorical considerations; it is the only one to which there is never any objection,” Fowler said.

Students at Oxford University are free to choose a style in writing their papers.

“They are just expected to use proper spelling and punctuation,” Coyle said.

British writer Lynn Truss observed in her popular style guide Eats, Shoots & Leaves — another example of how a comma or no comma changes meaning — that there are strong opinions on both sides.

“I’ll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken,” she advised. — AP.

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