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Columbia Missourian

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

By Maggie Walter
July 5, 2011 | 10:35 a.m. CDT

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.

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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 ColumbiaMissourian.com 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 ColumbiaMissourian.com. 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.