'Spare a thought for the humble comma, the least celebrated of punctuation marks'

1st April 2017 at 14:03
Punctuation marks
Adherents of the Oxford comma stand accused of pedantry and elitism but it is no joke – careless punctuation may not cost lives, but it can be very expensive

Several years ago an April fools' spoof reported news of the invention of the "Cambridge comma". In reality, the Oxford comma is definitely no joke – in fact, it is the constant cause of dissension among grammar geeks. Careless punctuation may not cost lives, but it can be very expensive.

This year, the Oxford comma became the crux of a court case in Maine, US, when truck-drivers sued for overtime pay. Oakhurst Dairy argued that drivers were not entitled to it, citing state law that workers are not entitled to overtime pay if they are involved in, “canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution…”

The Oxford comma (aka the serial comma) appears after the penultimate item in a list of three or more items. In the sentence, “I teach geography, history, and general studies” the final comma is the Oxford one, and lots of people, including those who draft laws in Maine, don’t use it.

Its adherents stand accused of pedantry and elitism. The New York Times style guide advises against it; the New Yorker magazine, by contrast, regards it as a “bulwark against barbarism”. (But then the New Yorker persists in using the diaeresis – two dots placed over the second vowel to indicate that it forms a separate syllable – as in ‘coöperate’ and ‘reëlect’ – most of us draw line after ‘naïve’).

On the whole, Oxford University Press notwithstanding, Brits tend to be less inclined than Americans to favour the Oxford comma.

The value of punctuation

The appeals court in the Maine case, having considered esoteric arguments around asyndeton and the gerund, ruled that without a comma the phrase “packing for shipment or distribution” constitutes a single activity (packing); so distribution per se isn’t covered in the exemptions. The drivers were awarded $10 million in back pay.

Missing out the Oxford comma often ends in ambiguity.

Imagine I told you I had a dinner party and invited "my favourite two comedians, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson". It isn’t clear how many people I invited. Add a comma after "Gove" and it’s clearer that I invited four people (although admittedly the number of comedians might still be in doubt).

Aside from separating items in a list, the main function of the comma is to separate parenthetical comments from the main thrust of a sentence.

Punctuation came much later than writing itself, but once invented, commas became excessive with over-use, marking prosodic pauses rather than syntax. The famous first line of Pride and Prejudice has two commas that now seem redundant: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife."

Successful efforts were made in the early 20th century to rein it in, and current convention favours much lighter punctuation.

So spare a thought for the humble comma, the least celebrated of punctuation marks. After all, the act of apostrophising gave rise to a verb; colons can be irrigated, and the full stop usually has the last word.

Dr Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets as @KevinStannard1

For more columns by Kevin, visit his back catalogue

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