The Oxford Comma

I have been following the discussion about the use of the Oxford Comma with some interest.

I was taught as a child never to put a comma before ‘and’ in a list – I assume by my father who was a strict grammarian. He also taught me to have three spaces in front of a full stop. Thérèse Coffey – or is it Jacob Rees-Mogg ? – recommends two. I remember the terrible moment when Michael Baxandall added a comma before an and in the draft of my PhD. thesis. He was a pupil of F.R. Leavis. When I questioned the errant comma, he said it improved clarity. Grammar is there to assist understanding. So, I continue to use an Oxford comma, but only sometimes, according to circumstances.

So, my sense if that an Oxford comma is a bit like Jacob Rees-Mogg’s top hat: something for exaggeratedly old-fashioned disciplinarians, which should be used flexibly, not as a cane by an elderly headmaster.


5 thoughts on “The Oxford Comma

  1. I think the use of the Oxford comma creates a different emphasis in a list, emphasising the last item, or perhaps differentiating it as a type from the previous items. so it is not an absolute, but depends on the meaning of emphasis you want to give.

    But what is three spaces in front of a full stop? As someone who started my career as a typesetter and typography, I am very aware that some of the legacies of typing hung over into the world of wordprocessing, and then page make-up, including putting a double space after a period. But three spaces in front of a full stop?

    • I assume it was to maintain a hierarchy: one after a comma, two after a semi-colon, three after a full stop. I follow this and it produces very clear spacing. It certainly dates back to the days of a typewriter. Charles

      • That makes sense. Though in proportionally spaced text, ie: typeset text, it produces ‘rivers’ within galleys/columns, which is undesirable. When I worked on RA magazine – well before your time at the Royal Academy – we’d never have let that pass!

      • I was retained by the RA/magazine to consult on bringing electronic publishing in-house and oversee production, working with the art director/design consultants Esterson Lackersteen. Back then the editorial office was below The Keeper’s House, and was then exiled to Clifford Street during one phase of development. Nick Tite (still at the Academy) was Editor, Abbie Coppard was Assistant Editor.

        From the late ’80s to the mid-90s, I also managed the typographic production of the Summer Exhibition catalogue, working with Esterson Lackersteen and Precise Litho. Around 1995, I proposed to the Academy making the Summer Exhibition catalogue available online. That didn’t fly, but the Summer Exhibition Explorer is the indirect progeny of that idea.

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