Monday, June 22, 2015

The Oxford Comma Debate Illustrated Through The Three Stooges

I have been hesitant to wander into that most enmired debate in all of grammardom, the Oxford comma, but as I embark upon the fourth week of my language blog, I feel that to delay my vote any longer would amount to ignoring the eight-hundred-pound comma in the middle of the room.

The best magazines in America, featuring the best writing in America, The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine and The Atlantic, all adhere to the Chicago Manual of Style, which “strongly recommends” the Oxford, or serial comma. It is a shame that these three fine magazines are wrong about such an important subject.

The Associated Press recommends against a comma preceding a conjunction in lists of three or more, legend contending that it was initially an ink-saving measure. This ascription is apocryphal, and my opinion is that it was revised as a diversion from Strunk & White because it is a more graceful and readable construction.

AP prefers omitting the serial comma, but permits it to relieve ambiguity and that is the least doctrinaire policy, the one that presumes the best of both writer and reader, and invites a subtle nuance that adds a splash of austere beauty through its absence. As Miles Davis said, “It’s the notes you don’t play.” The Chicago Manual of Style is far more authoritarian, requiring it in every instance. I believe it is unpatriotic to force an extra comma into my red, white and blue. 

The best rule is simple. Complex lists, yes; simple lists, no. Like all things in life, the Oxford comma’s proper use is best expressed in terms of The Three Stooges, whose names are Moe, Larry and Curly. No serial comma. Moe is the one with the bowl haircut, Larry has frizzy hair, and Curly is bald. Serial comma. And the crowd goes wild. Elliott bows, someone throws him roses. Elliott, normally a pretty composed and dignified guy, breaks down and weeps openly.