The Oxford Comma (and all it implies)

I am a writer, a musician, a foodie, and a gamer.
I am a writer, a musician, a foodie and a gamer.

Maybe it’s just me, but I like the first one.

Now to be fair, I do not snicker condescendingly or fly into a blind rage every time I see the second one (as might some of the other people I’ve met who have studied English). I much prefer the Oxford comma, though. It looks cleaner to me, more organized.

When I think more about it, though, I realize that my preference of having a comma after the second-to-last item in a list is just a matter of habit. A world entirely devoid of commas would probably look just fine to us once we got used to it, despite the rash of graffiti and shouting that would be perpetrated by hard core language geeks in the meantime.

I just finished up a proofreading project for a local IT firm’s new website, and it got me thinking about language change. There are dozens of competing systems of “proper” writing. Website copy does not necessarily follow the same rules as, say, academic writing. APA conventions are different from Chicago or Turabian conventions. Technical writing should be conversational. Children’s writing should be fun and simple.

With the IT website, I found myself making judgment calls in situations where a sentence started with “And, with our service you can count on…” and the like. A conjunction and a comma at the beginning of a sentence would have earned my undergrad thesis some harsh criticism, but on a website advertising a service, it comes across as conversational and friendly.

An English teacher friend of mine and I get into frequent debates about language change. Good or bad? To be slowed, stopped, or embraced? I usually fall on the side of intelligent, considerate embrace of change, while she often equates that with some kind of insane linguistic relativism.

The variety of types of writing, with all their myriad conventions and rules, only serves to complicate the issue. With the prevalence of advertising, we’re more likely to pick up on linguistic conventions from commercials and websites than literature or academic journals. in another fifty years, maybe a conjunction and a comma will be a perfectly appropriate way to start a sentence in any field of writing.

And who are we to say that’s wrong?

Change is inevitable. The function of language, though, is to foster communication and cooperation. As far as I can see it, the best thing we can do is to try to understand and to be understood. Breakdowns will certainly occur, but if we’re working toward understanding and cooperation, then inevitable change does not need to be inevitable conflict or isolation.

I am a writer, a musician, a foodie and a gamer.

It’s not so bad.


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