Mano vs. the Oxford comma

Dave Lull sent me a link to this recent Boston Globe column by Jeff Jacoby. It includes a section on the Oxford comma debate, in which he cites the late D. Keith Mano:

The story reminded me of one of those great exchanges that for years made William F. Buckley’s “Notes & Asides” — the column in which he regularly reproduced his exchanges with colleagues, readers, and other correspondents — the best part of National Review. From December 1972:

“A ukase. Un- negotiable. The only one I have issued in seventeen years. It goes: “John went to the store and bought some apples, oranges, and bananas.” NOT: “John went to the store and bought some apples, oranges and bananas.” I am told National Review’s style book stipulates the omission of the second comma. My comment: National Review’s style book used to stipulate the omission of the second comma. National Review’s style book, effective immediately, makes the omission of the second comma a capital offense!”

Among the responses was this lament from D. Keith Mano, a National Review columnist, to the magazine’s managing editor, Buckley’s sister Priscilla:

“I have read with dismay WFB’s ukase on the serial comma. I can’t do it. No way. It’s just plain ugly. WFB says this is un-negotiable. . . . How serious is he? Can I arrange a dispensation?

“Look: I’ll compromise. There should be peace in the family. Instead of “John went to the store and bought some apples, oranges, and bananas” — how about if he just buys oranges and bananas? Or a head of non-union lettuce. You see what this sort of restriction leads to. And they ask me why fiction is dying. Erich Segal, I bet, uses the serial comma.

“You may tell WFB that, from now on and as ordered, I salute the red and white.”

I’m frankly a little disappointed — I’ve been won over to the Oxford comma side, myself. I have the idea the Forces of History are in its favor. Perhaps that was Mano’s fate, to be a genius forever tainted by his associations with questionable movements. Playboy Magazine. Dropping the Oxford.

Of course, my advocacy of the O.C. probably dooms it…

6 thoughts on “Mano vs. the Oxford comma”

  1. I had this discussion with my wife earlier this week. She was proofreading a paper for me and noted that I had left off a serial comma. I used to use the comma before the conjunction but stopped after a seminary professor downgraded a paper for not conforming to his preferred style manual.

    Now, thanks to this blog post, I know what that redundant comma is called. Thank you Lars.

  2. BTW, the professor for whom your library is named was the only teacher I ever had who made a big deal of style manuals. I learned a certain way of doing things in my High School typing class that served me well until I got to seminary. Then one teacher kept giving me my papers back complaining that they didn’t conform to the Chicago Turabian style. I found it was much easier to just change the things he pointed out than it was to lug around a 400 page style manual. I still don’t give a hoot about conforming to a style, but it must be important enough that if you make a big deal out of it someone will name a library after you.

  3. Deeply troubling. Especially since I’m now supposed to be the style guru for the school. Shall I follow my conscience or the rule book? Or can I do a Buckley, and issue a ukase?

  4. In my editing business, I use a few style books. This has helped soften me on any absolute positions of grammar. I still this the Oxford comma is the right thing to do for the good of the country and the sake of our children, but is the style guide says no, then no it is.

    Hell probably has a hundred style guides.

  5. I find it far easier (less of a cognitive burden, if you will) to default to always using the Oxford comma, rather than trying to decide on a case-by-case basis if it’s necessary to avoid ambiguity.

    And frankly, I do not understand those who demur, calling it “ugly” as Mano did. It’s a teensy little blip. What’s so ugly about it before the “and” that isn’t ugly when it shows up earlier in the list?

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