The Oxford comma

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This is not about computing but, as it has been gnawing at me for 33 years, I am not going to miss the opportunity to get it off my chest.

A story has been knocking around all week in the British media about the “Oxford comma” and about a supposed threat to its existence.

I have ignored all this – assuming it be another one of the private school arguments that get some people excited and leave the bulk ignored. But, funnily enough, now I understand what it is – the comma before ‘and’ or ‘or’ in a serial list – I realise it does have some relevance to me.

Ireland’s education (north and south – they have much more in common than is often realised) system is often deeply conservative and so when I was taught English in my West Belfast primary school it was in what would be regarded as a very “traditional” manner – lots of learning by rote, an attempt to teach formal grammar and so on, generally based on a textbook called “First Aid in English” (if you click on that Amazon link you will see it dates back to the 1950s).

Part of that traditional approach was, I now understand, the “Oxford Comma”. But, in England, as I soon discovered on coming here, aged 12, it was long since out of fashion.

So, in my first or second week at Stretford Grammar School I, along with the rest of my class, sat an English exam (of the type Americans would describe as a pop quiz). My continued, and repeated, use of the Oxford Comma saw me score one of the lowest marks in the class and the English teacher thinking of me as a struggler.

Even then I did not understand why adding the comma made my sentences wrong – especially as that was how I had been taught to write. And since then I have struggled with any similar sentence – unthinkingly and automatically I would add the comma and then, if I reviewed the text, remove it for fear of further failure.

Now I know the truth – my additional comma is not a sign that I am just another ‘thick Paddy’ but I am, in fact, socially and educationally superior! So, here’s to a future without fear of the additional comma.


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