Of Oxford Commas and Zombies

Posted: 11/10/2011 in Fiction, Horror, Writing
Tags: , , , , , ,

She heard a crash and spun around in the dark room, barely able to see in the feeble light filtering in through the boarded up window.  The building had been compromised.  She saw the undead, Dick Clark and Richard Simmons.

The Oxford comma will always remain dear to me.  I am supposed to write in AP style at work, but I choose to practice literary passive resistance and sneak the Oxford comma into grants, reports, and guidance documents.  When I don’t use the Oxford comma, my writing feels naked, vulnerable, and incomplete.  When the Oxford comma is not used, it does open the door to some amusing ambiguities.  Here’s some of my favorite examples:

We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin.  We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.

I would like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.  I would like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

The specter of the run-on sentence also rears its head without the Oxford comma:

The restaurant offered egg salad, ham and cheese and roast beef.

Earlier this year the Oxford comma garnered quite a bit of attention when the University of Oxford announced that the Oxford comma (or serial comma) would no longer be used as the preferred style for their press releases.  Big sigh of relief.  That means the Oxford comma will remain part of their style guide, but it is still troubling to me that it has become a grammatical second-class citizen for Oxford’s internal Public Relations department.  Maybe I am over-thinking it, but doesn’t every step down that sort of path lead to, well, decadence?  I wonder what Jacques Barzun would have to say on the issue.  Surely there must be some connection between the decline of Western civilization and comma usage. 

Although I understand that it is a discretionary writing practice, and predicated to some extent on what style you’ve been taught, I feel a kinship to the Oxford comma.  In Richard Matheson’s book I Am Legend, he advances the idea that when everyone else becomes zombie-like creatures, it is us – the lone holdouts and survivors fighting for our old ways – that are the monsters in the eyes of the majority.  It’s an interesting idea.  I kind of like the idea that someday I will be creeping about in the dark like Bela Lugosi, cape obscuring my face, spraypainting grafitti using the Oxford comma to the horror of the townsfolk. 

How about you?  Any fans of the Oxford comma, or of not using it?  The issue seems to be a bit polarizing! For those of you not comma-obsessed like me, any other writing conventions you can’t live without?

  1. I do use it. Of course, the trick is to know WHEN to use it. Thanking your parents, Ayn Rand and God, is all well and good, but unless your Ailuropoda melanoleuca is played by Tim Roth in Pulp Fiction, it is probably inaccurate to say that it eats, shoots, and leaves.

    Long live the Oxford comma.
    As opposed to the Oxfort coma, which is what students experience just after finals week in their third and fourth years.

    • *headdesk* Oxford coma. Where the heck is Oxfort? I envision a civil war era F-Troop style fort made not of sharpened logs, but of paralyzed bovines.

      • blackalchemy says:

        I think the Oxfort Coma could be a fantastic genre mashup of civil war era historical fiction and a zombie apocalpyse brought about from living for an extended period in a fort constructed of bovines suffering from paralysis and Mad Cow disease… it would be a thriller, horror, and black comedy all at once. Maybe…even a musical. Long live the Oxford comma! 🙂

  2. Paul D. Dail says:

    Great post. And very topical… at least in my life. In my next class, I had it on my plans to be talking to my students about the serial comma (didn’t know it was also called the Oxford comma). Seriously, the very next class. I have a couple of other examples I use, but I think I may add your examples to my instruction. I just tell them it’s optional unless it will cause confusion (such as leading your readers to believe that you are the divine offspring of Ayn Rand and God. ha ha. You should rewrite “Leda and the Swan” based on this idea 🙂

    Paul D. Dail
    http://www.pauldail.com- A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog

    • blackalchemy says:

      What timing, what a cool coincidence! I was working on a project for work this morning, ghostwriting an annual grant report and working with some text that someone else had written – someone who apparently didn’t share my love for the Oxford comma. I had to do a pretty hefty re-write to make sure the document had the same voice, and of course, the same comma conventions. I became a bit fired up on the topic. In truth, I think I just cling to it for nostalgia, like double spacing after a period. Discretion is the key – I like your phrase “optional unless it will cause confusion.” I bet it would be fun to collect some more examples of when the Oxford comma is critical. If you hear any good examples in class, please pass them along, I would definitely get a smile out of it. And what was I thinking? “I’d like to thank my parents, Stephen King and Shirley Jackson.” 🙂

  3. timotheous128 says:

    Hahaha! Excellent post! I, for one, am quite the advoate of Oxford commas, though I refuse to double space after periods (that’s just too muh space!)

    Thanks for subscribing to my blog! This was a great read. 🙂

    • blackalchemy says:

      I am glad you enjoyed this! I felt a quirky need to put a plug in for my favorite comma! I think you are right about the double space after periods – I read somewhere that it originated as a practice for typesetting purposes. Vestigial spacing… I haz it. I’m glad to have found your blog and look forward to more of your postings!

      • timotheous128 says:

        Haha! I had actually just read another article about Oxford commas, and I thought it amusing that I should stumble upon another, so I had to leave a comment. 😛

        You’re right about the spacing, though. It was for typesetting (I read an article on that too!). However, I understand the force of nostalgia to use it, so I shan’t hold it against you. 😛

      • timotheous128 says:

        Oh, and thanks for the kind words regarding my blog. Not sure how you found it, but I’m pleased all the same. 🙂

  4. Jo Eberhardt says:

    I love the Oxford comma. I love it with the kind of passion usually reserved for sporting teams and war heroes. As far as I’m concerned, it’s “optional” in the same way wearing underwear is “optional”.

    It’s not technically wrong, in some situations it may even be strangely seductive, but it’s hardly appropriate for everyday use.

    Long live the Oxford comma!

    • blackalchemy says:

      Thank you, Jo! I’ve often thought that the Oxford comma brings a certain beauty, elegance, and structure to sentences. Without them, my sentences look cold, sleekly utilitarian, and less inviting. I love how the comma invites the eye and the reader to pause, if only for a moment, and linger before moving on. It is wonderful to find others who share my love of the Oxford comma, and I think you are on to something – surely at least one academic institution could adopt it as a mascot for a sports team? Go Oxford Commas! 🙂

  5. I grew up using the comma and I am in no hurry to cast it aside in my own fiction, or anything else. 🙂

    • blackalchemy says:

      We need those commas for our conversations with our stories! That entry on your blog was extremely enjoyable – I need to have a conversation with my own stories sometime, but I’ve currently got them shackled to a pipe in the basement, where things lurk in dark corners. 🙂

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