Archaeology and the Oxford Comma

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Most people have never heard of the term Oxford comma. Some of you know what it is when you see it, even if you do not know its name. Others of you never learned about it at all because your English teachers just gave up on you and your ability to remember where to insert it in a sentence.

I remember when that happened. It was circa 1971 here in Tennessee. That was the year Tennessee K-12 English teachers ripped the clothes off their bodies with their bear hands in great frustration because only three out of every forty students in a classroom could remember where to put it in a sentence. Standing there naked in front of their English classes, they and the English textbook writers got together and said:

Just forget that comma and leave it out.

Personally, I have always had a love affair with the Oxford comma. Whenever I am editing some fellow scientist’s work, which I have done very often across many years, it goes something like this with me:

Happy!!! Bouncy!!!  Happy!!!  Bouncy!!!  Happy!!!  Happy!!!  Bouncy!!! Bouncy!!! Blood Curdling Scream!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Not one of them again!!!!!!!!!  He left out the Oxford comma!!!!!!!!!!

(Editing is not just a job for me.  It is a highly emotional experience.)

What is the Oxford comma?  When you are writing a sentence and you string three or more items together in a series, the Oxford comma is inserted immediately before the coordinating conjunction  (and, but, or, nor, for, so, etc.)  Here is a good example:

John bought grapes, oranges, pineapples, cherries, and apples.

That last comma right before the “and” is the Oxford comma. That is indeed its official name in the realm of English literature and grammar. Anyone who writes scientific journal articles, reports, work plans, procedures, book chapters, and books should always use the Oxford comma to ensure their writing is crystal clear.

Really bad things can happen, and people can even get killed, if you do not use the Oxford comma regularly and correctly in your archaeological writing or any other scientific writing, especially in writing engineering manuals, ES&H plans, and industrial procedures.

How does omitting the Oxford comma screw things up? Check it out by clicking on the following safe link:

The Oxford Comma: A Science Writing Must-Have

Failure to use the Oxford comma in your writing can be extremely expensive. If you do not believe me, take a look at the horror stories in the article at the following safe link:

The Single Commas That Cost Companies Millions of Dollars

If you do not use the Oxford comma regularly in your archaeological writing, you need to start doing it. A famous old saw says:

Cleanliness is next to godliness.

My favorite Princeton University alumnus, an English major and fellow writer who detests opaque scientific writing, had something different to say:

Clarity in writing is next to godliness.

Some American archaeologists aspire to becoming gods in their discipline. Please do not ask me why—because I do not know. When I was in college studying anthropology and archaeology in the 1970s, the reigning god of American archaeology was Lewis R. Binford at the University of New Mexico. (Young archaeologists tell me there is no reigning god in American archaeology today.) Binford was a poor writer. He became a god by creative thinking and hiding his poor writing from his fellow archaeologists and the American public. His first wife (Sally Binford) cleaned up all of his messes on paper before they were issued as final documents. If you want to obtain god-like status in American archaeology and do it the right way, reach for clarity by using the Oxford comma regularly in your archaeological writing.

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