Columns, Opinions

Flynn ’20: Herald, employ the Oxford comma

By
Staff Columnist
Monday, April 16, 2018

Anyone who has written for the Brown Daily Herald has had to put up with the stain of barbarism that persists in its style guide. I am referring to the rule that prohibits the use of the Oxford comma, or the serial comma, which is the comma placed before the coordinating conjunction in a series of three or more terms. In the list, for example, “the United States, France, and China,” the Oxford comma is the last one before the “and.” This comma usually lends itself to resolving egregious ambiguity. It is a wonder, then, why the style guide of The Herald nonetheless strictly enforces a rule to no other effect than to make writing more ambiguous. The reasons turn out to be a dogmatic appeal to authority and a desire to fit in with major news publications. The Herald has indulged this practice for too long and must reform it hereafter.

In the publishing world there is a great divide in the use of the Oxford comma, which is often the subject of vehement and bitter controversy. Lynne Truss, in her style guide “Eats, Shoots & Leaves,” comments that “There are people who embrace the Oxford comma, and people who don’t, and I’ll just say this: Never get between these people when drink has been taken.” Oxford University Press, most American book publishers and many American style guides recommend its use. “Comma Queen” Mary Norris of The New Yorker, which is famous for its rigorous copy editing, calls the Oxford comma “a bulwark against barbarianism.” On the other hand, most British publishers, most American newspapers — such as The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times — and the widely used Associated Press Stylebook recommend against its use, according to Steven Pinker’s book, “The Sense of Style.”

The Times forbids the Oxford comma except in cases “where a sentence would be awkward or confusing without it,” and justifies the omission by appealing to what news writing has “traditionally” done, without fully understanding the reasoning behind that tradition: “perhaps seeking a more rapid feeling in the prose, or perhaps to save time and effort in the old days of manual typesetting.” The Herald uses the AP Stylebook as its default style guide, which most professional newspapers also use. It wants to come off as professional, though it does not employ the same nuance that the Times does in its policy. As a copy editor of three semesters, I not once have witnessed an intentional exception to the rule for clarity’s sake.

But the omission of the Oxford comma is often problematic. Take these two examples, which I’ve drawn from “The Sense of Style” and the Oxbridge Proofreading and Editing Resource Blog: (1) “He enjoyed his farm, conversations with his wife and his horse,” and (2) “Highlights of Peter Ustinov’s global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.”

Also consider these two examples from recent articles in The Herald. One article describes an art exhibit featuring objects left by people crossing the Mexican-American border, and it includes the following sentence: “These objects include backpacks, water bottles, clothes and pieces of fabric worn by people around their shoes to conceal their footprints, the artist added.” Because there is no comma after “clothes,” the sentence at first read seems to say that it was both the “clothes” and the “pieces of fabric” that people wore around their shoes. It is only upon reaching the end of the sentence that the reader realizes that the participial phrase cannot be modifying “clothes.” This causes the reader to pause in confusion and then to go back to reread the sentence. Another article profiles an artist: “As an adult, he began to forge his path as a creative through multiple forms of expression, including designing sets for teleplays, restoring historical sites around Cuba, studying cinematography and scriptwriting as well as directing a performance art group, he said.” Because there is no comma after “cinematography,” it is ambiguous whether the artist was actually scriptwriting or was simply studying scriptwriting — a significant difference.

Opponents of the Oxford comma might claim that its omission makes the prose smoother and brisker. Because commas cause the reader to pause by signaling a separation of ideas, they say, the use of all commas should be minimal. But this claim is mistaken. In a series of three or more terms, the pauses that commas produce are necessary, since they allow the reader to distinguish intuitively and fluidly among those terms. Without a pause before the last term, the reader, at first read, does not distinguish intuitively the last term from the previous term in the series. Thus the lack of a pause often yields confusion and disrupts the flow of the prose.

Anecdotally, in my time at The Herald, virtually every copy editor to whom I have spoken about this rule has expressed the same loathing for it that I feel. Many other writers and editors there have also expressed utter contempt for being forced to adhere to it. These objections are not merely trivial complaints from exhausted copy editors — the omission of the Oxford comma can have real-world consequences. The faulty omission of the Oxford comma once cost Oakhurst Dairy in Portland, Maine, $5 million in settlements, when a court found Maine law governing overtime pay ambiguous precisely because of the lack of an Oxford comma.

Those rare individuals who claim to like the excision of the Oxford comma have justified their position not on the basis of any merits of the rule, but on the basis that this is the way it has been done for a long time and the way the Times does it. But these are not good reasons. The AP Stylebook’s rule against the use of the Oxford comma is based on a dogmatic appeal to tradition; The Herald’s adoption of that rule is based on a dogmatic appeal to authority. We are at a point in history, grounded in the ideals of the Enlightenment, when dogma, authority and tradition are no longer viable arguments for anything — reason and rationality must trump those more invidious forces. Brown, moreover, prides itself in producing free thinkers who reject appeals to the established way of doing things. For the sake of the comprehension of its readers and the sanity of its writers, and for the sake of progress, The Herald must lead the way in eliminating this rule from its style guide and allowing the Oxford comma.

James Flynn ’20 can be reached at james_flynn1@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.