Saturday, January 3, 2009

Food, Gas, and the Oxford Comma

We drove one of our aged Volvos to Bellingham yesterday so that our trusted mechanic could work on it. Bellingham's 90 miles north of Seattle, which is about 50 miles north of where we live, so you can see how eccentric our auto-mechanic arrangements are. After we drop off the car, we take Amtrak home. Amtrak's arrangements can be eccentric, too, however. From Bellingham, one takes an Amtrak bus to Seattle, and then one may take either the Sounder, a local commuter train, or the Cascade, which goes all the way to Portland. Why Amtrak is unable to schedule a regular train from Bellingham to Seattle remains a mystery, at least to me.

On the way, I saw a sign that read as follows:


I think the choice to put a hyphen between FOOD and GAS was ill-advised because doing so makes "food" function as an adjective modifying "gas." Consequently, the sign informed me that methane gas in some form (one doesn't want to spend too much time reflecting on the subject) was available by means of the next exit.

If I were in charge of writing such signs, I probably would have written "Food, Gasoline, and Lodging: Next Exit," but more letters and punctuation translate into a bigger sign and greater expense. I understand. Still, I prefer the series of three, with the comma before the "and"--a comma known in some circles as the Oxford comma because it is favored, I assume, by many British writers and editors.

For about three years (quite some time ago), I wrote a books-column every two weeks for a local metropolitan daily. The copy I wrote was apparently fairly "clean" because the copy-editors rarely edited it significantly, although of course the headline-writer also gave the column its title. After I'd been writing the column for about a year, however, a copy-editor called me and said, "Look, in almost every column of yours, you use the Oxford comma, and I take it out, so how about you stop using it?" He was pretty ticked off. I don't blame him. I should have been more sensitive to the fact that the AP Style Manual does not recommend using the Oxford comma. I agreed that, from that point forward, I'd leave the Oxford comma out of the columns I wrote.

On occasion, the absence of that comma may cause some confusion, but that's pretty rare. I think I just like the symmetry and tidiness of the comma: X [comma] Y [comma] and Z [period].
Probably we shall never see the following road-sign:

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