The Oxford Comma and Other Punctuation Discontents



If you don’t believe language is malleable, go back to original publications of the U.S.’s Civil War era and notice the differences in diction from then to now, the spellings, capitalization practices, and of course, punctuation. Slip back in time to the era of the French Revolution, find a really old copy of Victor Hugo’s work,  Les Miserables, and you’ll find in the work’s latter chapters where this malleability comes from.

But let’s talk punctuation here:

It was in the nineteenth century that the possessive of it contained an apostrophe, i.e., it’s, and sometime early in the twentieth the apostrophe slowly disappeared from standard usage. Still, it’s was taught as late as mid twentieth century. Even today, when the only accepted use of an apostrophe with it is a contracted it is, I still see it in informal letters and (gasp!) on the Internet.

Some things, like it’s, stubbornly remain in informal usage, while others such as the possessive of nouns ending in s are downright schizophrenic. I, for instance, refuse to knuckle under to today’s common usage of the possessive of such nouns as s’s. When I see a possessive of nouns ending in a double s (ss) as ss’s, it looks for all the world like a typist went to sleep with middle finger on the s key. So I stick, for the most part to s’.

And then there’s the Oxford comma.

I was taught to use it, but I didn’t know why, and when it began slipping from standard usage I stubbornly stuck with it. To compound matters, when I first heard of it, I thought it was a Southern thing, originating in Oxford, Mississippi. Not so. It had its early usage at Oxford University in England. Most of what you’ll care to know about its beginnings and evolution you’ll find here. It almost disappeared from use, and then reared its squiggly head in the aftermath of a lawsuit in Maine. It’s undeniable that it provides more clarity, and it seems to be enjoying a bit of a renaissance.

There are other squirrelly punctuation usages, but these are the ones that get my hackles up. So let’s resolve here: standard usage is subject to problems and, well, to time itself, so let’s use what makes the most sense in our writing.


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