The Oxford Comma and The Internet

The Oxford comma (also known as the serial comma) is that extra comma that you sometimes get at the end of a list, before the and or the or. “She wrote novels, essays, and JavaScript” uses an Oxford comma. “He bought apples, butter and the ranch” doesn’t.

The Oxford moniker derives from the century-old endorsement of the serial comma by the Oxford University Press manual of style; and the OUP is backed up by a slew of revered authorities: Strunk’s Elements of Style, Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage and the Chicago Manual of Style. Why? Because omitting the Oxford comma can result in distressing double meanings:

“She lives with her two children, a cat and a dog.”

Legions of grammarians are quick to point out that while the lack of an Oxford comma can cause ambiguities, its presence never will. Here’s something we can all get behind, right?

Well, no, not really, because it turns out that for every phrase that the Oxford comma clarifies, there’s another for which it obfuscates. “Through the window she saw George, a policeman and several onlookers” clearly refers to two people and some onlookers. Throw in the Oxford comma and George has become a policeman: “Through the window she saw George, a policeman, and several onlookers”.

Moreover, numerous style guides, including the New York Times and the Associated Press have flat out rejected the Oxford comma. And while there are many Americans who care deeply about their beloved comma, in the UK (outside of the OUP) it’s rarely used.

This morning I took out a comma and this afternoon I put it back again — Gustave Flaubert

A search for “Oxford Comma” on Twitter is rewarded with several linear feet of self righteous indignation from both sides of the argument, with nary a whimper from the blurry middle ground. Ditto Hacker News comments. Ditto blog posts. Both sides are convinced that they are entirely right; yet both sides, as we’ve seen, are fundamentally wrong. Welcome to the new discourse. Welcome to the internet.

The internet is brimming with exceptional writing, and yet, the good content makes up a tiny fraction of the whole, and there is a compelling sense that it’s a diminishing fraction. When it feels like every tenth comment on Hacker News is a lament on its free-fall into reddit-ization; when, in the wake of Aaron Swartz’s shocking death, thoughtful, reflective people go rushing offline to escape the ubiquitous onslaught of sub-tabloid know-all chest-beating; when a meaningless battle over JavaScript semicolons generates more tweet impressions, blog inches, cyber-nudges and web-winks than the combined reaction to all the stuff that actually matters; when it feels like everyone’s talking but no-one is listening, well, then we know we have a problem.

Before the internet, only the privileged few (politicians, authors, journalists, broadcasters, entertainers) could reasonably expect to reach an audience beyond their personal acquaintances. These uber-promulgators were selected by a process which was, if not entirely merit-based, at least conditioned by a minimum threshold of experience, knowledge, eloquence, wit, observation, or reasoning (dictators and aristocrats excepted). And, while those same qualities are also found (in bucket-loads) online they may be threatened by the very nature of the medium.

The problem with Hacker News is that “Sometimes Write Classes, Sometimes Don’t” wouldn’t actually chart, despite being the best advice.

The internet has a much higher write-to-read ratio than traditional methods of mass content distribution. In television, radio, newspapers, books, film and theatre there is a hard division between a small number of content producers and a large number of content consumers. Not so the internet. Many of us go online with the intention of reading, but before we’re done, we’ve written a bunch of tweets, sent off a comment, or engaged in an all out flame war, almost always in the public domain.

Writing online is so nearly effortless that reading (not to mention reflection, deliberation and thought) has become a chore in comparison. It’s easier to jot off a patronizing, indignant or self-aggrandizing missive than it is to take the trouble to read the whole article or give fair consideration to the author’s perspective. Thus the vicious circle sets in…

Why go to the trouble of producing a balanced or inquiring article for a medium that encourages rapid-fire feedback over deliberation and reflection? And why, in turn, respond to that article with any semblance of balance in a medium that rewards bite-sized bluster over nuance and accuracy? And why, for that matter, bother reading the article at all, when speed is everything, and you’d better get your soundbite in now because they’ll be new outrages to decry tomorrow? Anyone who wanted to learn something about Aaron Swartz before writing about him, to reflect and deliberate on his suicide before offering an opinion was too late, because by then the internet had lost interest and moved on to a hotter topic (horse-meat burgers, or the Harlem Shake, for instance).

And so it goes. You too can be an internet celebrity. You don’t need much in the way of content, just a provocative (and preferably absolutist) title (“JavaScript considered harmful”, “I won’t hire people who omit the Oxford Comma”) to serve as tweet-bait and an HN comment magnet.

There’s an ironic footnote to the Oxford Comma story. In July 2011 the internet went berserk on news that, after more than a century, the OUP had overcome its pedantry and dropped its insistence on our petite punctuator.

Oxford Style Guide ditches the Oxford comma. I have strong feelings about this, none of them good.

Twitter raged with the fires of Hades. Writers, editors and journalists fired off a stream of doom-laden electronic missives until…, until someone took a deep breath, took the time to read the article properly, and realized that the new guideline was issued not by the Oxford University Press per se, but merely by a PR subsidiary whose decisions had no bearing on the OUP proper. Much egg was left on many faces, but in the end it didn’t really matter, because it was on the internet, so no-one gave it much thought anyway…..a bit like this article…hey, do you think I’ll make it to Hacker News?…wait, is this thing still on?…


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