My Oxford Comma-Induced Existential Crisis

Credit: Thinkstock

Credit: Thinkstock

So I had this little piece on Oxford commas all planned out. I was going to attempt to strike that difficult balance of being humorous about grammar without seeming like a smug, self-satisfied dick. The title was loosely: “A Desperate Oxford-Comma-Related Plea To My Brilliant, Talented, and Hilarious Coeditors.” The piece was going to lay out why we need to include the Oxford comma as a part of Ravishly’s style guide. I was even going to go so far as to pull examples from my colleague’s writing (hence my fear of looking like an asshole, I have indeed been one in my discreet monitoring of articles for serial comma infractions) to illustrate some unnecessary ambiguity they’d invited by not utilizing everyone’s best friend, the Oxford comma.

But then in the midst of this piece, something . . . happened. I thought about Oxford commas too long and as a result, I’ve been plunged into the dark depths of existential angst.

The crux of the matter is the utter incongruousness of my deep and abiding love for the Oxford comma. Verily, my passion for it is almost unmatched. A few weeks ago, I went to a party and got drunk while talking, literally exclusively, about the merits of the serial comma. I considered this a perfect evening.

I’ve asserted, with conviction, that I wouldn’t be able to date anyone who was against the Oxford comma. I might be able to make exceptions for those who are neutral on the topic. But those who fall on the other side of this invisible grammatical Rubicon? It’s unthinkable that we could have a serious union.

I’m not even being hyperbolic. This is how I feel. Borrowing from common fifth grade parlance to describe my relationship with the Oxford comma, you could even say I "like it like it." And speaking of romantic feelings, some of—and I mean this without a shred of irony or exaggeration—the hottest flirting seshes I’ve ever had were about . . . grammar (I’m not so parochial in my written-language-related interests as to only be emotionally invested in the Oxford comma—forsooth, I’m obsessed with many aspects of grammar and words). Aforementioned hawt flirting fests concerned which cases of Latin nouns and adjectives were the best, punctuated by contemplations of favorite declensions and Roman characters from dog-eared grade school textbooks.

The only reason I’m copping to admittedly dorky and off-putting language-related turn-ons is because, while it may have taken over two and a half decades to get here, the only thing I now aspire to be is the realest version of myself I can muster. And it genuinely feels like my soul is being trampled every time I edit a piece and delete a serial comma.

Upon reflection, though, none of this makes any goddamned sense.

The matter of Oxford comma usage is a deeply contentious one among grammar hounds. But to be passionate about the issue at all—when huge swaths of the population couldn’t pinpoint a serial comma if one poked them in the eye—speaks to both intense nerdiness but also an acknowledgement and appreciation for rules and order. In a survey conducted by FiveThirtyEight about whether Americans preferred the Oxford comma or not, those who were for it were more likely to rank themselves as having “excellent” grammar. Merrill Perlman, a 25-year veteran of the New York Times and professor at Columbia Journalism School held that: "Many people who think they are good at grammar are good at following what they think are the rules: Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction, don’t end them with a preposition, etc."

But this isn’t me at all.

Elitism absolutely nauseate me. In gchats and over text message, I may as well be a LOL Cat; I do not take myself very seriously and don’t have an interest in starting to.

But most of all, beyond a strong moral code about striving to treat others with respect and kindness, I hate rules. I detest them—all forms of structure, really. By contrast, I thrive on ambiguity, spontaneity, and change.

Routine, on the other hand, makes me weep. And planning feels like a biological impossibility, like there’s something in my chemical makeup that prevents me from being able to execute it. Again, this is not an exaggeration. When I quit an old job in DC, and “planned” to backpack around Asia, that just meant I had nailed down the notional idea. It was beyond me to book anything beyond my first night at a hostel in Thailand—and I could barely do that. Within weeks of my (somehow, ultimately) jetting off, a friend said, totally exasperated at me:

“Kelley, you don’t just quit your job and get to Asia. Stop talking like you’re just going to end up there. You need a ticket. This is ridiculous!”

And when I told people I was going to Asia for anywhere from a week to nine months (in time to be back for a dear friend’s wedding), I wasn’t really kidding. I simply didn’t know if I’d like it or not and couldn’t begin to fathom a commitment until I got there and experienced it.

Similarly, I love hot yoga but I think I’m actually deriving negative benefits from the Bikram class I’ve taken a few times since I moved to California. This Bikram beast, it is not yoga. Instead, in contrast to the vinyasa flow classes I’d been taking, it’s a specific stream of vaguely yogic poses that are barked out by some militant, self-important Scandinavian instructor. It’s identical every class. It’s rote. It’s dull. And instead of finding inner peace, I only get in touch with my inner rage at the sheer monotony and unnecessary strictness of it all. I shall not be instructed when I can and cannot take a sip of water in a yoga class. I shall not. Instead I’ll go ahead and drink directly after being reminded that I shouldn’t be. Because screw that.

At the root of my rebellious water-drinking during Bikram is the same thing that girded and guided my relatively impromptu trip to Asia, where I literally made some decisions about where to head off to next based on pancake availability. I get a rush from violating arbitrary rules, of living without structure.

Much of my life would, um, not suggest this. On paper, my past fits a very specific—and in retrospect kind of gross—mold until about 2012: My high school record was sterling, I attended an elite university, I got an equally elite job in DC at a prestigious organization.

I was on track. I was making it. But, as discussed, I ultimately packed up my perfect, prestigious little life and, per my friend’s prodding, succeeded in booking a one-way ticket to Bangkok.

To pin this move solely on my hatred of structure, routine, and hierarchy—all of which were oppressively present in my life in DC (read: Pleasantville of the Universe)—would be reductionist and not entirely accurate. But to neglect the fact that leaving DC wasn’t at least somewhat a deeply satisfying middle finger to society’s expectations of me, of what someone “should” be doing, is to neglect history.

So why, then, does a shitshow who peaces to Asia for a week-to-nine-month trip she entirely failed to plan cling so tightly to one of the douchiest grammar constructions of all time?

After days of reflection, hours of typing, searching for answers in the connection between my fingers and keyboard, and, of course, a six pack . . . it dawned on me.

Spending time ruminating on why I love the Oxford comma is a waste of effing time. To contemplate why it doesn’t “fit” with the rest of me would be like devoting energies to figuring out why I love wearing Angry Birds shirts. There is no answer, I just do. Just like I love dancing on bar tops and small turtles. Taken together, does it all "make sense"? Who the hell can say! And devoting energies to figuring out if it does sounds a lot like engaging with the arbitrary structures and rules I so fervently dislike.

So maybe instead of attempting to construct a meaningful narrative about why I love a certain grammar construction, I should, you know, dive the hell into my life, letting it unfold as it will, while relishing all the weird little joys I find in it—including, of course, the rich, pure, and electric thrill of a perfectly deployed Oxford comma.

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