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Restore the Oxford comma to The Brandeis Hoot

By Jack Fox

Section: Opinions

September 9, 2016

We invited Brandeis’ heroes, Christopher Columbus and Joseph Stalin, to our time travel party.

At this point you’re probably confused. In fact, you may be thinking something like, “Wait! Those aren’t Brandeis’ heroes. We don’t like those people at all. They are bad people.” Well, you’re right. They are bad people, and the reason for your very understandable confusion is not an error in understanding on your part, or even a very disappointing mistake on the part of the party organizers. The fault lies with The Brandeis Hoot’s editors, who for some mysterious reason refuse to use the Oxford comma.

I know that it might seem a little snobbish to quibble about grammar, but this isn’t as meaningless as a dangling participle or whatever pointless syntactical rule your second grade teacher bribed you into memorizing. The Oxford comma, which is a comma added before the word ‘and’ at the end of a list, is technically optional but pragmatically critical. In the previous example, an Oxford comma would have made it clear that “Brandeis’ heroes” are a separate category from Christopher Columbus and Joseph Stalin, rather than leaving it unclear whether Columbus and Uncle Joe are just people who happened to be invited along with our heroes.

There are a few well-known historical blunders related to this seemingly minor issue. Sky News, a popular news outlet, committed a rather amusing gaffe in 2013 by tweeting the following headlines in a single sentence: “World leaders at Mandela tribute, Obama-Castro handshake and same-sex marriage date set.” Are Barack Obama and Fidel Castro getting married? Is this because of their handshake? Just how good was this mysterious handshake? The people may never know. The Times, another popular purveyor of news, is quoted in one of its issues as containing the sentences, “By train, plane and sedan chair, Peter Ustinov retraces a journey made by Mark Twain a century ago. The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.” I am certain that no one intended to describe Nelson Mandela as a dildo collector, but what is the average reader to do when confronted with such a sentence but fall into hysterics?

Among those who think about this kind of thing for a living, the ruling has always been clear. The Chicago Manual of Style is quite firm on its position that the Oxford comma is necessary, and it is difficult to find a more definitive ruleset for writing than that. Their chosen example, “She took a photo of her parents, the president and the vice president,” is a more sensible sample of just how the lack of an Oxford comma can confuse readers. I’d love to put in a corrected version that includes the Oxford comma for clarity, but unfortunately The Hoot’s policy is to remove all Oxford commas without exception.

The fact that most of these examples are silly is, ultimately, irrelevant—all that really matters is that every newspaper has a solemn responsibility to provide clarity to its readers. The Hoot is no exception to that rule. At this point its refusal to use the Oxford comma just seems foolish, and so I call on both our readers and The Hoot’s editors to change their minds and restore this grammatical lynchpin to its proper place in our newspapers.

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