Deep Questions from Pop Music: Commas

Today's question come to us courtesy of Ivy League white-reggae band Vampire Weekend:

So, who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma, anyway? Well, John Scalzi, obviously, but the real question is: why? Why does this simple piece of punctuation engender such strong negative feelings in people who are otherwise mostly sensible?

Personally, I lean toward using it, to avoid the "my parents, Ayn Rand and God" problem, but I can't say I feel strongly enough about that to go through an entire book manuscript "STET"-ing removed serial commas. So what gives?

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I'm with you: because there are times when omitting the comma is clearly wrong, it's better to be consistent by always using it.

Scalzi writes fiction, so he can claim artistic license (and in his post, he does). You and I primarily write nonfiction (at least I assume you do), so different rules apply to us.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 28 Mar 2008 #permalink

I always use the Oxford comma. There's no downside.

Of course there's a downside; they're frequently unnecessary. Occam's Razor applied to grammar suggests the simplest sentence is generally the best. Adding in superfluous commae is just silly.

Occam's Razor suggests that "always use the Oxford comma" is simpler than "don't use the Oxford comma, except in those cases where careful analysis shows confusion could result, in which case do use it".

But if the serial comma really annoys you, then switch to British publishers; they're less likely to require it.

(And punctuation ain't "grammar", but that's neither here nor there.)

Of course there's a downside; they're frequently unnecessary.

Yeah, but who are they hurting? It's not like the miniscule extra ink expenditure for printing a few extra commas is going to make the difference between solvency and insolvency for Tor. And there are far more situations where it clarifies ambiguous statements than where it actively creates a problem.

Peter Erwin:

"Occam's Razor suggests that "always use the Oxford comma" is simpler than 'don't use the Oxford comma, except in those cases where careful analysis shows confusion could result, in which case do use it'."

No it doesn't. If the punctuation is unnecessary, it shouldn't be used. THAT is simplicity. The serial comma is frequently unnecessary. Now, maybe this would create a huge imposition on you when you're writing, but I find it trivial to adjudicate when it comes to my own writing. But if you want use it, go right ahead.

"But if the serial comma really annoys you, then switch to British publishers; they're less likely to require it."

Or, alternately, I can STET the serial comma when it gets used here, because I'm the author and it's my work. See? Just that easy.

Chad, as to who they're hurting -- well, me, because they annoy me. Their absence annoys no one as long as the sentence is unambiguous, except for serial comma fanboys, and they'll just have to suffer.

You don't have to be a comma fanboy to have expectations about the rhythm of a sentence, expectations that are disrupted when the serial comma isn't there.

Comma problems *do* jar me out of the story, and that's not something an author should want.

Kate Nepveu:

"You don't have to be a comma fanboy to have expectations about the rhythm of a sentence, expectations that are disrupted when the serial comma isn't there."

Maybe your expectations are; as a reader mine aren't, and indeed are frequently disrupted by their appearance. An author is damned if they do and damned if they don't, so they might as well do what they prefer.