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The Serial Comma: Endangered Species?

Posted on Wednesday, July 27, 2011 at 10:50 PM

Weighing in on the recent Oxford comma controversy.

By Meredith L. Dias

Recently, the University of Oxford came under fire for doing away with the serial comma. From Twitter to Facebook, users voiced their anger over this alleged grammatical catastrophe. Oxford later debunked the rumors (though they did drop the serial comma from staff communications and press releases), but the debate rages on.

One particularly buzz-generating response came from Heather Anne Halpert (@blurryyellow) on Twitter: "Are you people insane? The Oxford comma is what separates us from the animals." Popular indie rock band Vampire Weekend's 2008 song "Oxford Comma" enjoyed renewed popularity.

Scores of writers and editors have responded to the basic sentiment behind @blurryyellow's tweet, some lauding the Oxford comma as an exercise in clarity and others dismissing it as a vestige of a more prescriptive grammatical past.

So what are some arguments for the use of serial commas? According to supporters, the comma ensures clarity in lists of three or more items, and it punctuates a place where a speaker would naturally pause.

Those who don't use the serial comma cite instances when the comma actually obfuscates meaning or occupies valuable space in tight text spaces.

In all likelihood, a lot of your publications adhere to AP style or some variation thereof. AP has dropped the serial comma from its stylebook, but Chicago, the American Psychological Association (APA), MLA, and others continue to use it. So we'll turn the conversation over to you, editors: Does your publication use the Oxford/serial comma?

Meredith Dias is senior editor of Editors Only.

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