A comma dilemma

Joining The Daily Californian as a copy editor involved something between slight ethical qualms and a full-scale moral dilemma. You see, I knew from the second I submitted my application that if I were accepted, I’d be breaking one of the most integral parts of my personal code.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Daily Cal doesn’t use the Oxford comma. And that goes against just about every fiber of my being.

For the uninitiated, the Oxford or serial comma is the (absolutely necessary) comma before the coordinating conjunction in a series of three or more terms. An example:

No Oxford comma: I interviewed Miley Cyrus, a vocalist and a backup dancer.

Oxford comma: I interviewed Miley Cyrus, a vocalist, and a backup dancer.

Not using the serial comma can lead to confusion: Is Miley both a vocalist and backup dancer? Several hilarious examples of such grammatical mishaps exist, for example, here.

Now, some will tell you that the serial comma is unnecessary in most cases, that sentences such as the one above can be rewritten to avoid confusion and that not using that comma saves space (really?). When I asked the senior editors in the department about it, I felt like I had stepped into the Twilight Zone. With glazed eyes and defeated looks, they responded in chorus, “We follow AP style.” Zombielike, they continued, “The Stylebook says not to use the Oxford comma.” I didn’t push it further, mostly out of a finely honed instinct for self-preservation.

The debate has been raging for generations, and we’re far from a consensus — hell, the Oxford University Press doesn’t even use the Oxford comma anymore. But the point I’m getting at is that despite the hyperboles and zombie jokes, debates such as this one — even in jest — prove that grammar matters and, moreover, that it can be interesting. The way language functions on such a basic level influences meaning — sometimes in ways more subtle than Miley Cyrus.

Then again, just about anything is more subtle than Miley Cyrus.