To complement a new logo, the city is considering a few taglines, including: “Where Tradition, Education and Innovation Thrive.” But if Hillsdale really stands by those values, it should insert the Oxford comma after “education.”
The Oxford (or serial) comma precedes the conjunction in a series of terms or phrases — it’s the one after “tigers” in “lions, tigers, and bears.” So named because of its traditional use by the Oxford University Press, the Oxford comma finds support in such grammar heavyweights as “The Chicago Manual of Style”, “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk and E.B. White, and the U.S. Government Printing Office style guide. Its opponents include style books of the Associated Press and the New York Times.
Those against the comma claim it’s pretentious. It’s clunky. It takes up space and ink and the time it takes to stroke a key.
But most style guides argue that the Oxford comma dispels ambiguity.
Erasing the Oxford comma can wreak havoc. You can confuse people (“I met two guys, Jane and Sue”), defame people (“I like weirdos, George Washington and Lincoln”), or even commit heresy (“This book is dedicated to my parents, God and Oprah”). Adding a comma makes all the difference.
You can also lose a $10 million lawsuit. Last March, truckers sued a dairy company over a contract clause specifying what was exempt from overtime pay: “the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of [food products].”
Finding no Oxford comma after “shipment,” the truckers argued the clause said they were exempt from packing for distribution, not distribution itself. They won the case, and the dairy company knew the supreme value of the Oxford comma.
The lack of an Oxford comma in the Hillsdale tagline probably won’t stir up a lawsuit, and in the case of Hillsdale’s tagline, it doesn’t actually make a difference in meaning. Why not save the ink and space and throw it out?
Because meaning isn’t just a technical thing — it’s conveyed in rhythm and flow, too. Grammar is a matter of aesthetics and common sense, and the Oxford comma keeps it that way.
Recent research has explored an increasingly evident connection between grammar and rhythm: People who are sensitive to one are sensitive to the other. A study by a developmental research center at Vanderbilt University found that children who can distinguish musical rhythm are better at grammar.
The connection makes sense. Grammar rules aren’t just there for rules’ sake. They create rhythm and that contributes to meaning. Commas make us pause. Dashes make us pause — longer. The pauses convey emphasis and importance.
“The ‘rules’ of grammar aren’t rules at all. They’re creative tools for organising and presenting our thoughts, for giving structure to what we mean and giving meaning to the form. You can hear them, feel them, just like the beat in a song,” writes Saga Briggs, managing editor for an education blog.
Read “Tradition, Education and Innovation,” and tradition bears the weight of importance, as if education and innovation must join forces to reach its level. Read “Tradition, Education, and Innovation,” and the importance is evenly distributed. What are we trying to say?
The Oxford comma is a breath, a clarifier, and a rhythm maker. In a world where text messages murder punctuation and vowels, it’s a taste of elegance and a nod to tradition. In a culture of breathless activity and impatience, it makes us pause. And, with rhythm, it conveys subtle meaning.
Maybe the eagerness to drop the comma comes from a hunger for minimalism, efficiency, and speed common to our modern culture that we should avoid. In any case, most people would prefer to keep it.
A poll by the website FiveThirtyEight found that most Americans — 57 percent — prefer the use of the Oxford comma. Among 18-to-29-year-olds, support soared to 79 percent.
The City of Hillsdale’s median age, according to 2015 data, is 27.2. And it’s just a guess, but the 1500 students who flood the town every year might have a nerdy love for grammar and all things Oxford.
If Hillsdale is about tradition, education, and innovation — and the people — it should stick to this age-old mark of rhythm, sense, and clarity.