DEAR READER: Oxford comma lives; Terry continues reign as Show Me the Errors winner

Tuesday, July 5, 2011 | 10:35 a.m. CDT; updated 9:41 p.m. CDT, Saturday, July 9, 2011

COLUMBIA — The grammarian world was all abuzz a couple weeks ago when it was announced that the University of Oxford was killing its famed comma.

For those of you who delight in today's news and not so much in the arcane rules of punctuation, the Oxford comma is that tricky comma used before the final item in a list . As in: The boys ate hot dogs, peanut butter, cereal, and marshmallows.

It's often called the serial comma, though, I have heard it called the Harvard comma, as well.

Whatever it's called, American journalists ditched it years ago, but it was rather amazing to hear that Oxford was following suit. Turns out, though, that it isn't. The Oxford comma lives on.

It was, however, dropped by those folks writing press releases and internal communication at the university. How's that for irony?

But before the clarification was made, the social media world — Twitter and Facebook — were buzzing with the news. One person wrote: "Are you people insane? The Oxford comma is what separates us from the animals."

That struck me as more than a little over-the-top, but then, I've never been a serial comma fan.

I am a fan, however, of the song  by Vampire Weekend about this little punctuation mark. On YouTube, its name has been reduced to "Oxford Comma," but the song's title on the album includes a word that we don't generally print in a family newspaper.

Another popular culture reference to commas comes from Urban Dictionary and its Urban Word of the Day for Dec. 20, 2010: Shatner commas.

It defines this phenomenon as: "Oddly placed commas that don't seem to serve any actual purpose in punctuation, but make it look like you should take odd pauses, as William Shatner does when delivering lines.

"This is what Shatner commas look like:

"When, we get to, the restaurant, we should, order some, tasty, beverages."

Whichever variety of comma usage you prefer, you're likely to find good company among readers who participate in the Show Me The Errors contest. 

There were 40 participants and about 130 corrections in June, which reflects a decrease of 9 participants and an increase of 50 submitted corrections. For June, Jim Terry submitted 78 entries in the contest — 35 more than he did in May. Terry could not be reached for comments about this win, his eighth.

A newcomer to the contest is the second-place winner, Patrick Sweet, with 10 entries. He's a May graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism and a former assistant city editor, reporter, graphics designer and copy editor at the Missourian. He's now a reporter at The Citizens' Voice in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., covering a nearby city as well as working with data and investigative reporting. He sounds as if he is enjoying the challenge of his new job.

"I'm familiar with it," he said of deciding to join the Show Me the Errors contest. He said he saw a number of style errors when looking at cutlines and wanted to help. He added, "Plus, I really, really need a new mug."

Sweet is referring to the Missourian coffee mug that monthly winners receive along with a copy of  Roy Peter Clark's "The Glamour of Grammar."

We hope he'll keep trying. (He might get lucky anyway, as Terry often asks us to pass along his prizes to the person in second place.) And, we hope you also will join in the contest by letting us know when you spot an error. There's a box at the end of each article to click on. Then, simply fill in the information. Just don't tell us about an Oxford comma. We just don't use it.

Maggie Walter is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and an interactive news editor at She really hates to pick favorites, but, if forced to pick just one punctuation mark that has endeared itself, it would be the ampersand (&) for its elegant structure. It really deserves its own song, too.

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James Terry July 5, 2011 | 2:04 p.m.


I'm happy to pass along June's Missourian mug and book to Mr. Sweet. I wish him well in his work at the Citizens' (note spelling) Voice.


(Report Comment)
frank christian July 5, 2011 | 5:00 p.m.

Prof. Walter - For far too many of past years my literary effort had been restricted to grocery lists and the like. Then my son gave me a computer.

Limping along, I had wondered about my comma use and meant to look into rules, but had never gotten around to it. This weekend a participant in conversation, mentioned it in friendly fashion and while investigating, I realized that my efforts probably look like, as one demonstration noted "their work looked like they had shot at it with a shell full of commas." I had thought, some how that a comma was never needed before "and". I doubt these comments will show much improvement, but if Mr. Wm's mentions my lack of a serial, Oxford, or Harvard comma, we can tell him I've decided to go with "those folks writing press releases and internal communication at the university". Thanks.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams July 5, 2011 | 6:30 p.m.


I swear to you cross-my-heart-hope-to-die that I had no idea this column was gonna be printed when I comma'ed you.

Personally, I like the comma that appears before the "and" in a list, as in, "I bought milk, cereal, donuts, and coffee." It's really too bad much of the rest of the world disagrees with me, but since I'm over 60, they can all go to hell. ;^)

My biggest mistake when "comma-ing" is not placing a comma between two complete sentences joined by an "and", as in: "He went to the store, and he bought gum" (correct). OR, I put a comma in when it isn't supposed to be there, as in, "I went to the store, and bought gum" (incorrect).

Actually, for the most part, I hate commas.

Especially when there are too many of them.

Or not enuf.

(Report Comment)
frank christian July 5, 2011 | 8:43 p.m.

Mike - Your original comment was appreciated greatly, but you must know by now of my inability to let any comment just, "go".

The serial comma,in my opinion, is the most useless of all,but who am I to quibble? You guys keep showing the way and I'll follow, trying to be correct and right, as often as I can.

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