The Oxford comma should not be banned simply because of journalistic tradition
If you ever choose to write for The Cavalier Daily as an opinion columnist, your editor will stress the importance of beginning your column with a pointy hook to engage readers' interest, and likely beg you to break your habit of using the Oxford comma. If that hook was not dull enough to lose your interest, allow me to dull it further by defining the Oxford comma.
Also known as the serial comma, the Oxford comma is typically used in writing to separate items in a list before the conjunctions "and," "or" and "nor." See, I just omitted the Oxford comma - after the "or" in the list - because my editors would otherwise bark at me.
Writing an entire column on a comma may seem insane on the surface, but please let me assure you of my sanity by noting this is one of many examples of resistance to change driven purely by stubbornness at the University.
The AP Stylebook is the antagonist in the story of rejection which prevents the Oxford comma's adoption in The Cavalier Daily. The AP Stylebook says, "Use commas to separate items in a series, but do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series: The flag is red, white and blue. He would nominate Tom, Dick or Harry." For newspapers, the reasoning is that the omission of the supposedly unnecessary comma saves space during printing.
To the rescue is our protagonist, the Chicago Manual of Style, which instead reasoned in 2010 that use of the Oxford comma is "strongly recommended" because it "prevents ambiguity." This argument has substance because many sentences do actually become unclear without the comma. For example, take the sentence, "Tonight I kissed two lovely girls, Cindy and Sarah." Without the Oxford comma as standard convention, this sentence could be interpreted as my kissing two girls or four girls. With the Oxford convention as a standard, however, the sentence would be made much less confusing, as it would read, "Tonight I kissed two lovely girls, Cindy, and Sarah." I instantly become much more of a womanizer because rather than being interpreted as an appositive to "two lovely girls," Cindy and Sarah are indeed two additional girls whom I kissed.
Instead of having to clear up the ambiguity between the two possible interpretations in another bulky and awkward sentence, I believe the comma would save space in the long run. I brought up the issue with another proponent of axing the Oxford comma, second year Evan Behrle. He said, "After thinking about it, I think I've actually reversed my view. A comma is supposed to represent a vocal pause, and we pause after each item in a list - that's no different for the last two items than it is for the first two, so why remove the comma? It's also visually confusing, because it seems to imply that the last two items in the list are a pair, instead of individual things separated from each other by a comma."
The lone rational opposition to the Oxford comma, then, is tradition itself. I wrote a column last year praising The University and the marvelous traditions we uphold such as the Lighting of the Lawn and the Restoration Ball. What I wish to remove from that column are those traditions which exist solely for tradition's sake, which are not praiseworthy. Stickling on comma usage and failing to adapt to the living language we update continuously is just one example.
Perhaps it is a stretch to relate comma usage to the traditions of the fourth-year fifth, streaking the Lawn or steam tunnelling; however, like comma usage in the Cavalier Daily, these are traditions which aren't enjoyable per se, but we do them anyway to follow the people before us. Choosing what to do with your pastime should be a product of your own thinking, not of nonsensical conformity. If people have done the same thing for years, and it makes sense to you, then having tradition on your side just serves as icing on the cake. Otherwise, bring back the damn Oxford comma.
Andrew Kouri's column appears biweekly Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.