I Never Cared About the Oxford Comma Until it Was Taken Away From Me

Unlike many writers, I was never a grammar enthusiast, nor have I devoted a significant amount of time to learning the rules of English grammar. My understanding of sentence structure and word order is intuitive, not learned. I have been an avid reader since my grubby little child hands could hold a book, and I learned the rules of English grammar by osmosis – when a sentence is wrong, I can’t tell you about hanging participles, run-on sentences, dependent clauses, or anything like that. I can tell instantly, however, that it doesn’t look right, and how I would fix it.

So of course, I never cared about the Oxford comma. I didn’t even know what it was. I’m sure that if I reviewed my writing from the years before the Oxford comma was abandoned by the grammatical establishment, you would find a completely inconsistent usage of that particular piece of punctuation.

In essence, I don’t disagree with the decision to excise the Oxford comma from the canonical rules of grammar. Like many linguistic artifacts, it does not particularly aid in comprehension or functionality, and when Twitter is the benchmark for reading comprehension, some aspects of language are going to suffer. So I didn’t wring my hands or complain or do much of anything when the change came. I went about my writing as normal. It was only later that I noticed that my writing had changed, wholly unbidden, and the Oxford comma lived on in my text.

I began to see it everywhere. I couldn’t read lists of items without agonizing over whether or not the Oxford comma was necessary. I flipped through my Strunk and White repeatedly in order to make sure I grasped the essence of punctuation completely. I was terrified of a mistake.

Soon, I was crippled by insecurity and doubt. Does ‘tense, unnerving and eerie’ properly convey my intent? Do I want ‘unnerving and eerie’ to be read as a singular modifier? Is ‘they played with their toys, balls and sticks’ so unclear that I might unintentionally be making a crude joke?

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Add to this Anna’s savage and unyielding insistence that the Oxford comma remains relevant and necessary, and my will was broken. Barring typographical errors, I now use the Oxford comma in every applicable instance. I cannot escape it. I cannot see a world without it. I can no longer list three things without including it, no matter how precise the language is. It appears on my Facebook posts, in my fiction, on my ad copy.

I was too late to save the Oxford comma from canonical obsolescence, but it has never been more important to me.

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