Here’s a little secret: even as freelancers, we are not entirely free. No matter who we write for, we find that they have some parameters and stipulations and that if they’re going to pay for the work, they want a little bit of say in the way we do that work. I can’t blame them too much for it. Thus I realize that as a writer who desires to do some writing that goes beyond filling the pages of my diary, there are some things I’m simply going to have to swallow.
Truth be told, it usually doesn’t bother me. I like good grammar myself and I accept that there are often multiple ways to correctly interpret grammatical guidelines. Hyphens are becoming arbitrary, some people like to write out percent and others let the symbols do the talking: %. So I like hyphens and I like % and I think the word okay should be rendered as such. Our company uses ok—Ok with me.
But there is one issue, one grammatical minefield that causes me to stumble and grit my teeth. It’s the comma, or rather, the lack thereof. You know what I’m talking about: the Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma. I’ve been writing for my whole life and for my whole life I’ve been putting a comma before ‘and’ and ‘or’ because I think I learned that back in elementary school—when most inalienable truths are conveyed.
When our company began sending out style guides, I half noticed the request that no serial comma be used. Naturally I ignored it, assuming that no one was really expected to take it seriously. Later style guides arrived with follow up emails and now the terms were not so uncertain: No use of the serial comma. Okay, I thought, I mean, ok, it seems that they really do mean it. And it appears that this rule really does apply to me. Imagine that.
And then I had to think about what this would mean for me and my writing. You don’t realize how you get hung up on your way of doing things. I was still writing with the comma, and then having to go back to delete it. That’s what I did in the beginning. And now, I can say I think I am able to compose sentences without putting the comma in at all, but I won’t say it doesn’t look a little strange to me.
I know I am writing for the losing team right now and I acknowledge it. But the fighter in me can’t cry ‘uncle’ without a little bit of a struggle. So I’m taking one last swing in support of that extra comma that keeps groupings of people, emotions, and other objects securely in their proper places. What I’m really fighting for is a sense of order and decorum along the line of text.
I would ask the writers in the audience, who are the two men who gave us more important, useful nuggets of writing wisdom than all of your writing classes put together? Struck and White, right? Well, The Elements of Style has been supporting the use of the serial comma since 1918. And it isn’t just about which important writing organizations, guidebooks, and professors (there I just did it, was that so wrong?) that have supported it, i.e. The Chicago Manual of Style and The University of Oxford Styleguide, because what do all of them really know anyway? It is also a simple issue of clarity in expression. You know the classic examples:
“I’d like to thank my parents, Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey.”
“We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.”
That miniscule, textual flip—no more than a single keystroke—eliminates all ambiguity, separating and distinguishing these elements within the series, and allowing them their proper roles.
As I see it, the burden of proof lies with those seeking to remove the comma. Why introduce ambiguity when there doesn’t need to be any whatsoever? Why fight Strunk and White? What do the haters hope to gain by the elimination?
Some would say, however, that you use it when it is needed (as the above examples clearly demonstrate) but leave it out when it’s not needed, as in the case of, “I stopped at the store and bought eggs, milk and cheese.” Is there any ambiguity here? No. Comma or no comma I can interpret that three items were purchased. But there is nothing wrong with “…eggs, milk, and cheese.” And by making all serial expressions uniform, we ensure that no one ends claiming Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey as parents.
Are there bigger issues in the world? Greater topics of debate? Surely. But we take this work seriously. While I don’t see removing my precious comma as a moral concession, I do care enough about it to feel I’m being rubbed against my grain. But it seems I am not the only one who thinks about these things. This article “4 Copy Editors Killed In Ongoing AP Style, Chicago Manual Gang Violence,” published in The Onion will hit home for many of us:
NEW YORK—Law enforcement officials confirmed Friday that four more copy editors were killed this week amid ongoing violence between two rival gangs divided by their loyalties to the The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual Of Style. “At this time we have reason to believe the killings were gang-related and carried out by adherents of both the AP and Chicago styles, part of a vicious, bloody feud to establish control over the grammar and usage guidelines governing American English,” said FBI spokesman Paul Holstein, showing reporters graffiti tags in which the word “anti-social” had been corrected to read “antisocial.” “The deadly territory dispute between these two organizations, as well as the notorious MLA Handbook gang, has claimed the lives of more than 63 publishing professionals this year alone.” Officials also stated that an innocent 35-year-old passerby who found himself caught up in a long-winded dispute over use of the serial, or Oxford, comma had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
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