Pause For Thought

So it is no more. From today forth, the editors of the Oxford University Press will no longer insist that you should put a comma before the conjunction when you’re listing things, for example: First, second, and third. We say a fond farewell to this venerable institution, a noble oddity now consigned to history’s scrapheap. Except in the US of course, where they will amused to find that the rule they use every day has been declared incorrect by some committee in England.

Alas, the story was apocryphal; the OUP has not changed its editorial rule. The misunderstanding arose because they have chosen not to use their own ‘Oxford comma’ in press releases. These conform instead to the usual rule in the UK, which is to use no comma there. They’ll keep using it in their books.

So no panic. Not that there should have been one anyway, but bad teaching can leave people stressed and anxious when they’re not sure if they’re being ‘correct’ or not.

What is correct? It’s simple. Use a comma when it feels right.

Yes that is a clear, disciplined rule. Note that I say “feels right”, not “at random”. Punctuation is used to convey the pacing of speech, the delivery, the emphasis. Punctuate just as you would pause in spoken language – to express feeling and to clarify meaning. Put in a comma when it helps avoid confusion. There is a notable difference between “I’d like you to meet my wife, my lover and my best friend” and “I’d like you to meet my wife, my lover, and my best friend”.

It must be admitted that the ‘Oxford’ comma is a tricky case – simply because some readers expect one there while others don’t. In Ireland, the UK, Australia, Canada, or just about anywhere else they speak English, putting one in seems like pausing before the last item for emphasis. Readers in America however expect it so its presence conveys nothing special and leaving it out just makes the list read oddly. So bear your audience in mind – as always.

With online media of course you have no idea where your audience is, so you might as well relax. If you really want a loose general rule, using a comma here is probably confusing less often than not using one. But whatever you do, don’t follow any rule to the point where it becomes madness – like this example which, I am assured, is actually from the Canadian Press Stylebook:

“Put commas between elements of a series but not before the final and, or or nor unless that avoids confusion.”

Seriously, someone did that for a bet.

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