Episode 283: July 8, 2011
I’m always on the lookout for hot grammar news, and this week, we had some. Twitter went crazy with news that the Oxford University Press had changed their style guide to drop the Oxford comma. It turns out, it was a false alarm. I’ll tell you what happened, how to use the serial comma, and what I think is most interesting, who invented the serial comma.
What Is the Serial Comma?
When you put a comma before the word “and” in a list--a series--it’s called a serial comma. For example, if you write, “Squiggly, Aardvark, and Grammar Girl” that comma after “Aardvark” and before “and” is the serial comma.
Some people use the serial comma and some don’t. I prefer to use the serial comma because I believe it adds clarity, but it’s a style choice. For example, the Chicago Manual of Style recommends using the serial comma, but the style book for the Associated Press recommends leaving the comma out unless doing so would make a sentence confusing.
If you want more details and examples of how to use a serial comma, I also covered it in episode 256.
Did Oxford Really Drop the Oxford Comma?
What was the hullaballoo last week about the comma? The serial comma is also known as the Oxford comma because using the serial comma is the style recommended by the influential Oxford University Press, but an anonymous Twitter user known as @rantyeditor discovered and linked to an online style guide on a University of Oxford website that recommends against using the Oxford comma. It would be a pretty big deal if the Oxford University Press came out against the comma that bears its name, and it was upsetting to a lot of writers and editors who started commenting about it. The publishing website Galley Cat quickly noticed the outcry and wrote a short blog post about it.
From the Web page with the advice, it looks as if it’s the style for the whole university, but when you download the PDF of the whole style guide, it then becomes clear that it’s only the style guide for the Public Affairs Directorate, which I believe is the equivalent of a PR department in the United States. The Oxford University Press quickly responded that they do, indeed, still use the Oxford comma, and by the next day Galley Cat had posted a clarification.
Who Called It the “Oxford Comma”?
The name “Oxford comma” is newer than you might think. The Oxford English Dictionary shows the first printed use of the term in 1978, although it’s likely it had already been been used among editors for at least a few years before it showed up in print.
Who Invented the Oxford Comma?
The first style book to recommend using the serial comma came out in 1905 in England, and Strunk’s first edition of The Elements of Style, which came out a few years later in America, in 1918, also recommended the serial comma.
The 1905 book credited with establishing the serial comma rule is Author and Printer: A Guide for Authors, Editors, Printers, Correctors of the Press, Compositors, and Typists by Francis Howard Collins, and it appears that Collins and his famous biologist/philosopher friend Herbert Spencer hashed out idea of the serial comma in a personal correspondence that Collins later quoted in his book. Collins and Spencer did not give it the name serial comma or Oxford comma, instead, Collins addressed the point in an entry about the word “and” with the heading "and” or “, and.” Here’s what that entry says:
“The late Herbert Spencer allowed me to quote from his letter: -- ‘whether to write “black, white, and green,” with the comma after white, or to leave out the comma and write “black, white and green” -- I feel very decidedly in favor of the first. To me, the comma is of value in marking out the component elements of a thought, and where any set of a component of elements are of equal value, they should be punctuated in printing and in speech equally. Evidently therefore in this case, inasmuch as when enumerating these colours black, white, and green, the white is just as much to be emphasized as the other two, it needs the pause after it just as much as the black does.’” (See the manuscript scan at Google Books.)
An interesting side note is that Spencer is also credited with coining the phrase “survival of the fittest.”
As far as we know, that’s the origin of serial comma rule. It originally had to do with giving each element equal weight rather than being valued for adding clarity to lists. Either way, I’m glad the Oxford University Press is still using it.