Mar 18

“An exercise in high-stakes grammar pedantry that could cost … $10 million”

It’s all very well saying we live in a post-punctuation era, and archaic little speckles have no business cluttering up our brilliant prose when emoji can do that much more artfully, but unlike many writing jobs, punctuation can move real sums of money.

Proof? You want proof? How about this gripping yarn in The New York Times. I used to work in the newspaper biz, and I know a good lede (that is authentic newspaper jargon for “beginning”) when I see one:

A class-action lawsuit about overtime pay for truck drivers hinged entirely on a debate that has bitterly divided friends, family and foes: The dreaded—or totally unnecessary—Oxford comma, perhaps the most polarizing of punctuation marks.

(The Times tipped its hand in that paragraph about its own position in this debate. Well played, Daniel Victor, or whatever wag on the copy desk talked you into that.)

The Oxford comma, a/k/a the serial comma for its cross-country crime sprees, is the comma you do or do not put before the “and” and final item in a list of things. The controversy arises because, while there isn’t much difference between “parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme” and “parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,” there is considerable difference between “I owe everything to my parents, Oprah Winfrey, and William Shakespeare” and “I owe everything to my parents, Oprah Winfrey and William Shakespeare.”

As the Times story explains, newspapers tend to follow Associated Press style, which discourages the Oxford comma as unnecessary, while book and academic publishers tend to follow the Chicago Manual of Style, which prescribes the Oxford comma in the name of infallible clarity. As a longtime newspaperwoman, I had a contempt for the Oxford comma beaten into me at an early age, but I have now been driven into the cold world of academic publishing and must enforce Chicago style. I think the controversy is somewhat overwrought. And I’m evidently not the only one.

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