On killing the Oxford comma

Pat Borchers, former Dean of the Creighton Law school, and now Director and Professor of Law at the Werner Institute at Creighton, has alerted me to an important event. These days, Pat thinks a lot about clarity and conflict resolution. In that vein, he writes:

This could top the famous debate that raged in Ann Landers’s column about whether toilet paper should be put on the spindle so that the paper has to be pulled toward the user (so essentially over the top) or down (so essentially from the bottom).  Now I’m an “over the top” man, but I managed to keep my friends who were on other side of the issue.

Quietly, almost as if it was hoped the change would go unnoticed, Oxford has killed the Oxford comma. See here.

Pat explains his happiness at the death of what he sees as an unnecessary appendage and then sharpens our writing horizons this way:

I realize that I am one of the few people who cares about such matters, but I say “hooray.” I recognize that in some circumstances the “Oxford comma” can avoid ambiguities. However, the sentences in which the meaning turns on the comma are likely bad sentences that need to be rewritten. Meanwhile, I continue to attempt to educate people on the difference between “to lie” and “to lay.” “To lie” is the intransitive verb, because there is no recipient of its action. “I lie (not lay!) in bed.” However, “I will lay the book on the nightstand.” (“The book” is the recipient of the action — transitive verbs are sort of like conveyor belts.) I now mention a few other favorites. “Who” is the direct object and “whom” is the indirect. “Who is knocking at the door?” “Whom should I send to the door?” “It’s” is the contraction for “it is.” “It’s time to leave for the movie.” “Its” is the possessive of “it.” “Every dog has its day.” “Who’s” is the contraction of “who is” while “whose” is the possessive of “who.” “Who’s knocking at the door?” “I know whose shoes got left in the front hall.” “That” is the restrictive relative pronoun while “which” is the non-restrictive one. “Was” is the past tense while “were” is the subjunctive mood. “I wish it were (not was!) nicer outside today.” Oh dear, I could go on for a long time. But allow me to say that “please bring me carrots, peas and apples” is equally as clear as “please bring me carrots, peas, and apples” and the former requires one fewer (not less!) characters.

Pat, you are a good friend, but I must end with the central question that you leave unanswered:

Why would you ever ask for carrots and peas and apples when you could instead ask for a burger, a slice of onion, fries and a beer?  


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