Oxford comma drama and the need for descriptivism

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Elora Becker/The Occidental

Anybody who cares about grammar probably also cares about the Oxford comma: the final comma before the conjunction in a list. Depending on whom you ask, people know this comma as the subject of a raging controversy that nobody cares about, a critical necessity or a relic, as pedantic and unnecessary as placing a diaeresis over “reinvent” and using words like “diaeresis.”

There are strong arguments in either direction, but I’d like to redirect your focus onto an age-old debate among linguists: prescriptivism versus descriptivism. The descriptive approach means understanding human language patterns, rather than holding them to arbitrarily prescribed rules. Since I’m a lifelong language nerd, this idea seemed like an intellectual bone to gnaw on: how am I to strike this quivering balance between embracing verbal expressiveness and maintaining some semblance of standardization? It did not sit right with me to label some forms of speech, like “anyways” or the figurative “literally,” as “wrong” when they are widely used and understood.

My language is so personal to me: a bric-a-brac of the Indianized English of my family; the gorgeously untranslatable phrases I borrow from my mother tongue; my flair for em-dashes and ellipses; the laughably laid-back, quasi-hipster Silicon Valley parlance; and the words that I, like a kleptomaniac, pillage from the world around me. Humans and our language patterns are constantly in flux; we cannot always be contained into something as motionless as the constraints of Very Formal American Standard English or a simple set of rules.

Admittedly, it’s hard to resist this temptation to pigeonhole others’ language choices based on the rules we inculcate from elementary school. Even a month ago, I self-identified as a hard-line Oxford comma activist (commie?). Whenever the topic arose, I was also quick to cite examples like the infamous book dedication (“I dedicate this book to my parents, Ayn Rand and God”) and the time when a Maine company was successfully sued for over 5 million dollars when its policy’s exclusion of the Oxford comma caused confusion over employee overtime procedures. I was beyond convinced.

But in a delicious twist of linguistic irony, professional and collegiate journalistic writing must conform to Associated Press (AP) standards that — as you may have noticed — prevent me from including the Oxford comma in this article or any that I write for The Occidental. That got me thinking. I wondered why the revered AP, the gold standard among journalists, would spurn the Oxford comma.

My search for answers led me down a syntactical rabbit hole, with many strong arguments presented by the anti-Oxford camp. For example, simple rephrasings could obviate the Oxford comma (“I dedicate this book to Ayn Rand, God and my parents”). It is all based on the context of the sentence and the purpose behind each word.

Perhaps that’s the very nature of language: when I write for The Occidental I omit the comma as the AP gods dictate; when I speak to my friends I “say” the Oxford comma, embedded into the pauses in my conversation. In my poetry, text messages and technicolor dreams, my language is shaped continually by context and intent. There is no more intimately revealing window to a person’s cognition than the very pattern in which their thoughts string themselves into sentences, leaving beautiful and tangled fingerprints on every word they speak. Our expressions reveal so much more about us than just the words we say. Self-confidence, mindsets, secret desires — we’ve all discovered these things embedded in the sentence structure, the diction of late-night video chats and parking lot conversations, with our closest friends and most passing acquaintances.

Perhaps this is not the staunch attack or defense of the comma that you die-hard grammarians were hoping for, but what I do stand behind is the practice of linguistic descriptivism. Although that term may sound obscure or academic, it’s, in fact, relevant to many pressing real-world matters. Descriptivism means embracing that regional differences and contextual needs change over time, such as with the singular “they,” the preference for gender-inclusive and person-first language and even — dare I say it? — the emergence of neologisms like “yeeted.” (“Yote,” too.) It’s beyond fascinating how these words evolve and take worlds of meaning unto themselves, and what these patterns reveal about us. Descriptivism means viewing language not merely as a means of communication, but also as an end in itself, a social study and a form of activism. It turns stiff and generic letters into something electric and teeming with life.

It’s easy to forget, in these endless debates over the Oxford comma, inclusive language and those newfangled words kids are using these days, that we own our language — not the other way around.

DJ Prakash is an undeclared first year. She can be reached at dprakash@oxy.edu.