Thursday, November 17, 2016

Taking Sides

Good morning, duckies! As we know, one of the important aspects of style is movement; the drape, line, and flow of a particular piece. The term also has more serious connotations. It conjures up visions of heated debates, yard signs, and letters to officials.

There is such a movement underway now. It has staunch supporters and ardent opposition, and has inspired many people to duck their heads and wait for it to blow over.

I am speaking, of course, about the Oxford comma.

In the writing and editing world, the Oxford, or serial, comma is a polarizing agent. Clever memes and profanity-laced dismissals abound on both sides of the argument. As with the topic of mixing polka dots with plaid, one must tread lightly. Adherents for or against are rarely swayed by shouting and insults. Indeed, even logic fails to prevail at times.

The CMOS states plainly that, “When a conjunction joins the last two elements in a series of three or more, a comma … should appear before the conjunction.”

While your Maven agrees with this directive, others are calling not only for the retirement of the Oxford comma, but for the possible scrapping of the CMOS itself. Horrors!

On the other hand, as our society evolves and grows, so must our language. I delight in my little black cocktail dress, but I would surely shudder at the thought of being strapped into a corset and crinolines on a daily basis. A touch of nostalgia is fine, but a backward movement advances no one. 

The Style Maven has been in a state of knitter's stasis, watching roses bloom in November and wondering if it will be necessary to cast on for all things warm. She spends her spare time drinking coffee and dismantling the trees that insist on falling on her roof.


  1. CMoS goes on to say why it mandates the serial comma, namely that it resolves ambiguities. And why should we, who are not lawyers but novelists, care about ambiguities? Because we do not want our readers to stop and have to reread a sentence for it to make sense or to proceed on a misunderstanding that will cause confusion ahead. Either way, they are taken out of the story.

    Yes, language changes. Yes practice changes. However, as any number of recent events attest, not all change is progress.

  2. Oxford Comma 4EVA! ;-)

    (I'll take text-speak, the dropping of whom, and one other list item over the loss of the Oxford Comma.)

  3. Honestly, Ms Maven, I can't understand all the fuss over a tinsy-tiny punctuation. I stand four-square in favor of the little thing. The scrapping of the CMOS would surely be a sign of the end of times.

  4. I am so glad the Style Maven is back, and I cringe at the thought of the demise of the Oxford comma and the CMOS. We will be doomed. By the way, why is is called the Oxford comma? Did some stuffy academic create it?

  5. Classic example caused by omitting the Oxford comma: "This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God." That's an impressive lineage. It also is somewhat misleading. To be accurate, it must be punctuated differently. "This book is dedicated to to my parents, Ayn Rand, and God." Now it's believable. There's a further issue here: consistency. If a book contains even one instance of confusion or inaccuracy caused by the absence of the Oxford comma, every series in the story should contain it. Why? Some readers will catch the inconsistency and assume any series not containing that comma is an editing oversight. No matter how one might argue for "new rules" to fit today's readers, some of the old rules are still necessary. Larry Constantine stated it very well: "not all change is progress."

  6. We need the Oxford comma for clarity. Why do people think it needs to go? Now "whom", as someone mentioned, I'd be very happy to dump.

  7. Ah, you all get a gold star today! Clarity is indeed vital, and as Mr. Constantine noted, "not all change is progress." I myself am firmly in the Oxford camp, though I'm willing to be flexible on one or two other grammatical points.

    The thought of "For Who the Bell Tolls" makes me cringe, however.

    1. Yes, I have to agree with you on that one. Ick. I was thinking more along the lines of informal speech and dialogue, like, "Who did you buy that book for?" or even "Who's that for?".

      I often write "whom" in my first drafts because I know it's correct, but then edit it to "who" later because it sounds too forced.

  8. My editor insists on the Oxford comma, and she follows CMOS. I agree. However, she insists that whether you choose to use it or not, the writer should be consistent throughout.

    I always remember the comma, but when I am in a zone and writing, I tend to forget the question mark. I know it should be there, but I forget because I'm off to the next sentence. Good thing I have eagle eye critique partners.

  9. I will keep my Oxford comma, thank you. I prefer clear communication.


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