Thursday, June 30, 2011

I Weep for the Future

It's good to know that our youth, and not only our youth, are concerned about things that really matter. One of my Facebook friends today latched onto this breaking news:
Oxford Comma Dropped: University of Oxford Styleguide Says No To Serial Comma
She commented: "Now my way of listing when I write is grammatically incorrect." She called the change "grammar fascism."

Well, no. A style guide is not about grammar in the first place, but about approved usage in a given environment. If I were writing for the New York Times, for example, I would follow their style guide. If I were writing a paper for a university course in the humanities, I would probably follow the MLA style guide. And so on. These guides don't set universal rules. They're meant to produce stylistic uniformity in a publication or other environment.

Even before I read the entire linked article, I noticed that the passage quoted under the headline read "
The University of Oxford styleguide has decided that as 'a general rule' use of the serial comma should be avoided." Notice those three words there, "a general rule"? They mean that there will be exceptions. The article itself quoted "the official entry":
As a general rule, do not use the serial/Oxford comma: so write ‘a, b and c’ not ‘a, b, and c’. But when a comma would assist in the meaning of the sentence or helps to resolve ambiguity, it can be used – especially where one of the items in the list is already joined by ‘and’ ...
This disposes of the objection quoted by one of my friend's friends:
"~`Those released from prison today included Nelson Mandela, a murderer and a pedophile.` Oxford, Oxford, isn't this argument enough? ~"
It's not even an argument; it's merely an exception to the rule, an exception covered by the entry.

And, of course, there's no reason why people who like the Oxford comma can't go on using it, unless they attend classes at the University of Oxford. But they should be aware that, also according to the article,
The serial comma ... had been waning in popularity. For example, most journalists in Canada and the U.S. who follow the AP or CP stylebooks do not use it.
Plenty of ignorant shlubs are throwing tantrums over the change -- I didn't bother to do more than glance at the first few comments on the article at Huffington Post. When they get over this, they can have conniptions over the possibility of a pro basketball lockout in addition to the one on pro football. I mean, what are they supposed to watch -- soccer? Meanwhile, the only President we've got has committed an act of war against Somalia, bringing the wars he's juggling up to six. (The Republicans are whupping his ass at eleven-dimensional chess, but he's a wiz at juggling wars.) But how can I care about that when the Oxford comma is in peril?