Lynne Truss wrote a book with a rather thought-provoking title (speaking grammatically, of course): “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.” Naturally, the pages within might take you on a perplexing journey of syntactic splendor, compelling you to rethink your life, your family, and your dog.
Truss takes what one might perceive as a neutral approach to the Oxford comma, which is understandable, considering how many inferior individuals she would otherwise lose as customers. She opines, “Sometimes the sentence is improved by including it; sometimes it isn’t.”
Immediately afterward, she cites an example that supports the implementation of the comma. That would be perfectly fine for somebody who is attempting to write about it somewhat objectively. However, this excerpt notably contradicts not only the inferiority of neglecting the Oxford comma, but also the proposition that it is acceptable to switch back and forth between its usage.
“For example, in the introduction of this book I allude to punctuation marks as the traffic signals of language: ‘they tell us to slow down, notice this, take a detour, and stop.’ And, well, I argued for that Oxford comma. It seemed to me that without the comma after ‘detour,’ this was a list of three instructions (the last a double one), not four.”
In the given example, one must note that the items can no longer be rearranged. This is because the actions take place in a certain order.
Why is this significant? Let’s say that the Oxford comma is neglected: “they tell us to slow down, notice this, take a detour and stop.” Let’s also say that the writer abides by the idea that one can switch back and forth between employing and ignoring the Oxford comma.
Well, what does it say now? What if “take a detour and stop” truly are one item? Because we don’t know whether the author uses the Oxford comma, it can be either. If the author consistently does use the Oxford comma, however, we know that “take a detour and stop” is a single item, and that it would be “take a detour, and stop” if they were not.
Notably, Truss continues with a separate argument:
“And here was a case where* the stylistic reasons for its inclusion clearly outweighed the grammatical ones for taking it out. This was a decelerating sentence. The commas were incrementally applying the brakes. To omit the comma after ‘detour’ would have the sentence suddenly coasting at speed again instead of slowing to the final halt.”
*Another bone to pick: Substituting the word “where” for the phrase “in which.” The rest of that paragraph is legit shizzle, though.