BuzzFeed’s style guide requires the Oxford comma

Just when passions had cooled in the punctuation battles, BuzzFeed reignites the conflict with its guide for writers. Armor up, wordsmiths: War has returned across the land.

If you’ve ever yearned to align your organization’s writing style with that of BuzzFeed, now’s your chance.

BuzzFeed has published its style guide, and the buried lede, for those indignant armies clashing by night, is that the Buzz-heads require the serial (or Oxford) comma.

BuzzFeed states, “BuzzFeed uses the serial comma: e.g., ‘We picked up cyan, magenta, yellow, and black balloons for the party.'”

As they used to chant on the school playground when a scuffle broke out, “Fight! Fight! Fight!”

That’s because passions run high when it comes to this punctuational tadpole, as we at Ragan.com have revealed.

Style wars

On one side of the war-torn valley, roaring curses and shaking the heads of enemies slain in battle, are the legions of writers who omit the serial comma (most of the time, anyway). Associated Press and New York Times styles require that journalists usually make do without the final commas.

The AP addresses the issue in this online Q and A:

Q: Is clarity essentially the only rule determining when a serial comma should be included?

A: In a simple series, AP doesn’t use a comma before the last item. For a series of complex terms, though, use commas after each for clarity.

(And think about it: How often do journalism editors let “a series of complex terms” go through?)

Across the corpse-strewn wasteland, warriors at The Oxford Manual of Style, raising spears decorated with the scalps of AP writers, insist on the serial comma. In an online forum, a company intern drafting a style guide asks the manual whether to require the comma.

The Oxfordians reply, “Well, if you don’t allow it at all, you will at times be stuck with situations like the following hypothetical dedication page that our managing editor likes to cite: ‘With gratitude to my parents, Mother Teresa and the pope.’ (Maybe that example will help you change your company’s policy.)”

The Washington Times made an implied similar plea for the serial comma when chortling over a Sky News bulletin in December:

Was there something more behind that warm handshake between President Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro?

Britain’s Sky News posted this bulletin about the Nelson Mandela memorial service at 6:36 p.m. London time Tuesday: “Top stories: World leaders at Mandela tribute, Obama-Castro handshake and same-sex marriage date set.”

The prospect of a wedding between the two leaders got the Twitterverse tweeting.

“This is why the Oxford comma exists!” said Carole Blake, a literary agent in London.

But in commenting on this, The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto found the Oxfordians unconvincing. He wrote:

Years ago when we worked on the Journal’s op-ed desk, we received a submission from a writer who argued that the Oxford comma should be universally adopted so as to avoid ambiguities. We wrote back: “My boss, Max Boot, and I find your argument unpersuasive. Do two or three people find it unpersuasive?”

Ragan settles the issue for good

Since you ask, writers at Ragan Communications do use the serial comma, at least when we remember to. Executive Editor Rob Reinalda, a.k.a. The Word Czar, issued this ukase about the comma in October: “I don’t like it especially, but it helps in enough circumstances that, for the sake of consistency, we use it all the time.”

While we’re at it, he adds (and he’s right!) that another comma issue is the creation of a “false series—when the three elements don’t agree syntactically: I’m going shopping for food, shoes, and getting the car washed. I see it all the time (from bloggers and quoted sources mostly), and it makes me nuts.”

Same here! Stop it!

The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple commends BuzzFeed. The Post’s editors brutally strip his sentences of serial commas, he says, arguing “that the final comma is unnecessary and even distracting.” He adds:

In situations where the list is complex and impenetrable—for example, “Rebecca was proud of her new muffin recipes: blueberry, peanut butter and chocolate chip and coconut,” via Grammar Girl (Mignon Fogarty)—the AP will indulge the final comma.

But why inject a towering judgment call into the insertion of a comma into a list of items? Here, we have to side with Fogarty, who writes, “Although the serial comma isn’t always necessary, I favor it because often it does add clarity, and I believe in having a simple, consistent style, instead of trying to decide whether you need something on a case-by-case basis. I also think using the serial comma makes even simple lists easier to read.”

In defiance of English teachers everywhere, BuzzFeed style also eschews setting aside “too” in commas, except “when you want to emphasize an abrupt change of thought (e.g., ‘He didn’t know at first what hit him, but then, too, he hadn’t ever walked in a field strewn with garden rakes’).”

Dropping the comma before “too” has a long history. Hemingway did it all the time, as when two waiters talk in “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”:

“He’s lonely. I’m not lonely. I have a wife waiting in bed for me.”

“He had a wife once too.”

Two waiters, President Obama and Raul Castro?

@r_working

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