Nasty, brutish and absurd

The war was over, and the backers of the Oxford comma rejoiced. The war had pitted neighbor against neighbor. It had divided families and even households. The victors were those stalwarts who insisted that use of the Oxford comma was a mark of civilization and that those who left out this essential punctuation were savages. The losers were those who had to listen to the winners.

The conflict affected even my own home. My wife, a former journalist who turned to art after witnessing the war in Iraq, began using the Oxford comma in her marketing materials years ago. I, after decades as a newspaper copy editor, didn’t see the point. When it helped avoid confusion, I’d include the comma before the final item in a series, but to write “red, white, and blue” seemed silly. So the following heated exchange, which took place as I edited one of Dani's newsletters, should surprise no one:

ME: Just checking — you use the Oxford comma, right?
DANI: I do, yeah.
ME: OK, thanks, honey. I’ll leave ’em in.

That our marriage was strong enough to survive this discord is, of course, a testament to my wife’s forbearance in the face of what so many would call ignorance and callous indifference.

That indifference is what turned the tide in the war. The pro-Oxford forces had long prepared for battle, belittling nonbelievers while stockpiling interrobangs, backslashes and daggers — the latter for use by their footnote soldiers, of course. The anti-Oxford forces … well, there were no anti-Oxford forces. (Hardly any, at least, and they sounded as ridiculous as those they thought of as foes.) There were just those of us who reacted to Oxford militancy with a roll of the eyes and an emphatic “Who cares?”

We knew that most of the time, the comma made no difference. We understood that jokes about “my parents, Nelson Mandela and Joan of Arc” worked only for people who chose to misunderstand such a simple construction while acting as if they were superior to the rest of us.

It was these same people who were ready to fight over a punctuation mark. We weren’t. It was that simple. After months of badgering, the Associated Press Stylebook spoke for us all with its tweet of surrender: “OK, fine, whatever. You win. Happy now?” The victorious droning by the pro-Oxford forces threw dozens into what came to be called serial comas.

So this was how the war ended — not with a bang, but a shrug.

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