11 August 2011

The Most Endangered Comma

As long as I’m talking commas, I should mention last month’s Twitterfuffle over the “Oxford comma” used before a conjunction in series, as in:

the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion
This punctuation is standard in most American book-publishing style guides but eschewed by newspapers, which prefer a minimal number of keystrokes. In the Great British Punctuation Shortage that followed World War 2, many British book publishers dropped the serial comma, with Oxford being one of the few institutional holdouts.

Last month an Oxford University Press memo on writing press releases told publicists to drop the comma in order to conform to journalistic style. This was reported on Twitter as the end of the Oxford comma, and there were several hours of mourning before the misunderstanding was corrected.

But the serial/Oxford comma is not the most endangered type, I believe. Rather, that’s the comma that sets off a term of direct address.

Back in 2006, Linda Lowenthal sounded the warning at Copyediting:
Just look at your e-mail messages: “Hi Linda,” most of mine begin, perhaps under the influence of the superficially similar let ter opener “Dear Linda.” But don’t blame e-mail, either: song, book, and movie titles from long before the Internet age are full of plain blank spaces before or after a name or the equivalent where we might think a comma should go. “Please Mr. Postman.” “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” Baby It’s You. Even Goodnight Moon.
The popular reading of “SURRENDER DOROTHY” that I discussed yesterday fits this pattern.

These commas vanish most common in informal writing, of course. Missing commas in direct address are almost a hallmark of online fanfiction. But the problem is creeping into more formal, edited types of prose. Readers, we must stop this travesty!

From The Writing Resource.