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The Guerrilla Grammarian asked if she could guest blog today. I generally don’t have guest bloggers, but it’s hard to say no to your own alter ego, so, take it away, G.G.
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Thanks, Amy. I thought I should speak up on this topic because, as a self-proclaimed guerrilla of grammar, I’m often assumed to be the kind who will swing into action, maybe even swing a battle-axe, in defense of the Oxford comma. You know: the comma just before the “and” in a sentence with a series of three or more items, such as this one:

“I like bananas, coconuts, and grapes.”

But in this I am profoundly misunderstood. I value grammar because it gives language clarity and expressiveness; rules added without good reason are just an irritation. Doubly so if they are accompanied by a load of self-righteousness, as, let’s face it, grammar rules tend to be.

I don’t actually have a strong preference between the Oxford comma and the whatever-the-opposite is (Cambridge absence-of-comma?). They convey different rhythms, and so sometimes I find myself using one, sometimes the other, depending on how long I want the reader to linger. However, I was taught the “Cambridge” and so it’s my default. Furthermore, I wish to defend it against the Oxfordites’ low-blow use of the straw-person argument against it.

The argument is made on the basis of clarity, and is inevitably accompanied by amusing examples, such as the probably-apocryphal dedication page

“This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God”

and the classic

“We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.”

Oxfordites will argue that we need the comma after “Ayn Rand” so that the reader does not think she is the writer’s mother (shudder). Likewise, we need a comma after “JFK” so that it’s clear that he and Stalin are not the aforementioned strippers. (I still want to know what occasion could possibly have had that guest list.)

These examples do illustrate the need for an additional comma. The problem is that they do not illustrate the superiority of the Oxford comma in general. The rule I learned already clearly states that one omits a comma before the last item unless it is necessary for clarity. The people who wrote the “Ayn Rand” and “strippers” sentences, if they were real people, would have been using incorrect punctuation by either the Oxford or the “Cambridge” rule.

I repeat: these sentences are not examples of the “Cambridge” comma. They are examples of incorrect punctuation, full stop.

So this is a plea for fair debate. Straw people just fill the air with a lot of dusty chaff. None of us wishes to claim Ayn Rand and God as our parents, no matter which comma usage we prefer, and unless we are not proofreading carefully, none of us does.

Grammatically yours,
The Guerrilla Grammarian

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