The Oxford comma finds a home in Chatham County

BY BILL HORNER III, Publisher
Posted 4/12/19

Working at a community newspaper like the News + Record, we handle a significant volume of news releases from agencies and organizations around Chatham County and simple news announcements from …

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The Oxford comma finds a home in Chatham County

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Working at a community newspaper like the News + Record, we handle a significant volume of news releases from agencies and organizations around Chatham County and simple news announcements from various clubs, churches and individuals.

As I’ve read through and edited these over the last few months, one thing is clear: Chatham loves the Oxford comma.

The Oxford comma is the name given to the last comma in a list or written series of three or more items; it’s inserted before the “and” in the list, as in: “I really like Chatham County’s rolling landscapes, friendly people, and eclectic coffee shops.”

It’s sacrosanct for many writers and academics, but technically it’s grammatically optional in American English. The “Oxford” in Oxford comma, after all, refers to the prestigious university in the United Kingdom, not the North Carolina hamlet north of Raleigh.

Those who argue for it say it’s necessary to avoid potential ambiguity; those (like me) who eschew it (and therefore edit it out of all your press releases and announcements) say it’s unnecessary and somewhat redundant.

There’s a big difference, of course, between “Let’s eat, grandpa!” and “Let’s eat grandpa!” There are occasions, clearly, when a comma is warranted. And deciding whether to feast with grandpa or ON grandpa is an important distinction.

Aficionados of the Oxford comma (also known as the “serial” comma because, I don’t know, maybe it’s favored by serial killers?) point out problems for those who forgo it. An example found on the grammarly.com website, which promises “bold, clear, mistake-free writing” with the site’s AI-powered writing assistant, reads thus:

“I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.”

“Without the Oxford comma,” reads a blog post on the site, “the sentence above could be interpreted as stating that you love your parents, and your parents are Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.”

Adding in the Oxford comma — sandwiching it there between the second object (Lady Gaga) and the “and” before the final object in the list — makes the sentence read like this: “I love my parents, Lady Gaga, and Humpty Dumpty.” That latter sentence, I agree, clarifies that the person speaking is talking about three separate things and NOT indicating that he or she is the offspring of a pop singer with more than 78 million Twitter followers and the decidedly less popular “@HumptyOfficial,” who has a grand total of nine Twitter followers.

Grammarly recommends those who refuse to use the Oxford comma simply rewrite the sentence this way: “I love Lady Gaga, Humpty Dumpty and my parents.”

Yet another case for using the Oxford comma was this real sentence from a newspaper posted in a discussion on the subject on reddit: “Among those interviewed were Merle Haggard’s two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.”

OK, I get it.

We each have our own writing proclivities. As for me, I go heavy on dashes — and…let me think…oh yeah, ellipses — but an old editor taught me that many, if not most, commas can be deleted. (Although not those latter two in my previous sentence.)

I favor the AP Style Manual, the “bible” for newspaper writers. It teaches, among other things, when to capitalize titles (only before the name — as in “Siler City Mayor John Grimes,” but then “John Grimes, the mayor of Siler City,” making the title lowercase after the name) and proper sequencing with a calendar event: ALWAYS time, date and place, and in that order (“the event is scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday at Pittsboro Town Hall”).

Wait. Was that an Oxford comma I just used after the word “place”?

Not a chance.

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