Comma cacophony

For the connoisseur of pointless, time-wasting debates, online wrangling over the Oxford comma is hard to surpass. 

Today, at FiveThirtyEight, Walt Hickey attempts to provide a perspective on this vast and useless literature, in the course of which he quotes me (!) and my learned colleague Merrill Perlman as authorities. 

FiveThirtyEight is, of course, data-driven, and in addition to quoting Merrill and me, it conducted a poll, which identified two suggestive phenomena. The first is that preferences for and against the Oxford comma are pretty much evenly split. The second is that the people who favor the Oxford comma tend to have an elevated opinion of their grasp of grammar.

That to use or refrain from using the serial comma is the most inconsequential point of house style can be seen in the entry in the Associated Press Stylebook, which generally eschews the serial comma, but lists occasions on which it is advisable.

During my [cough] hiatus [cough], when I set up shop for You Don't Say at Blogspot, I began to use the Oxford comma, to suit my own preference. When I returned to The Sun and brought the blog back with me, I continued to use it, along with a number of other preferences contrary to AP style. In four years, I've encountered no more than half a dozen questions about or objections to these practices, and no one appears to have had difficulty reading these texts. 

The argle-bargle over the Oxford comma is thus a bogus debate. In writing for yourself, follow your own preference. In writing or editing for a publication or institution, follow the house style as far as you are obliged to.

If you think that your grammatical expertise is cause for preening, you might pick an example of greater substance. 


Addendum: Mr. Hickey reports that the FiveThirtyEight survey also asked about data, with inconclusive results. To the question, is data singular or plural, the answer is yes. 


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