As I’d mentioned in one of my turning 30 posts a few weeks back, one of my goals for the year is to master the comma. I struggle with this punctuation more than I’d care to admit. In an effort to spread the learning of the comma let’s take a look at some history and the infamous serial comma.
History! etymonline.com says that the word comma is derived from Latin where it means “short phrase” or “clause in a sentence.”
This University of Wisconsin site talks a little bit about the trends and rules that have developed for the comma after its initial adoption into written word which Wikipedia puts at around the 3rd century BC.
the long-term trend has been toward greater regularization in developing and applying the rules as well as toward a reduction in the comma’s frequency of use. Still the comma remains the most frequently used punctuation mark—and undoubtedly the most frequently misused.
Which brings me to the serial comma (often called the Oxford or Harvard comma). The serial comma is a comma that is used in lists. As an example: Some letters of the alphabet are A, B, C, and D. See that comma after the C? That’s the serial comma. Some people love it, other people hate it. Neither the New York Times nor the Economist use it… but MLA standards and Oxford both use it. Well… kind of. Oxford’s public affairs guide issued a statement recently that recommended leaving out the famed Oxford comma, but the official Oxford Manual of Style still recommends its usage. So while the jury is still out, perhaps the general trend is that the serial comma is disappearing from usage.
As a final point, I’d like to make reference to JK Elemenopee’s excellent find: The Shatner Comma. Apparently amidst all of the Oxford comma confusion writer Everett Maroon twitted the following: “Professor friend o mine is against losing the Oxford comma, but wishes his students would lose the Shatner comma. You, know, what, he means.”