Donna and the Oxford Comma

During a British Academy lecture in 2011, David Crystal mentioned that language was rarely the object of a work of art. Well, here is a work of art created by Donna Piët for an exhibition called “Een Poging tot Nieuwe Vriendelijkheid” (“An attempt at new kindness”), which was held in the art gallery of the Free Academy, Gemak, in The Hague in The Netherlands earlier in December. And it is about language. What is more, it deals with what we consider to be a usage problem in the Bridging the Unbridgeable project.


This painting has been reproduced with permission from the artist.

The painting (apologies for the quality: I had to rely on my mobile phone to take a picture of it) illustrates Donna’s fascination with the Oxford Comma: “Give me Oxford any time”, it reads.

Personally, I don’t like the Oxford Comma (sorry, Donna!), but because Oxford University Press insists on it, my book The Bishop’s Grammar is filled with them. They are not mine! The reason I don’t like the Oxford Comma is that as a student, I was taught that in a coordination like “A and B and C”, the first and can be substituted by a comma: “A, B and C”. So if a comma is insisted upon before and, as the OUP style sheet does, the sentence would read: “A and B and and C”, which doesn’t make sense to me. But Donna, tell us, why do you like the Oxford Comma so much that you used it for a work of art?

Eighteen months ago, there was a brief twitterstorm, created by the rumour that the Oxford Comma would be abolished. Nothing could be further from the truth it turns out. Yahoo News reports about it, and cites Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves (2003) (no Oxford Comma there!), saying “that there are strong opinions on both sides”, and advising: “I’ll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken”!

(Donna Piët studies Autonomous Art at the Royal Academy of Arts in The Hague. And here is another example of her work for the exhibition, called “Insidious Restlessness”.)

(And thanks to Colin Jones, former visiting fellow at Clare Hall, Cambridge, for telling me about the twitterstorm.)

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