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June 29, 2011 12:24 PM   Subscribe

The Oxford writing and style guide no longer advocates the use of the serial/Oxford comma.
posted by The Devil Tesla (419 comments total) 61 users marked this as a favorite

 
Turns out, no one gave a fuck about an Oxford comma.
posted by 2bucksplus at 12:27 PM on June 29, 2011 [29 favorites]


Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma, serial comma or Harvard comma?
posted by mkultra at 12:27 PM on June 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


I've made sandwiches for everyone who comments. There's tuna, ham and cheese.
posted by perhapses at 12:27 PM on June 29, 2011 [246 favorites]


Sweet. AP style 4 life, yo.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 12:27 PM on June 29, 2011 [10 favorites]


For this, I'd like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
posted by griphus at 12:28 PM on June 29, 2011 [231 favorites]


I guess his parents really were Ayn Rand and God.
posted by eriko at 12:28 PM on June 29, 2011 [16 favorites]


Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma, serial comma or Harvard comma?

Not this honey badger.
posted by Devils Rancher at 12:28 PM on June 29, 2011 [14 favorites]


I will NEVER, EVER, EVER STOP.
posted by vorfeed at 12:29 PM on June 29, 2011 [63 favorites]


Embarrassingly, this is the most unsettling thing I've heard all day.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:29 PM on June 29, 2011 [70 favorites]


But they just made so much Sense to me! Especially in cases where two of the items were already linked by "and", like the example "They had a choice between croissants, bacon and eggs, and muesli."

Or parents Ayn Rand and God, indeed!
posted by ldthomps at 12:29 PM on June 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


No, no, a thousand times no! They can have my Oxford comma when I run out of things to list, and not a moment before!


perhapses : There's tuna, ham and cheese.

Exactly! So, how many types of sandwich does that give us?

The Oxford comma serves a purpose. Not just a matter of decoration.
posted by pla at 12:29 PM on June 29, 2011 [67 favorites]


Okay, now that I got the obligatory comma joke out:

But when a comma would assist in the meaning of the sentence or helps to resolve ambiguity, it can be used – especially where one of the items in the list is already joined by ‘and’...
posted by griphus at 12:29 PM on June 29, 2011 [10 favorites]


NO, NO, NO, NO, NO, AND NO. And also: WRONG.
posted by shiu mai baby at 12:30 PM on June 29, 2011 [12 favorites]


You can have my Oxford comma when you pry it from my cold, dead, and pedantic fingers.
posted by goethean at 12:31 PM on June 29, 2011 [90 favorites]


.

Wait, I mean: .,

No: .,,

Or: ,:.

... ?

Regardless, I will never give you up, serial comma. You make sentences sound right in my head.
posted by little cow make small moo at 12:31 PM on June 29, 2011 [5 favorites]


That's it. I am now, officially, dead inside.
posted by phunniemee at 12:31 PM on June 29, 2011 [7 favorites]


I will NEVER, EVER, EVER STOP.

You realize, of course, that there is no Oxford comma in that sentence, right?
posted by asnider at 12:31 PM on June 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


perhapses : There's tuna, ham and cheese.

Exactly! So, how many types of sandwich does that give us?


It's one, ask your server for a THC.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 12:32 PM on June 29, 2011 [18 favorites]


Now I know there's a name for that thing I never used anyway.
posted by tommasz at 12:32 PM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


How could Oxford get the Oxford comma wrong? Of course you should use one.

Also, "serial/Oxford" is a vulgar construction. Tut, tut.
posted by facetious at 12:32 PM on June 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


This is the University of Oxford's internal style guide for "branding" and press releases. It makes sense that they would follow journalistic style.

There is no indication that the Oxford Style Manual, used by Oxford University Press, has changed.
posted by grouse at 12:33 PM on June 29, 2011 [104 favorites]


This is like the first time as a kid when I realized that my dad was wrong about something.
posted by SpacemanStix at 12:33 PM on June 29, 2011 [5 favorites]


So, how many types of sandwich does that give us?

Well, it couldn't be two, since there's no "and."

Of course, it's possible there are only tuna sandwiches, and he's calling me by the derogatory nickname "ham and cheese." In which case I demand satisfaction.
posted by decagon at 12:34 PM on June 29, 2011 [26 favorites]


Without the serial comma, life is meaningless, dull and vapid.

[I mean, how can you read that sentence above without absofuckinglutely needing the serial comma?]
posted by perhapses at 12:34 PM on June 29, 2011 [7 favorites]


Protip: Making a sentence with a lot of commas doesn't mean you're using an Oxford comma.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:35 PM on June 29, 2011 [20 favorites]


I might not write it, but I can think it all I want.
posted by klausman at 12:35 PM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


> There is no indication that the Oxford Style Manual, used by Oxford University Press, has changed.

Oh god, I feel stupid. Mods notified.
posted by The Devil Tesla at 12:38 PM on June 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


I'm glad grouse clarified. This was actually making me sad.
posted by OmieWise at 12:39 PM on June 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


The link itself says it is still cool to use the serial comma when it clarifies the sentence.

Hell, I'll just put the relevant info here:

As a general rule, do not use the serial/Oxford comma: so write ‘a, b and c’ not ‘a, b, and c’. But when a comma would assist in the meaning of the sentence or helps to resolve ambiguity, it can be used – especially where one of the items in the list is already joined by ‘and’:

They had a choice between croissants, bacon and eggs, and muesli.

There are some cases where the comma is clearly obligatory:

The bishops of Canterbury, Oxford, Bath and Wells, and Salisbury

posted by Loto at 12:39 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


There is no indication that the Oxford Style Manual, used by Oxford University Press, has changed.

HOW DARE YOU DENY US OUR OUTRAGE, FURY, AND PEDANTIC INDIGNATION!
posted by Tomorrowful at 12:40 PM on June 29, 2011 [12 favorites]


It's one, ask your server for a THC.

And after the THC I'll want to eat the tuna, ham and cheese sandwich?
posted by ODiV at 12:40 PM on June 29, 2011 [18 favorites]


Wrong, wrong, and wrong.
posted by Forktine at 12:41 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


tuna, ham and cheese
parents, Ayn Rand and God.
The Oxford comma serves a purpose.


It cracks me up when people so desperately want to express outrage or show how clever they are that they make it stunningly obvious they didn't actually read the linked article:
As a general rule, do not use the serial/Oxford comma: so write ‘a, b and c’ not ‘a, b, and c’. But when a comma would assist in the meaning of the sentence or helps to resolve ambiguity, it can be used – especially where one of the items in the list is already joined by ‘and’:
They had a choice between croissants, bacon and eggs, and muesli.
There are some cases where the comma is clearly obligatory:
The bishops of Canterbury, Oxford, Bath and Wells, and Salisbury
I mean, come on.
posted by dersins at 12:41 PM on June 29, 2011 [12 favorites]


This thread is making me hungry.
posted by goethean at 12:41 PM on June 29, 2011 [5 favorites]


Goddamit, goddamit and goddamit, Loto.
posted by dersins at 12:42 PM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


I love serial commas and will continue to use them in all my documents, personal projects, and correspondence.
posted by Miko at 12:42 PM on June 29, 2011 [8 favorites]


Strunk & White are surely rolling in their graves.
posted by fairmettle at 12:42 PM on June 29, 2011


when a comma would assist in the meaning of the sentence or helps to resolve ambiguity, it can be used

The thing is, I think - and a lot of editors think - that the serial comma almost always helps resolve ambiguity.
posted by Miko at 12:43 PM on June 29, 2011 [26 favorites]


This is the University of Oxford's internal style guide for "branding" and press releases.

Oh! Who cares, then. Thanks for clarifying!
posted by Miko at 12:44 PM on June 29, 2011


Boy George will be pissed.
posted by Elmore at 12:44 PM on June 29, 2011 [15 favorites]




Embarrassingly, this is the most unsettling thing I've heard all day.
posted by shakespeherian at 3:29 PM on June 29 [5 favorites +] [!]


I would wholeheartedly agree, except I just heard someone tried to set the Prospect Park Q ticket agent booth on fire this morning.
posted by sweetkid at 12:44 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


If you omit the comma (as in a, b and c), you are telling the reader to link b and c together while separating them from a. It doesn't matter that there are many examples where the comma would be necessary for clarification. On preview, what Miko said.
posted by perhapses at 12:44 PM on June 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


These things are up to the individual. Its key to do it the same way every time, no matter what way that is. I write a lot of formal letters.


For example, I only use the passive when I need it. I'm ruthless. You know why? To avoid blame:

"unfortunately, the letter was misplaced." See? Its like magic. The letter misplaced itself and me or my client had nothing to do with it.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:44 PM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


The clarification by grouse is quite reassuring. I definitely admit that I at times make various grammatical errors, including but not limited to the misuse of commas, but the Oxford comma seems to be a relatively easy rule to learn. Having to decide when and where to use the comma in regards to lists seems like it would cause more problems than it would solve.
posted by vuron at 12:44 PM on June 29, 2011


grouse: " There is no indication that the Oxford Style Manual, used by Oxford University Press, has changed."

*shakes fist at The Devil Tesla*
posted by zarq at 12:47 PM on June 29, 2011


First they came for the double-space after a sentence and I said nothing. Then they came for the Oxford comma and I made this comment.
posted by m@f at 12:47 PM on June 29, 2011 [28 favorites]


All right. I'm putting the guns back in their cases.
posted by perhapses at 12:47 PM on June 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


The Oxford writing and style guide no longer advocates the use of the serial/Oxford comma.

Then the Oxford writing and style guide is wrong. Sorry.
posted by kafziel at 12:47 PM on June 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


I prefer to use the Grinnell comma, also known as "the Harvard comma of the Midwest."
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:49 PM on June 29, 2011 [27 favorites]


Commas are dead apostrophes, littering the battlefield of prose, as though nobody cares to bury the fallen.
posted by Jehan at 12:50 PM on June 29, 2011 [14 favorites]


While I have them out, I guess I'll clean the Remington, Smith and Wesson, and Winchester.
posted by perhapses at 12:51 PM on June 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.
posted by Dr-Baa at 12:51 PM on June 29, 2011 [24 favorites]


grouse wins.

but:

Having to decide when and where to use the comma in regards to lists seems like it would cause more problems than it would solve.

it's really not that hard.

1. don't use the serial comma.
2. is there ambiguity because you didn't use the serial comma?
3. then add the serial comma.

The thing is, I think - and a lot of editors think - that the serial comma almost always helps resolve ambiguity.

I went to the circus and saw lions, tigers and bears.

If you omit the comma (as in a, b and c), you are telling the reader to link b and c together while separating them from a.

Oh come on now. Honestly, in the above example, does a (normal) reader imply any difference between:

I went to the circus and saw lions, tigers and bears.

and

I went to the circus and saw tigers, bears and lions.
posted by mrgrimm at 12:52 PM on June 29, 2011 [7 favorites]


There is no indication that the Oxford Style Manual, used by Oxford University Press, has changed.

*faints with relief*
posted by rtha at 12:53 PM on June 29, 2011 [7 favorites]


Being raised in a good union home associated with the pulp and paper industry, I will continue artificially inflate pulp demand by using the Oxford comma, the double space after the end of sentences, and spelling 'labour' with a 'u'. (Not to mention adding needless ellipses to all my comments...)
posted by Capt. Renault at 12:54 PM on June 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


I am vindicated!

FWIW, AP and Times style already go without.

And Chicago? We're coming for you.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 12:54 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


mrgrimm - maybe you are addressing the tigers and the bears, telling them that you saw lions at the zoo.
posted by muddgirl at 12:55 PM on June 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


Being a proud American, I prefer the Oshkosh Comma, which is used to denote lists of lumber, heavy equipment, and bib overalls.
posted by Legomancer at 12:55 PM on June 29, 2011 [6 favorites]


The Oxford comma is almost never used in British English. There's nothing new here (and the linked document is just an internal style guide for the university, as pointed out above).
posted by beniamino at 12:56 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


They had a choice between croissants, bacon and eggs, and muesli.

What sort of breakfast fascists would only allow you to have bacon and eggs together when clearly they have both and could easily be ingested independently of one another. WHAT, YOU WON'T MAKE ME A BACON CROISSANT?
posted by jimmythefish at 12:56 PM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


I would wholeheartedly agree, except I just heard someone tried to set the Prospect Park Q ticket agent booth on fire this morning.

From the outside?
posted by griphus at 12:56 PM on June 29, 2011


I honestly don't understand why anyone is against the Oxford comma. Is that one extra comma environmentally unfriendly?
posted by muddgirl at 12:56 PM on June 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


Hurrah! When even the university itself ignores it, it can't be long for the style guide proper.

Also, man is there a lot of wrong up in this thread, fooling around with "obvious" truths.
posted by bonaldi at 12:56 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


They had a choice between croissants, bacon and eggs, and muesli.

bacon barm, please.
posted by clavdivs at 12:56 PM on June 29, 2011


Oh come on now. Honestly, in the above example, does a (normal) reader imply any difference between:

I went to the circus and saw lions, tigers and bears.

and

I went to the circus and saw tigers, bears and lions.


Every time I see a sentence like that, I get a little confused, because I see those last two linked together, and when I go back and read it as sound in my head, I hear no pause there, and I remain confused for a second or thereabouts while my error correction circuitry boots up and fixes the problem so I can continue. It's not about confusion in cases like the ones you propose, it's just that mental backtracking is required to finish parsing the syntax tree because an important branching cue has been left out.
posted by Xezlec at 12:56 PM on June 29, 2011 [31 favorites]


These new-fangled change's rattle me. I can remember when service station's actually pumped gas for us and washed our windshield's.
Next thing you know they'll tell us that grocers apostrophe's are no longer necessary.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 12:57 PM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


Having to decide when and where to use the comma in regards to lists seems like it would cause more problems than it would solve.

it's really not that hard.

1. don't use the serial comma.
2. is there ambiguity because you didn't use the serial comma?
3. then add the serial comma.


The thing is, that answer to 2 is always yes. How about this?

1. use the serial comma

Is there ever a downside to this?
posted by kafziel at 12:57 PM on June 29, 2011 [25 favorites]


I honestly don't understand why anyone is against the Oxford comma. Is that one extra comma environmentally unfriendly?
For those of us who use God's own comma style, it leads to a parsing fault when reading. You read an Oxford comma, and you're expecting at least another two items in the list to come. Then, when you only get one, you stumble. Stupid bloody comma.
posted by bonaldi at 12:58 PM on June 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


Oh no, right before fourth of July weekend. Somewhere a BBQ is going to devolve into a fight with an ostensibly mild mannered, tweed clad individual ripping a colleague's throat out with his teeth.
posted by BrotherCaine at 12:58 PM on June 29, 2011 [8 favorites]


I will NEVER, EVER, EVER STOP.

You realize, of course, that there is no Oxford comma in that sentence, right?


Yes, but I still thought it would be sarcastic, amusing, and fun.
posted by vorfeed at 12:59 PM on June 29, 2011 [5 favorites]


FWIW, AP and Times style already go without.

Wait, who are FWIW and what do they -- oh.
posted by Xezlec at 12:59 PM on June 29, 2011 [32 favorites]


Oxford commas have better rhythm.

Also, I can't tell you how many times I've had people edit them out when they look at my stuff. People seem to have a very visceral reaction to them. (I just put them back in. If I use an Oxford comma, I'm bloody well using it for a reason and fuck the style guide.)

As for the shouts out to AP style, remember that AP stipulated "web site" instead of "website" until just this year, and has a whole shitload of really very deeply stupid rules about how you should put numbers into prose.
posted by lodurr at 1:00 PM on June 29, 2011 [7 favorites]


it's just that mental backtracking is required to finish parsing the syntax tree because an important branching cue has been left out.

Yup, except with "a superfluous branching cue has been added". And since both positions are valid and based on expectations and habituation, I foresee this being a never-ending battle, so epic as to make vi vs emacs look like a pillow fight.
posted by bonaldi at 1:00 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


NOTE that in the defining clause either ‘which’ or ‘that’ may be used:
The research was carried out with a thoroughness that was enviable
The research was carried out with a thoroughness which was enviable


I still don't like this. That and which shouldn't be interchangeable.
posted by emelenjr at 1:03 PM on June 29, 2011 [7 favorites]


mrgrimm - maybe you are addressing the tigers and the bears, telling them that you saw lions at the zoo.

I suppose "ambiguity" will always be subjective.

Every time I see a sentence like that, I get a little confused, because I see those last two linked together, and when I go back and read it as sound in my head, I hear no pause there, and I remain confused for a second or thereabouts while my error correction circuitry boots up and fixes the problem so I can continue.

You must have a hard time reading newspapers.

I honestly don't understand why anyone is against the Oxford comma. Is that one extra comma environmentally unfriendly?

I think most Americans have been taught AP style. I honestly don't see the ambiguity that some people do.
posted by mrgrimm at 1:03 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


AP stipulated "web site" instead of "website

I actually liked web site better. It's a site (location) on the web, and so it seems more parallel to other kinds of sites. "Historic site," "religious site," "memorial site," and so on. But then there's "campsite" which wouldn't leap out at me, so oh well.
posted by Miko at 1:04 PM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


Yup, except with "a superfluous branching cue has been added".

Nonsense. You can ignore superfluous information. Missing information is a problem. I have to decide from context whether those two things that are visually linked are also linked conceptually.
posted by Xezlec at 1:04 PM on June 29, 2011


Can you complain about "web site" if you use "shout out"?
posted by kenko at 1:04 PM on June 29, 2011


Well it's damn well staying in our style guide. For the kind of writing I work with every day, that comma is absolutely necessary. You should see the multiple, nested series of complex items our SMEs crank out on demand.

Even after I've done my best with them, we need all the navigational markers through those sentences we can get. I'd color code clauses and add circles and arrows if I thought it would help.
posted by Naberius at 1:05 PM on June 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


I hate reading a sentence containing a list without an oxford comma. It sounds like a record skipping with the last two items.

Come on. "Lions, tigers and bears. Oh My!" just doesn't sound the same.
posted by litnerd at 1:05 PM on June 29, 2011 [9 favorites]


You must have a hard time reading newspapers.

Yes I do, and that's not the only reason why. News writing sucks.
posted by Xezlec at 1:05 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


I think most Americans have been taught AP style. I honestly don't see the ambiguity that some people do.

What do you think of the Robert Frost example in your link, though? To me, this is almost the final word in favor of using the comma. Otherwise, we really do not know how to take that line at all.
posted by SpacemanStix at 1:07 PM on June 29, 2011


I have always used the serial comma. I did not go to Oxford.

It has never been a problem until, literally, two days ago. I submitted my first draft of a new web site design for a new dentists' office that goes by the name of the three doctors. I asked what their first impression was and was immediately harangued that I had used a serial comma in their list of names.

I never knew that this was such a contentious issue before that. Who knew, so what, and I'm not changing.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 1:07 PM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


I've made sandwiches for everyone who comments. There's tuna, ham and cheese.

I'd, like, the, tuna sandwhich, please,
posted by Greg Nog at 1:10 PM on June 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


I prefer a nice cereal coma. Mmmmm, sugar!
posted by blue_beetle at 1:10 PM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


,
posted by WinnipegDragon at 1:11 PM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


They had a choice between croissants, bacon and eggs, and muesli.

♪♫ One of these thing is not like the others, one of these things just doesn't belong... ♫♪
posted by Splunge at 1:12 PM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


This is bad news for Hamilton Joe Frank and Reynolds.
posted by Herodios at 1:16 PM on June 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


Nonsense. You can ignore superfluous information.

Only once you've decided it is superfluous, and since at the time you hit it the comma looks like relevant information, you then have to go back and re-categorise it. Hence the problem.
posted by bonaldi at 1:17 PM on June 29, 2011


Hey guys, since the Oxford writing and style guide has decide it no long wishes to be relevant, I'm happy to announce that I'm creating the Winsome writing and style guide to fill the void left in its stead.

It's basically the same as the Oxford writing and style guide, only with Oxford commas. Which shall henceforth be referred to as Winsome commas, for reasons obvious to all. Revel in your correctness, fellow pedants!
posted by The Winsome Parker Lewis at 1:19 PM on June 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


And since both positions are valid and based on expectations and habituation, I foresee this being a never-ending battle, so epic as to make vi vs emacs look like a pillow fight.

Pretty much this. Of course, this never stopped advocates of modal commands vs. key chords from engaging in endless arguments over which one was better, involving a fair bit of bad usability and armchair cognitive psychology.

Personally, I only notice a difference if I'm wearing an editor hat. And I only put that on if I'm paid to do so.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:22 PM on June 29, 2011


I've been doing this ever since I took writing courses in German and never switched back because it seemed weird.
posted by dunkadunc at 1:22 PM on June 29, 2011


Only once you've decided it is superfluous, and since at the time you hit it the comma looks like relevant information, you then have to go back and re-categorise it. Hence the problem.

Except it's never superfluous, because it is a clear indicator that the last and second-last items in the list are to be treated as separate items. Or more specifically, when an item in a list is followed by a comma, you can except that that is the end of that item and the beginning of a new one.

Leaving the comma out creates ambiguity. Putting the comma in removes ambiguity. There are countless examples of instances where skipping the comma produces widely variant interpretations of identical syntax, and I defy you to find a situation where the use of a serial comma lessens readability. The positions are not both valid.
posted by kafziel at 1:24 PM on June 29, 2011 [6 favorites]


Without the serial comma, life is meaningless, dull and vapid.

[I mean, how can you read that sentence above without absofuckinglutely needing the serial comma?]


Just the way it is written, without any oxford comma. Are you confused about what you're talkiong about or am I not understanding your point?

No matter, even if it's just an internal guide, this is the best news I've heard all day. The oxford comma is simply atrocious style and almost never needed for clarification. It's like spinach stuck in the teeth of the English language. Floss that godawful shit out.
posted by Navelgazer at 1:26 PM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


I understand why there's no need for an Oxford comma in writing in and of itself. That extra comma doesn't really add anything when I'm reading a sentence. But I'm of the opinion that writing should, on some level, approximate human speech. If I'm speaking to you I'm going to pause before listing the last item. This is why I use the Oxford comma and always shall.
posted by Doublewhiskeycokenoice at 1:26 PM on June 29, 2011 [9 favorites]


What do you think of the Robert Frost example in your link, though?

That's easy. We should use whatever text he actually wrote, i.e. if Frost didn't use a serial comma back then, don't add one.

Honestly, I don't think that the versions connote different meanings, though.

(a) “The woods are lovely, dark and deep“
versus
(b) “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep“


In both cases, the woods are:

* lovely
* dark
* deep

I'm a formalist by nature, so I take the final product as the final product, and I don't see how anyone can assume that in version (a), Frost wants to indicate that "dark and deep" apply to "lovely" - regardless of the comma, I read all three descriptors to apply to "the woods" in both (a) and (b).

I assume the argument that, in (a), "dark and deep" apply to "lovely" and not "the woods" is solely based on the fact that if all 3 applied to "the woods," Frost would have used a serial comma, which was a grammar rule he followed (I do not know).

So, really, it doesn't really matter whether the serial comma is used or not, but that everyone follow the same rules. The march is clearly moving away from the serial comma, because most of us think it's generally unnecessary.

(I agree with the commentator who said that if he wanted to connote that the loveliness was dark and deep he should have used an em-dash.)
posted by mrgrimm at 1:27 PM on June 29, 2011


The oxford comma is simply atrocious style and almost never needed for clarification.

"We're going to have some guests for dinner. The Faerbers, Michael and Yolanda."

How many extra places do you set? 2, or 4?
posted by kafziel at 1:28 PM on June 29, 2011 [7 favorites]


Without the serial comma, life is meaningless, dull and vapid.

[I mean, how can you read that sentence above without absofuckinglutely needing the serial comma?]


Can you explain the ambiguity there?
posted by mrgrimm at 1:28 PM on June 29, 2011


I honestly don't understand why anyone is against the Oxford comma.

On a textual level, I find the serial comma to be unnecessarily stiff; it's punctuation that doesn't trust the reader to determine intent. On a syntactic level, it makes me expect more branching than the sentence actually has. On a practical level, when you're trying to kern text on a design-heavy or thin-columned page, extra commas can and do crap things up.

Nobody is suggesting the wholesale abandonment of the serial comma. They're just suggesting that it be used as needed. If the sentence needs an extra comma for clarity's sake, then by all means, add one (e.g., "the sandwich options are ham and cheddar, turkey and Swiss, and prosciutto and mozzarella"). If, however, you're writing a simple sentence that doesn't require extra parsing, leave it out (e.g., "lions, tigers and bears).

Then again, I also begin sentences with conjunctions, and wish we could agree to use "they" as a gender-neutral singular pronoun.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 1:28 PM on June 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


"We're going to have some guests for dinner. The Faerbers, Michael and Yolanda."

How many extra places do you set? 2, or 4?


How many Faerbers are there? If there are 2 Faerbers, I set 4 places.

In this case, of course, you've created (unnecessary) ambiguity, so a serial comma could be appropriate.
posted by mrgrimm at 1:30 PM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm just going to keep on using them.
posted by aganders3 at 1:32 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Nobody this side of the Atlantic follows Oxford style, as far as I know.

The serial comma helps you, the reader, parse a sentence so you don't have to puzzle it out yourself. And using it on an as-needed basis violates copyediting directive #1: Be Consistent.
posted by Camofrog at 1:33 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


On a textual level, I find the serial comma to be unnecessarily stiff; it's punctuation that doesn't trust the reader to determine intent.

Yeah, right.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 1:33 PM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


Can you explain the ambiguity there?

I might be wanting to say that life is meaningless and, as an aside, highlight that by defining what I mean. In that case, the dull and vapid are modifying the term meaningless. Or I might be simply listing three items in a series.
posted by perhapses at 1:33 PM on June 29, 2011


You realize that this is just more Oxford snobbery, right? It's so you can tell the difference between journalism and real writing.
posted by sexyrobot at 1:33 PM on June 29, 2011


Nobody this side of the Atlantic follows Oxford style, as far as I know.

By this side, I mean the right side. By the right side, I mean the west side.
posted by Camofrog at 1:34 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Except it's never superfluous, because it is a clear indicator that the last and second-last items in the list are to be treated as separate items.

In the context of expecting only Oxford commas, it does. But in the other world, it is either expected because you're already in a potentially ambiguous situation (having encountered a mid-list and, for instance), or it is unexpected because it should signify at least two remaining items in the list.

I defy you to find a situation where the use of a serial comma lessens readability.
When an unambiguous list is being read by a non-Oxford-indoctrinated reader.

The positions are not both valid.
The positions amount to preference and expectation, hence they are necessarily valid. If you'd care to show the great prescriptivist authority that says usage shall only be valid where it affords globally reduced ambiguity, then you might have something.

Until then, be less of an arse-ache and consider there may be many editors and readers in this thread who hold a position differing to yours equally strongly but aren't being quite as inflexible about it.
posted by bonaldi at 1:34 PM on June 29, 2011 [5 favorites]


On a textual level, I find the serial comma to be unnecessarily stiff; it's punctuation that doesn't trust the reader to determine intent. On a syntactic level, it makes me expect more branching than the sentence actually has. On a practical level, when you're trying to kern text on a design-heavy or thin-columned page, extra commas can and do crap things up.

Nobody is suggesting the wholesale abandonment of the serial comma. They're just suggesting that it be used as needed. If the sentence needs an extra comma for clarity's sake, then by all means, add one (e.g., "the sandwich options are ham and cheddar, turkey and Swiss, and prosciutto and mozzarella"). If, however, you're writing a simple sentence that doesn't require extra parsing, leave it out (e.g., "lions, tigers and bears).
posted by evidenceofabsence at 1:28 PM on June 29 [+] [!]


Is there a word for the reverse of eponysterical?

A system of writing governed by the serial comma includes the rule that the lack of said comma has meaning. In my above dinner party example, you use the comma to indicate that neither Michael nor Yolanda are the Faerbers, and you leave it out to indicate that they are one and the same.

Without the use of the comma, its absence is meaningless, because both meanings are expressed with identical punctuation. A comma there always means list item, the lack of comma always means elaboration. If you use the comma only when necessary to avoid ambiguity, you still need to use it every time, because not using it is what creates a permanent state of ambiguity.
posted by kafziel at 1:35 PM on June 29, 2011 [5 favorites]


I love the serial comma. Seriously. It's just one of those things I feel really strongly about, which I know is weird, but there you are. I find it adds structure and symmetry to a sentence even when it's not necessary for the meaning.

So, in short, I'm keepin' my comma of choice and the Oxford style guide can suck it.
posted by jess at 1:36 PM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


Personally I try to write in such a way that I'm most likely to be understood. This is mostly because I'm not like a super good writer, and people have misinterpreted me countless times. That means serial commas and logical punctuation and over explaining and all that. I switch it up if I need to in certain contexts, but that doesn't happen that often.
posted by The Devil Tesla at 1:36 PM on June 29, 2011


The thing is that in just about anything places where style is mentioned, you are directed to use the style book preferred by your work, college, or publisher, since they often differ from each other. A glaring change that I have seen: what would have been this in print (paper):
Ten Items for Consideration has now become on the net 10 Items for Consideration...the title now always uses numbers rather than letters, which was always, we were told, required for titles.
The more things change, the more they alter
posted by Postroad at 1:37 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


In this thread disillusioned english-lit graduates experience simultaneous orgasm and feel the need to share it with the world.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 1:37 PM on June 29, 2011


I'm so glad this thread happened, because when the shit goes down, I want to know who my friends are. Long live the serial comma! Oh, yeah, baby!
posted by perhapses at 1:39 PM on June 29, 2011 [7 favorites]


SIGH. I have started so many interoffice brawls over the oxford comma (I, like all right-thinking people, am pro-comma).
posted by elizardbits at 1:40 PM on June 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


Nobody this side of the Atlantic follows Oxford style, as far as I know.

I know a lot of Americans who use the Oxford comma. When I'm getting paid, I use the style guide I'm getting paid to use, but in my personal writing I find the Oxford comma clarifies some otherwise unclear points. I don't care about the editorial fashion when I want to make something clear.
posted by immlass at 1:40 PM on June 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


How many extra places do you set? 2, or 4?

Use the serial comma when needed, for clarity. That said, that need for further clarity may be the result of a sloppy parallelism that could stand to be restated.

Presumably, the reason your speaker feels comfortable using such vague language is that they expect the listener to have outside information (the first names of the Faerbers, for instance), which will help them parse that sentence.

Because of its clunkiness, I can't picture that sentence showing up outside of dialogue. In a newspaper or magazine, you'd say "Michael and Yolanda Faerber," or "the Faerbers, Michael Surname, and Yolanda Apellido," and be done with the problem entirely.

Not to mention the fact that "the Faerbers" is something of an old-timey construct. I mean, really, you know them well enough to have them over to dinner, but you reduce them as a marital or familial unit, under a single (and presumably, paternal) last name?
posted by evidenceofabsence at 1:41 PM on June 29, 2011 [6 favorites]


Oxford, Strunk and White, and the AP are wrong.

Or rather, I would suggest that they are overzealous. Unless anyone has solid research on which style improves reading comprehension and speed, or which style unedited writers prefer (not a great basis IMHO), why not be officially agnostic about it?
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 1:42 PM on June 29, 2011


I know a lot of Americans who use the Oxford comma.

So do I. But I don't know of any publication that actively uses the Oxford Style Guide.
posted by Camofrog at 1:42 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Without the use of the comma, its absence is meaningless, because both meanings are expressed with identical punctuation.

Wrong. In a non-serial world, there are at least two punctuation possibilities for that sentence:
The Fabers (Michael and Yolanda),
vs
The Fabers, Michael, and Yolanda.

"The Fabers, Michael and Yolanda" is not valid in a non-serial world, because it is ambiguous. And hence either needs a comma or needs re-cast.

Do you people think that non-Oxfordists just let ambiguous sentences trot on past as somehow valid? Setting up straw-men ambiguous sentences that wouldn't be acceptable in a non-Oxford world and purporting them as somehow proving the Oxford's necessity is just moronic.
posted by bonaldi at 1:43 PM on June 29, 2011 [8 favorites]


"We're going to have some guests for dinner. The Faerbers, Michael and Yolanda."

How many extra places do you set? 2, or 4?
posted by kafziel at 9:28 PM on June 29


Contrived ambiguity, which could be avoided in numerous ways as appropriate. E.g.

- We're going to have four guests for dinner: The Faerbers, Michael and Yolanda.

- We're going to have two guests for dinner: Michael and Yolanda Faerber.

Etc.
posted by Decani at 1:45 PM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


Judging from the tenor of conversation here, the post title is wrong. War is indeed not over.

Oxford commas forever!
posted by grubi at 1:46 PM on June 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


Style guides are written, and chosen, for the purpose of introducing consistency.

Why, why, why would you ever willingly choose a rule that include "sometimes this, sometimes that" when a rule that says "always" actually works? Not using the serial comma can cause confusion, including the serial never causes confusion.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 1:49 PM on June 29, 2011 [6 favorites]


Yes, you could rephrase the sentence to avoid having to decide whether to use a comma. However, the issue here is about whether or not to use the comma, not whether you can rewrite everything to not use it.

The sentence without the comma is unambiguous in a world where people correctly understand the comma's importance.
posted by kafziel at 1:49 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Being a computer programmer, I'm going to go for logical consistency and keep on using the comma, always. I had not known until now that there was any question about this being the correct way to format lists.

I'm also going to keep on putting the comma outside the quotation marks, when the comma is not a part of the text being quoted.

Style guide, pfooey. I gotcher style guide right here.
posted by Mars Saxman at 1:50 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


But I don't know of any publication that actively uses the Oxford Style Guide.

That's not at all the same thing as saying nobody (individually or in a non-Oxford professional style guide) uses the serial comma on this side of the Atlantic. Even saying that the comma is not a common journalistic convention isn't the same thing as saying nobody uses the comma.
posted by immlass at 1:51 PM on June 29, 2011


I signed up for MF just to comment.

We will never give up the comma!!
posted by taekjinchang at 1:51 PM on June 29, 2011 [15 favorites]


(a)Without the serial comma, life is meaningless, dull and vapid.
(b)Without the serial comma, life is meaningless, dull, and vapid.

(a)The woods are lovely, dark and deep
(b)The woods are lovely, dark, and deep


I have to say, without the comma, as in (a), the last two items definitely become more associated with one another, instead of, as in (b), simply being in a list. To me it sounds like:

Without the comma, life is meaningless...dull and vapid.
The woods are lovely...dark and deep
posted by sexyrobot at 1:52 PM on June 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


But I don't know of any publication that actively uses the Oxford Style Guide.

That's not at all the same thing as saying nobody (individually or in a non-Oxford professional style guide) uses the serial comma on this side of the Atlantic. Even saying that the comma is not a common journalistic convention isn't the same thing as saying nobody uses the comma.


I know. What I said was "I don't know of any publication that actively uses the Oxford Style Guide," and that's a fact.
posted by Camofrog at 1:54 PM on June 29, 2011


Don't you people realize how arrogant you all sound? Come on, these Oxford writers are experts; this is what they do for a living. If you're really going to argue with them about this you should probably just stop writing right now. </hamburger>
posted by OverlappingElvis at 1:56 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


I can't imagine a world without a serial comma. It's the foundation for our sense of morality.
posted by perhapses at 1:57 PM on June 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


10 Items for Consideration.

AP style uses numerals for 10 and above. With some exceptions, of course. Nobody is going to insist that you say "1,000,000 trees" instead of "a million trees." Generally, AP errs on the side of smaller words and breaking things up, since it works better when laying text into columns.

It's all a matter of preference and practical consideration. On a personal level, I'm a comma minimalist. As a student beholden to the MLA, I used the serial comma. As a freelancer, my duty varies from publication to publication.

The style guide is king.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 1:57 PM on June 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


Why, why, why would you ever willingly choose a rule that include "sometimes this, sometimes that" when a rule that says "always" actually works? Not using the serial comma can cause confusion, including the serial never causes confusion.

Why? Because style guides are about style, including panache and aesthetics and consistency, not just plodding parsability as if English were XML.

However, the issue here is about whether or not to use the comma, not whether you can rewrite everything to not use it.
No, the issue is about strawmen sentences designed specifically to imply that a serial comma is always necessary, when it evidently isn't.

The sentence without the comma is unambiguous in a world where people correctly understand the comma's importance.
That's nice, for the self-important. It's ambiguous in a world where people spurn extraneous punctation.

What I said was "I don't know of any publication that actively uses the Oxford Style Guide," and that's a fact.
In programming terms, the Oxford is generally subclassed, not used as-is. Most style guides I know start with a preamble something along the lines of "where there's no definition here, see Odwes" or similar.
posted by bonaldi at 1:59 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Oxford Comma traumatized me. While revising my thesis, my supervisor would write in extra commas, and my committee member would scratch them out. I'm an agnostic, so it didn't help that I basically used the comma at random.

Lesson: stick to a common style guide.
posted by auto-correct at 1:59 PM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


They can have my serial comma when they pry it from my cold, dead, and rotting hands!

Seriously, I like serial commas. I think they add an element of clarity to sentence construction (as griphus' example at the beginning of the thread shows), and I have no intention of ceasing my use of them. Ever.
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 2:01 PM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


Comma chameleons. They come and go. They come and go.
posted by benzenedream at 2:01 PM on June 29, 2011 [7 favorites]


wow. all this arguing over one little eyelash. blow on it and make a wish!
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 2:02 PM on June 29, 2011


I have to say, without the comma, as in (a), the last two items definitely become more associated with one another, instead of, as in (b), simply being in a list. To me it sounds like:

Without the comma, life is meaningless...dull and vapid.
The woods are lovely...dark and deep

Additionally, it's unclear whether dull and vapid (and dark and deep) are being used as predicate adjectives, further modifying life (and woods), or whether they are being used in apposition to meaningless (and lovely). These two uses are not identical and create entirely different senses, and meanings, which is unavoidable if we do not use the final comma. I don't want to play the game of wondering whether the author would have used a comma to eliminate ambiguity, if that is what was meant, or simply didn't attend to the question in the first place, because the ambiguity was not noticed.
posted by SpacemanStix at 2:02 PM on June 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'm guessing that there are two big divides, here: side of pond, and type of writing. I'd wager that serial comma absolutism is far more popular among literary Brits than American journalists.

not whether you can rewrite everything to not use it
That sentence reads as syntactically bungled to me, with or without the comma. I'd reword, rather than use the comma as a crutch. Why not use a consistent format for the name? If you really need to use "the Faerbers," why not put it last in the list? Again, personal preference.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 2:02 PM on June 29, 2011


The lack of the Oxford comma is not incorrect, per se. It's merely rude.
posted by Peach at 2:04 PM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


"At the circus, I saw lions, tigers and bears." Strikes me as a fabulously stupid example. First, because "lions, tigers, and bears" is an idiomatic expression in American English. Second, because the pragmatics of the sentence clearly identify the direct object as a serial list. Third, because the context clearly established in the opening prepositional phrase renders alternative groupings to be probably nonsense.

As is usually the case, the pedants combine absolute certainty with an incomplete understanding of the language they attempt to defend. Case in point:

"We're going to have some guests for dinner. The Faerbers, Michael and Yolanda."

This is an ugly mess that the serial comma wouldn't improve. Why is the list of guests delivered as a sentence fragment? Are Michael and Yolana the Faerbers, individual people, or a compound noun ala Penn and Teller? Why the use of this strained, ambiguous construction when, presumably, I'd probably know who they are if I'm setting a table for them? Even with an Oxford comma how many Faerbers can we expect? Does the invitation to the Faerbers include children and elder aunts? (And that's not getting into the potential mode violation of mixing last names and first names.) If the task is to enumerate the Faerbers, why not the idiomatic:

"We're going to have Michael and Yolanda Faerber as guests for dinner."

And the construction quickly breaks when you have more than two Faerbers.

"We're going to have some guests for dinner: the Faebers, Michael, Yolanda, and little billy."

For the record, I edit a house style that defaults to the serial comma. But nine times out of ten, its necessity is a cover for semantic and structural ugliness that should be torn apart and rebuilt.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:07 PM on June 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


I'm very pleased that we can stop refering to proper serial commas as "Oxford Commas." They are now just "serial commas."
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 2:08 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


The final authority on grammar and usage, @FakeAPStylebook, has weighed in.
posted by Legomancer at 2:10 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have to say, without the comma, as in (a), the last two items definitely become more associated with one another, instead of, as in (b), simply being in a list. To me it sounds like:

Without the comma, life is meaningless...dull and vapid.
The woods are lovely...dark and deep


And if the rule said "always use the serial comma" then you would know that the writer intended to group the last two items. Otherwise, it will always be a guess.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 2:12 PM on June 29, 2011


What I said was "I don't know of any publication that actively uses the Oxford Style Guide," and that's a fact.

Actually, Camofrog, what you said was, in the context of a discussion of the serial comma, "Nobody this side of the Atlantic follows Oxford style, as far as I know." It appeared that you were talking about "Oxford stye" in relation to the comma and not the entire style guide. Obviously your writing didn't clearly convey the meaning that you wished.

I leave the relationship of this sidebar to the serial comma discussion about clarity as an exercise for the reader.
posted by immlass at 2:15 PM on June 29, 2011


I got my commas from a prestigious non-accredited university.
posted by mazola at 2:15 PM on June 29, 2011


I had always assumed that the Oxford Manual of Style would specify writing in Latin, using only a raven's quill on a virgin sheepskin with the purest ink of India. I suspect my ideas of modern Britain may need some updating.
posted by doctor_negative at 2:19 PM on June 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


Can I still link to the Vampire Weekend song, even if it's not true?
posted by fyrebelley at 2:20 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've made sandwiches for everyone who comments. There's tuna, ham and cheese.
posted by perhapses

May I have 2 sandwiches, please? Ham, and cheese?
posted by Cranberry at 2:22 PM on June 29, 2011


KJS: But nine times out of ten, its necessity is a cover for semantic and structural ugliness that should be torn apart and rebuilt.

That's true for just about any prose you get in a business setting.

Anyway, it's overly strong.

As I've said, I generally prefer the rhythm of the oxford comma. But it's also more graceful than the strictly logical alternatives, such as using semicolons. Here's a trivial example, in two forms.

First, serial commas:

"I believe in a number of commonly-accepted things: truth and beauty, the armenian way, waffles, love and death, and hot dogs."

Next, semicolons:

"I believe in a number of commonly-accepted things: truth and beauty; the armenian way; waffles; love and death; and hot dogs."

It just feels different to me; if I were reading it aloud, I would read it differently, as semicolons are stronger stops than commas.

Having both tools available to you is of non-trivial benefit. Consider the following:

"... truth and beauty; the armenian way; waffles, love and death; and hot dogs."

Of course, you could eliminate the entire issue by using a bullet list.

Interestingly enough, MacInTalk appears to read commas and semicolons with exactly the same weight. That's dumb.
posted by lodurr at 2:22 PM on June 29, 2011


My parents, Mother Teresa and the Pope, thank you for this.
posted by hank at 2:23 PM on June 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


Also, I can't tell you how many times I've had people edit them out when they look at my stuff.... (I just put them back in. If I use an Oxford comma, I'm bloody well using it for a reason and fuck the style guide.)

If you're writing a book, fine. If, however, your work is being featured in a publication, it's going to look odd and sloppy if your essay is in a different style. It makes the publication look bad for being inconsistent. It can also make you look bad. (Often, the odd article out is the one that was submitted way past deadline, leaving little to no time for editing.)

If you're that serious about style and are writing for periodicals or journals, maybe check their house style out before submitting, rather than making more work* for the people saddled with closing an issue.

*Well, trying to make more work. Your changes probably aren't entered.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 2:24 PM on June 29, 2011


You all probably put two spaces after periods, too, don't you.
posted by me3dia at 2:24 PM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


No, but I do put question marks after questions.
posted by IndigoJones at 2:28 PM on June 29, 2011 [5 favorites]


When I've had discussions about the oxford comma in the past, it's become clear to me that some people parse sentences differently from teh way I do.

For example, several people have asserted here in this thread that serial commas don't add any shade of meaning in many cases. Here's an interesting example, for which at least one person has said they can't see the difference in meaning between the two differently-punctuated phrases:
(a) “The woods are lovely, dark and deep“
versus
(b) “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep“
The way that I parse [a] in this context is 'the loveliness of woods is a function of their being dark and deep.'

[b] is just a list of simple adjectives.
posted by lodurr at 2:31 PM on June 29, 2011 [10 favorites]


If, however, your work is being featured in a publication, it's going to look odd and sloppy if your essay is in a different style

You'd have this concern for an essay? Wow, we really, really don't agree on that (and possibly not on what constitutes an essay).

If you're in a newspaper or a magazine, fine; but in any context where writer's voice is meant to be allowed, writers should be allowed to punctuate however they feel is appropriate. And as far as I'm concerned, an essay without voice is a pretty damn dull essay.
posted by lodurr at 2:33 PM on June 29, 2011


No, but I do put question marks after questions.

You oughtn't if they're rhetorical.
posted by me3dia at 2:33 PM on June 29, 2011


You oughtn't if they're rhetorical.

This is another thing I routinely get corrected on.

In fiction.
posted by lodurr at 2:35 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


I once had a reader go through a story and replace all my colons with semicolons, and all my semicolons with colons. While it did make it clear to me that I had too many of both, she was in fact quite wrong in her usage.
posted by lodurr at 2:36 PM on June 29, 2011


No, but I do put question marks after questions.

You oughtn't if they're rhetorical.


Are you insane, or just high.
posted by Mars Saxman at 2:37 PM on June 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'm...high?
posted by lodurr at 2:37 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


But I don't know of any publication that actively uses the Oxford Style Guide.

That's not at all the same thing as saying nobody (individually or in a non-Oxford professional style guide) uses the serial comma on this side of the Atlantic.


Well, and also, a lot of publications still use the Chicago Manual of Style, which likewise does use the serial comma as standard practice (I think).

Growing up as a copy editor it was easy: newspapers use AP; magazines use Chicago. I know things have swung toward AP style, but I'm sure some publications must still use Chicago.

"lions, tigers, and bears" is an idiomatic expression in American English.

You mean "Lions, Tigers and Bears" ^_^
posted by mrgrimm at 2:39 PM on June 29, 2011


Wow, you've found an example that contradicts a prescriptive rule. Bravo?
posted by me3dia at 2:39 PM on June 29, 2011


I'm insanely high.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 2:39 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


kafziel: Yes, you could rephrase the sentence to avoid having to decide whether to use a comma. However, the issue here is about whether or not to use the comma, not whether you can rewrite everything to not use it.

Why not? If the purpose at hand here is clarity in writing, then obnoxiously stilted and arbitrary sentence constructions that depend on the most semantically overloaded punctuation mark should be ripped apart and replaced as part of the editing process.

Benny: Otherwise, it will always be a guess.

Welcome to the interpretation of poetry in the English language where ambiguity is often intended.

lodurr: As I've said, I generally prefer the rhythm of the oxford comma. But it's also more graceful than the strictly logical alternatives, such as using semicolons. Here's a trivial example, in two forms.

I agree. I'll point out that your two examples make a serial comma necessary by virtue of multiple noun phrases.

hank: My parents, Mother Teresa and the Pope, thank you for this.

The potential ambiguity here is easily fixed by simply swapping the order. "Mother Teresa, the Pope, and my parents thank you for this."

A useful tool for spotting cases like this is to read the passage out loud, or have your computer read it to you. If the passage is ambiguous as spoken without any punctuation, then it probably needs to be reordered or rewritten.

On Preview: Poetry examples here are often bad, because it's inconsistently punctuated, ambiguity in meaning is intentional, and the punctuation may be driven by spoken rhythm as well as syntax.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:39 PM on June 29, 2011


writers should be allowed to punctuate however they feel is appropriate.
Have you seen a lot of punctuation from writers? I don't disagree that writers who are wielding some clever-ass punctuation should have it all stripped out, but most of the time bringing it up to style is absolutely the right thing to do. Any editor worth their salt should be able to distinguish the two situations.
posted by bonaldi at 2:40 PM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


WHAT??!!! WHAT???!!!


NOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!


*Slits wrists*
posted by Skygazer at 2:41 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


The ", and" before the final item in a comma-separated list denotes that it's the last node in a linked list. Without that comma, the last two items can easily be misinterpreted as a joined pair. The ", and" also helps the sentence read with the same rhythm with which it'd be spoken. I've never understood why there's any debate over its use.
posted by czyz at 2:42 PM on June 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


Welcome to the interpretation of poetry in the English language where ambiguity is often intended.

I was just referring to the example. Poetry should never have to adhere to, nor ever be assumed to adhere to, any manual of style.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 2:42 PM on June 29, 2011


Poetry examples here are often bad, because it's inconsistently punctuated, ambiguity in meaning is intentional, and the punctuation may be driven by spoken rhythm as well as syntax.

But that's true of prose, as well.
posted by lodurr at 2:42 PM on June 29, 2011


Sweet. Can we allow punctuation to follow quotation marks when a quote falls "within a sentence", too?
posted by subdee at 2:45 PM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


About a year ago I had to remove every single Oxford comma from a book. It was bigot traumatic on many, many grounds.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 2:45 PM on June 29, 2011


most of the time bringing it up to style is absolutely the right thing to do

This. There are exceptions, but they are few.

To take one example, there's David Foster Wallace, and then there are all the writers who seem to think they're David Foster Wallace.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 2:47 PM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's actually "Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!"
posted by goethean at 2:47 PM on June 29, 2011


How the he'll did autocorrect get bigot from very?
posted by lesbiassparrow at 2:48 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


"One thing? I, like: about, Dear Miss Kinnian: (thats, the way? it goes; in a business, letter (if I ever go! into business?) is that, she: always gives me' a reason" when - I ask. She"s a gen'ius! I cou'd be smart like-her, Punctuation , is? fun!"
posted by newdaddy at 2:48 PM on June 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


How the hell. I shall give up now.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 2:48 PM on June 29, 2011


Thought you might have tried to write "bit."
posted by zarq at 2:49 PM on June 29, 2011


subdee: "Sweet. Can we allow punctuation to follow quotation marks when a quote falls "within a sentence", too?"

NOPE, NOPE, NOPE.
posted by zarq at 2:49 PM on June 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


Sweet. Can we allow punctuation to follow quotation marks when a quote falls "within a sentence", too?

NEVER!!!
posted by shakespeherian at 2:49 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


subdee: I do that already, since it's clearly the only logical way.
posted by Mars Saxman at 2:49 PM on June 29, 2011


I believe in a number of commonly-accepted things

One doesn't use a hyphen when it's an adverb!

That is all.

I hate myself in these threads sometimes.
No, that's too strong. But I wouldn't want to have a drink with myself after work or anything.
posted by little cow make small moo at 2:50 PM on June 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


I've never understood why there's any debate over its use.
If only there were a thread someplace with people trying to explain the reasons for the debate.
posted by bonaldi at 2:50 PM on June 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


I love serial commas and will continue to use them in all my documents, personal projects, and correspondence.
Goddamned right.
posted by scrump at 2:51 PM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


Yes, on this:

(a) “The woods are lovely, dark and deep“
versus
(b) “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep“


When I read those to myself in my head, they sound noticeably different (it's a pitch thing, I think), and it is entirely a function of the serial comma. And I parse the meaning slightly differently.
posted by little cow make small moo at 2:53 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


I enjoy the " my parents, Ayn Rand and God" story because of the way in which it is designed to make supervfluous comma-users appear both superior and victimized. The apocryphal author got it right, but the editor callously got it wrong, making the statement ridiculous and ambiguous. As if any editor would truly fuck with an author's dedication of all things. But yeah, the best argument the oxfordians have is an urban legend. That's humorous.
posted by Navelgazer at 2:53 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


/pours some out for the Oxford comma.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 2:54 PM on June 29, 2011


Is there an article or footnote somewhere that explains why they decided to change their minds about this? Not that I really care, because I'm a member of the Plan To Keep Using It Club. Just curious.
posted by Gator at 2:55 PM on June 29, 2011


Also love that so many of the Oxfordians are computer programmers. You think enforcing a comma will make English somehow logical? Ha, good luck.
posted by bonaldi at 2:56 PM on June 29, 2011


This definitive decision on a debatable practice—and the tiring should I, shouldn't I?—has really drained me. In response, I'll no longer write sentences that make me have to make that call.

The Oxford writing and style guide has left me listless.
posted by defenestration at 2:57 PM on June 29, 2011 [7 favorites]


How the he'll did autocorrect get bigot from very?

Serial comma bigotry is a pernicious and diabolical evil that I hope, will be eradicated within my lifetime.

Now, please pass me a ham and cheese sandwich.
posted by Skygazer at 2:59 PM on June 29, 2011


I understood the comma as a symbol that could also be used to add a pause/breath?

Contrast "The woods are lovely, dark and deep" with "The woods are lovely, dark, and deep" by trying to read them. The comma before "and deep" adds a pause, so as to separate the three characteristicts being described.
posted by elpapacito at 3:01 PM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


Kottke posted an update after some research :
The document I linked to above is from a branding style guide for Oxford University. It recommends against using the Oxford comma in most cases. The Oxford Style Manual, meant for the general public and last published in 2003 by Oxford University Press, "a department of the University of Oxford", recommends using the Oxford comma in all cases. So basically, Oxford is telling us to use the Oxford comma but isn't going to use it internally. Oxford gone schizo, y'all! (thx, @rchrd_h)
posted by revmitcz at 3:03 PM on June 29, 2011


The Oxford writing and style guide has left me listless.

You, sir, are going to hell.

I'm sure you'll meet a very nice class of people there.
posted by lodurr at 3:03 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


To take one example, there's David Foster Wallace, and then there are all the writers who seem to think they're David Foster Wallace.

Can we please dispense with the hoary old "you're not allowed to do x unless you're famous [artist/writer/director/musician] y" trope? When you use it, it makes Dave Wallace's ghost cry.
posted by lodurr at 3:05 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


I look back over my writing and it is a battleground piled high with commas, semicolons, and dashes. I'm afraid I'm using up my lifetime allotment too quickly. Also, I often have punctuation remorse.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 3:09 PM on June 29, 2011


Best writing advice any teacher ever gave me: 'Don't overuse dashes.'

Freshman comp.
posted by lodurr at 3:10 PM on June 29, 2011


We're going to have some guests for dinner. The Faerbers, Michael and Yolanda.

Also Bond, James Bond.
posted by monju_bosatsu at 3:11 PM on June 29, 2011


Can we please dispense with the hoary old "you're not allowed to do x unless you're famous [artist/writer/director/musician] y" trope?

I think what's being suggested is rather more "you're not allowed to do x unless you're any good at it."

And the majority of writers who think they're just swell at the funky stylistics are actually simply terrible.
posted by bonaldi at 3:11 PM on June 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


My co-founder and I seriously have version control commit-fights over the Oxford comma.
posted by nev at 3:13 PM on June 29, 2011


Parenthetically speaking, this sentence doesn't contain any parenthesis.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 3:13 PM on June 29, 2011


I am keeping my Oxford commas. I am putting my punctuation inside or outside quotation marks in whatever way makes the most sense to me at the time. I am using two spaces between sentences whenever a website does not autocorrected them out.

Style is a series of choices made among multiple possible conventions. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is overly obsessed with pointless rules.
posted by kyrademon at 3:14 PM on June 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


But they ain't gonna get any better without practice. And like it or not, it's a public-practice world, these days.

And anyway, I learned a long time ago that "any good" is an extremely subjective judgment, in almost any area. I routinely see prose identified as wonderful, poetic, etc., that I find irritating, trite, clumsy, and hard to wallow through. Who's right?
posted by lodurr at 3:14 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


I would like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand, ham and cheese sandwiches, and the internet for making me the fierce, opinionated, yet self-actualized, if slightly deluded, but chronically dyspeptic, individual that I am today.


Ayn Rand was a ham, and her books read like cheese. Also, Ayn Rand, liked, not ham and cheese, but rather, caviar, of the most excellent aristocratic quality. This, amongst other things, gave her a fishy effluence.




posted by Skygazer at 3:15 PM on June 29, 2011 [5 favorites]


You oughtn't if they're rhetorical.

I'm gonna go out on a limb and say that's bad advice to follow in general.

The ", and" before the final item in a comma-separated list denotes that it's the last node in a linked list. Without that comma, the last two items can easily be misinterpreted as a joined pair. The ", and" also helps the sentence read with the same rhythm with which it'd be spoken. I've never understood why there's any debate over its use.

I think I'm beginning to understand a big source of the split in thinking between two groups:

Without that comma, the last two items can easily be misinterpreted as a joined pair.

I think those of us who don't think the serial comma is necessary in standard lists will almost never misinterpret the last two items as a joined pair. In this example:

Without the serial comma, life is meaningless, dull and vapid.

I would never take "dull and vapid" to define "meaningless." And even if I did, I don't see much difference in meaning whether or not "dull and vapid" modify "life" or describe "meaningless." Maybe it's not a good example ...

If you wanted dull and vapid to describe meaningless, the common modern construction (imo) would use an em-dash:

Without the serial comma, life is meaningless--dull and vapid.
posted by mrgrimm at 3:16 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Weird, english is turning into spanish. This is how commas are used in spanish, same with the logical punctuation kerfuffle of a couple of weeks ago... can you guys go metric for completeness sake?
posted by Omon Ra at 3:16 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Hey, even if my writing sucks — at least I know I'm dashing.
posted by defenestration at 3:17 PM on June 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


(a) “The woods are lovely, dark and deep“
versus
(b) “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep“
The way that I parse [a] in this context is 'the loveliness of woods is a function of their being dark and deep.'

I wouldn't parse the first one that way unless I were reading a transcript of an interview or a conversation. In prose, it just looks like a sentence with an irradiated stub growing out the end that wants to be a clause but can't. If I were editing that sentence, I'd change the comma to a semi-colon for starters.
posted by invitapriore at 3:18 PM on June 29, 2011


...if my intent were to make it reflect the meaning that you provide there, that is.
posted by invitapriore at 3:19 PM on June 29, 2011


that I find irritating, trite, clumsy, and hard to wallow through. Who's right?

The editor of the publication, and their sub-editor proxies. They're the ones responsible for creating the product their readers want to read; editing out the things those readers would find irritating/trite and allowing that which they'd find wonderful/poetic.

That's why I said a decent editor should be able to distinguish the two. The alternative -- letting through any old stylistic shit (even the unintentional) from anything submitted -- is just neglecting your responsibility.

Some editors go further than others, of course. Good luck getting "co-operate" into an essay in the New Yorker.
posted by bonaldi at 3:20 PM on June 29, 2011


I would never take "dull and vapid" to define "meaningless."

That's why the juxtaposition would have force.


If you wanted dull and vapid to describe meaningless, the common modern construction (imo) would use an em-dash:


An em-dash lacks the opportunity for ambiguity.

The real communicative power of language isn't always so much in precision, as it is in precise ambiguities. "Life is meaningless, dull and vapid" can mean more than "life is meaningless, dull, and vapid" or "life is meaningless -- dull and vapid." It can mean both of them at the same time. And if the ambiguity doesn't work for a particular reader, there's not a lot lost, the sentence still makes sense.
posted by lodurr at 3:21 PM on June 29, 2011


If I were editing that sentence, I'd change the comma to a semi-colon for starters.

"Dark and deep" is not a sentence. Maybe you mean colon?
posted by muddgirl at 3:21 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Lodurr: Best writing advice any teacher ever gave me: 'Don't overuse dashes.'

Man, I loves me some em dashes. They're usually just what the doctor ordered if you're susceptible to frequent asides and need to —and should, because they so fuck with the flow— the crutch of parentheses.

So, yeah, lets talk em dashes, en dashes, and parentheses.


*Lights smoke. Waits.*
posted by Skygazer at 3:22 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


So basically, Oxford is telling us to use the Oxford comma but isn't going to use it internally.

Jason Kottke has still got the wrong end of the stick a bit here (which is a shame, as I'm the rchrd_h he thanked for the correction). As grouse mentions above, it's not that 'Oxford' isn't going to use the comma internally – Oxford University Press will continue to use it in the OED and other titles.

The University of Oxford's branding style guide has absolutely nothing to do with OUP publications (and it's certainly not trying to tell people outside of the university what they should use).
posted by Richard Holden at 3:23 PM on June 29, 2011


The editor of the publication, and their sub-editor proxies.

No, bonaldi. The reader. The reader is always who's right: For them.

There is no objective standard for literary or prosodic worth. And I see absolutely no reason to accept that some editor's judgment is more to the point than mine, when the question is (as it always must be) "what is this doing for me?"
posted by lodurr at 3:23 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


I understood the comma as a symbol that could also be used to add a pause/breath?

That's what it is at its essence, but compare these two sentences:

I went to the store and bought butter, eggs, and broccoli.

I went to the store over by the 3rd St. dog park, which has certainly seen better days, and I found a broken drumstick in the bushes.

Aren't the pauses in the first sentence shorter than in the second? Hell, isnt' the second pause in the second sentence longer than the first?

I guess I'm saying using commas to denote "pauses" isn't the most practical solution.

Good luck getting "co-operate" into an essay in the New Yorker.

Aren't they one of the few who uses the dieresis? (but not on the iPad) Who still uses hyphenated co-operate? I thought that was pretty much an accepted exception to the co- rule almost everywhere.
posted by mrgrimm at 3:23 PM on June 29, 2011


There is no indication that the Oxford Style Manual, used by Oxford University Press, has changed.

Seriously, 80 acres of bullshit currently on display in MetaTalk, yet no one's talking about how this post could fucking kill a massively unfit yet highly literate person? Don't tell me I'm the only one here.

Christ, that was a Homer-sized arrhythmia. Stop trying to destroy me; it's hurting my feelings.
posted by melissa may at 3:25 PM on June 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


There was a woman on Jeopardy many moons ago who'd written a book of poems called Everything in Parentheses can be Ignored. I've tried to keep that in mind with regard to parentheses ever since.

As for dashes, I use them a lot. More than I should, probably. They're a weakness of mine. My rhet-115 teacher wasn't telling me not to use them -- he was warning me that I used them frequently enough to be distracting. Which was true.
posted by lodurr at 3:27 PM on June 29, 2011


If nothing else, this thread proves that punctuation is as alive and evolving as the language it clarifies.
posted by me3dia at 3:27 PM on June 29, 2011



Until then, be less of an arse-ache and consider there may be many editors and readers in this thread who hold a position differing to yours equally strongly but aren't being quite as inflexible about it.


If flexibility includes the ability to equate:

* the cost of training a brain or machine to recognize , <conjunction> as a token indicating a final list item

vs

* the cost of having to fall back on subphrase backtracking, possibly phrase-wide backtracking, and even probabilistic/semantic inference

then I'm out.

Maybe you've got a better formal argument up your sleeve somewhere, but as things stand now, I think you're approaching this from a simplistic convention standpoint without really thinking through the topic formally, as are the dozens of editors who are, as far as I can tell, in the same boat.
posted by weston at 3:28 PM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


lodurr: But that's true of prose, as well.

It depends on the prose. Some forms of prose are more tolerant of creative punctuation than others.

czyz: I've never understood why there's any debate over its use.

It think it was summed up well by bonaldi up above. It's an emacs vs. vi fight for relatively ignorant language nerds to pimp the aesthetics of their favorite styles. But to be honest, as a student journalism hack, I'm a bit more kind to the completely obsolete argument that commas and complex list constructions interfere with the goal of packing the maximum quantity of text into limited newspaper columns.

The arguments that they're critically necessary in otherwise idiomatic listings of items, or that this is a rare case where we should be systematically phonetic in written prose strike me as having little or no merit.

I use serial commas because I've grown fond of them. I use them to maintain consistency across hundreds of pages of documentation. I use them because I like them. I see no need to justify my preferences for them with pseudoscience about human language processing that wasn't even wrong a century ago. The rousing defenses of the serial comma here are even more misguided than Webster's attempt to treat English like Latin.

kottke: So basically, Oxford is telling us to use the Oxford comma but isn't going to use it internally. Oxford gone schizo, y'all!

Or perhaps Oxford as an institution recognizes that publicity copy and academic publications are different modes and genres, worthy of different style standards. If you want for your press release to get attention by the news media, you might as well make it easy to plagiarizequote.

That's really what this is all about.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 3:31 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Aren't they one of the few who uses the dieresis?

Indeed, they do, we learned that on a recent Mefi post that had a New Yorker article employing a word requiring a dieresis. Co-operate wouldn't need one though, I think. Cooperate is a word in it's own right. I may be wrong on this. But I'm not feeling too well. All this talk of Ayn Rand and ham and cheese sandwiches is giving me a spot of well, dieryhha...
posted by Skygazer at 3:32 PM on June 29, 2011


Where does Oxford stand on serial killer comma's? The kind, that disembowel, and mutilate, a sentence, just, for, the, fun, of, it?
posted by Skygazer at 3:33 PM on June 29, 2011


But, weston, kerning! And and and if you specifically train yourself to read it wrongly, you'll get confused when people correctly use the comma!

If I've only ever eaten seedless grapes my entire life, eating a grape with a seed it in will probably confuse the hell out of me when I bite into it. I might think there's something wrong with the grape. But the source of this confusion is my false belief that grapes don't have seeds, not a misleading grape that failed to match my incorrect expectations of grapes.
posted by kafziel at 3:35 PM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


When I was growing up—in a public school, even!—I was taught the Oxford comma. I had no idea there was a name for it, and similarly no idea that there was even disagreement. This was grammar, the prototype of intellectual fiat. Whether I internalized its logic or found it natural to my disposition I cannot now remember. But it seems so ambiguous, so amateurish, and so clearly against-the-grain not to use the Oxford comma now, that it drives me crazy not to. To the extent that, when writing out electromyography reports (I'm a neurology resident), I laboriously go through and add commas everywhere in the attending's poorly-grammatical template for every report.

Over the years, I have seen the Oxford comma become progressively controversialized, insulted, and then deprecated (by grammar pundits, sure, and who cares? except that it's part of the pattern).

Serial constructions honestly look stupid without it. Complex serial constructions, which may include as an item a conjunction of items, become very ambiguous. I have not read TFA and so I cannot comment specifically on the rationale—but in grammar, as with religion, there can be no honest brokerage of views. And may a Crusade rise to save the English language from those Godless heathens!
posted by adoarns at 3:35 PM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


you're not allowed to do x unless you're famous

I meant it more in the sense of "if you go out on a limb and try to do x, you better make sure to pull it off." Wallace is an example of an author whose style was both unique and very well suited to his purpose. Very few writers manage to establish such a strong voice, and to do so through a very deliberate style.

I have worked with people who absolutely loved the guy, and tried to write like him. They strung together long, unwieldy clauses, and misused ten-dollar words. The point they were making was usually lost in the process, and they would have been better off simply trying to write, instead of trying to write like someone else.

Sure, it's subjective. But at some point, it's an editor's job to make a publication readable. Plus, while you see your individual article as the end product, I'm usually tasked with considering an issue as a whole, and how it fits in with previous and future issues.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 3:37 PM on June 29, 2011


No, bonaldi. The reader. The reader is always who's right: For them.

Publications have to be finite. They generally have more submissions than they can use. That means someone has to decide what gets in and what doesn't. That person is the publication's editor. They decide what is good, and will go in their publication, and what is bad and will not.

This process extends down to what punctuation said editor will allow and will now, and is codified in the publication's style guide. If someone wants an exemption to the style guide, they have to convince the editor why that should be, and usually this is by being very good at breaking or bending those rules, in the editor's judgement

All this can and should happen before the reader comes anywhere near it. If the reader wants the firehose of unedited prose, the internet's just a click away.

Cooperate is a word in it's own right. I may be wrong on this.
The New Yorker does it as coöperate, yes. I should have put co-operate/cooperate or used a better example, tbh.
posted by bonaldi at 3:37 PM on June 29, 2011


You may take our lives, but you'll never take our COMMAS. We need serial commas. Even the founding fathers recognized that. Stop using serial commas, and the terrorists win.

Consider this example:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

That sentence (the preamble to the Constitution, of course) is pretty complex (click on the link to see it diagrammed). Even so, it is easily parsed, not least because of the serial comma after Welfare.

Without the serial comma, there would not be any real ambiguity as to what constitutes the two final items in the list or a change in the meaning of the sentence, so according to this new Oxford Style Guide nonsense, you should leave that comma out.

But to me, the flow of the sentence would absolutely suffer for the lack of it. The pacing and the meter of the words is completely thrown off. Read it aloud, and you get breathless at Posterity. You need that serial comma for prosody.
posted by misha at 3:42 PM on June 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


The New Yorker mandates: coöperate, reëducate, zoölogy, coördination, reëxamine, etc...
posted by BrotherCaine at 3:43 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Now that the day is winding down, I've retired to my wood-paneled library, poured myself a snifter of brandy, and relaxed in my leather chair. I lit my pipe and read the headlines of the daily paper. Global warming, economic turmoil, war, natural disasters. I realized that there are serious issues facing us today, and I'm shocked that some of you have the nerve to attack what could be the one thing that still holds our world together: the serial comma.

My friends, it is not the appropriate time to question the validity of the serial comma. Too much is at stake. Please, use the serial comma. The world needs it.
posted by perhapses at 3:47 PM on June 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


Can we all at least agree that the dieresis is really contrived and pretentious?

I mean, seriously, are there people who are used to seeing English with umlauts at this point? Or who will read "cooperation" as having a diphthong?

Cuperation?
posted by evidenceofabsence at 3:52 PM on June 29, 2011


Maybe you've got a better formal argument up your sleeve somewhere, but as things stand now, I think you're approaching this from a simplistic convention standpoint without really thinking through the topic formally, as are the dozens of editors who are, as far as I can tell, in the same boat.

Hey, fantastic, a patronising web developer who believes that language specialists (and admitted chumps like me) haven't bothered to consider issues in their field.

As for machine training: If you think that a serial comma is all that stands between us and a really robust English-language parser, then it's good that you're out.

If you're looking for a formal argument, you're also out of luck. Because style is about style, it's about what's right and wrong for a given publication. Some publications are looking to save lots of space. Other publications are highly concerned with avoiding all possible ambiguity even with the poorest of writing. Other publications care about their readers' expectations.

The use of the serial comma is a preference, valid either way. Style books enshrine the preferences of their publications. That's all there is to it. Everything is else is just "your favourite punctuation sucks".

But, weston, kerning! And and and if you specifically train yourself to read it wrongly, you'll get confused when people correctly use the comma!ut, weston, kerning! And and and if you specifically train yourself to read it wrongly, you'll get confused when people correctly use the comma!

"Specifically train yourself wrongly"? Christ almighty you are being dickish about this. You don't have any authority to "prove" you are correct on this point. You only have appeals to what you think are logical arguments regarding clarity and parsing of language. Which notions are themselves a subset of what goes into the consideration of style.

If you want to discuss this, stop acting as though there were an established truth and everyone differing from you is provably wrong. Because they aren't, and the task of proving it as you would a mathematics error is impossible.

The best you've got is "I'm right because I believe these reasons trump all others". Others don't share your beliefs.
posted by bonaldi at 3:53 PM on June 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


I mean, seriously, are there people who are used to seeing English with umlauts at this point?

Metal fans.
posted by misha at 3:54 PM on June 29, 2011 [6 favorites]


Cooperation= The process of building barrels. Cooperatively. In a co-op.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 3:55 PM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


I mean, seriously, are there people who are used to seeing English with umlauts at this point?

Um... lots: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_New_Yorker#Readership
posted by defenestration at 3:59 PM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


They had a choice between croissants, bacon and eggs, and muesli.

Shouldn't it be "among" instead of "between"?
posted by bgrebs at 4:02 PM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


...at Cooper Union.

I read the New Yorker. I am still not used to it.

Anyhow, yeah, sorry for the pedantry. For better or worse, I get paid to have this conversation. And then to have it again. And again.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 4:03 PM on June 29, 2011


I went to the store over by the 3rd St. dog park, which has certainly seen better days, and I found a broken drumstick in the bushes.

Aren't the pauses in the first sentence shorter than in the second? Hell, isnt' the second pause in the second sentence longer than the first?

I guess I'm saying using commas to denote "pauses" isn't the most practical solution.
Uhm, I think in the second sentence the commas are being used a substition for parenthesis; indeed the fact that the store had seen better days is a digression from the main story of you going to the store and describing what has happened. That is, the number of words between two commas don't dictate the lenght of the pause, but rather the comma introduces a pause that could be a picosecond or a second or more, depending on the reader intention; for instance longer pauses may be used to elicit attention, as silence is remarkable in itself among an apparently uninterrupted, continuous torrent of words.
posted by elpapacito at 4:04 PM on June 29, 2011


ARGUEMENTS FOR AND AGAINST ETC ALL SUMMED UP HERE, WITH USEFUL SUGGESTIONS

http://grammar.wikia.com/wiki/Oxford_comma
posted by Postroad at 4:06 PM on June 29, 2011


In coöperation with our newly reëlected Music Section editor, we are please to announce the addition of the preëminent band, Hüsker Du, to our editorial staff.

hey, it could happen
posted by Benny Andajetz at 4:10 PM on June 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


,
posted by madcaptenor at 4:18 PM on June 29, 2011


Fucking hell. This is terrible news.

The serial comma is useful.

Let's say I'm writing a lineup for a terrible music festival, and last of the list is The Captain and Tenille, and they're performing separately?

Fuck you, Oxford! And fuck your shirts, shoes, and sheep, too.
posted by Sys Rq at 4:19 PM on June 29, 2011 [5 favorites]


Speaking of pseudoscience...

If flexibility includes the ability to equate... (strawman 1) vs. (strawman 2)

Both of these were questionable in the 19th century when Saussure and Pierce started investigating the depth of semiotic associations, and was put to rest with the failure of the "brain-as-computer" metaphor starting in the 70s. Human language processing uses big semantic chunks rather than linearly stepping forward through every single phoneme and glyph. The alternatives you present are completely flawed, as language processing is neither critically dependent on individual tokens, nor dependent on backtracking. Meanwhile, the costs of associative, context-dependent, and probabilistic interpretation of meaning is essentially zero, because that's what human beings do. Picking linearly through glyphs and putting them together like a jigsaw puzzle tends to be exceptional cases.

If you really want to think this through formally, you wouldn't be using serial commas at all here. A large chunk of the ambiguity comes from the fact that we use the same glyph for introductory phrases such as "my parents," and items in a list. Formally we should be using a different construction for both along with differentiating among the multiple meanings of "and." That probably leads you directly to Lojban, a language that systematically attempts to knock out convention in favor of explicit formalism. The conventional rules invoked by editors are only marginally related to any underlying logical structure.

Something else that's cheap in human language processing is switching modes. We even have evidence that pre-lingual babies recognize differences in spoken modes and adjust their behavior to them. The experimental evidence is that human language processing is robust to minor differences in written language, and my anecdotal experience is that I've met very few people who were honestly baffled by variations in poetic, colloquial, newspaper, telegraphic, formal, business, and academic written discourse.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:21 PM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


They had a choice between croissants, bacon and eggs, and muesli.

bgrebs: Shouldn't it be "among" instead of "between"?


That's giving way too much importance and stature to croissants, bacon and eggs, and muesli. Not sure why though, just doesn't sound right.
posted by Skygazer at 4:22 PM on June 29, 2011


I've learned to live without the serial comma in my AP-style-operated job, but I think that objectively, there are literally no arguments against it that have ever made any sense to me. The only one I've really seen here is, "Well, it's not always necessary." Lots of punctuation could be removed from lots of actual sentences and you could still muddle through them. I mean, I could write this sentence:

What is your name

and I could leave off the question mark, and very often, you'd still get the meaning. That's not an argument to stop using question marks to save on ink.

I don't think it's a world-ending thing that people don't use it, and it's absolutely true that in many, many cases, it doesn't matter -- as I say, I've gotten used to life without it and now often omit it in personal writing out of habit. But I have literally never heard a sensible argument based in language (rather than commerce) for why, in any sentence ever written anywhere, you write a better or clearer sentence without it. Here, that's been answered with "It might confuse people not raised with the serial comma," but ... that obviously cancels out on both sides, so it proves nothing.

And I have to admit, I throw in with those who don't understand why you would introduce a rule that requires people to analyze each sentence to see whether it needs a serial comma or not, rather than just ... having them use it. It's not violence against language or anything, but it makes truly no sense to me.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 4:22 PM on June 29, 2011 [7 favorites]


In coöperation with our newly reëlected Music Section editor, we are please to announce the addition of the preëminent band, Hüsker Du, to our editorial staff.

Anything those guys did again would have me front and center in a heartbeat. Man, are they missed...saw them once...way way back...

/derail

(sorry).


*Eyes glaze over. Begins banging head.*

posted by Skygazer at 4:26 PM on June 29, 2011


Actually, Camofrog, what you said was, in the context of a discussion of the serial comma, "Nobody this side of the Atlantic follows Oxford style, as far as I know." It appeared that you were talking about "Oxford stye" in relation to the comma and not the entire style guide. Obviously your writing didn't clearly convey the meaning that you wished.

I leave the relationship of this sidebar to the serial comma discussion about clarity as an exercise for the reader.


As a further exercise, the reader will use the above to discuss the meaning of pedantry.
posted by Camofrog at 4:27 PM on June 29, 2011


"Oxford stye"

Heh.
posted by Sys Rq at 4:30 PM on June 29, 2011


(Something something eyesore.)
posted by Sys Rq at 4:32 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


As a further exercise, the reader will use the above to discuss the meaning of pedantry.

Dude. This is a thread about commas. The fuck do you expect?
posted by dersins at 4:33 PM on June 29, 2011


The fuck do you expect?

SENTENCE FRAGMENT_
posted by Sys Rq at 4:37 PM on June 29, 2011


ah ha! Vindication is mine!
posted by mikehipp at 4:41 PM on June 29, 2011


The only one I've really seen here is, "Well, it's not always necessary."

I see it more as the reverse, that is, "it's unnecessary". Where the line of necessity is drawn varies a lot depending on context, of course -- the question mark seems to be unnecessary for a lot of IM users, for instance.

The trend in English does seem to be towards using the least punctuation possible, certainly. To a lot of eyes, including mine, that serial comma does look as antiquated and unnecessary as the New Yorker's umlauts.

I get the sense behind "don't understand why you would introduce a rule that requires people to analyse each sentence", but really, you analyse every sentence as you punctuate it anyway. It adds absolutely no overhead to me to put the commas in the right places.

An argument in language is harder to frame. I think it comes down to clarity. Take the much-favourited: "I've made sandwiches for everyone who comments. There's tuna, ham and cheese."

To the non-serial reader, this is absolutely clear: there are three kinds of sandwiches. A comma in a list requires there to be three things. If there are only two, you have a conjunction. For there to be only two kinds of sandwiches the sentence would have to be "There's tuna or ham and cheese". If it were to be written with a serial comma, it would just be an extra super-clarifying punctuation mark. No ambiguity anywhere.

Consider the serial reader. There's no final comma, so the sentence must mean "there are two kinds of sandwiches". Well, then, but that's ungrammatical. Do they maybe mean there are three kinds of sandwich? There's ambiguity!

Insisting on the serial comma in a world which is very much full of people deliberately acting otherwise leads irrevocably to ambiguity. Settling for the non-serial parsing of "there's no final comma unless it's required to resolve ambiguity" (perhaps counter-intuitively) leads to the least possible ambiguity overall.

(Note that this depends on you accepting the non-serial comma as grammatically valid, which some people here don't. The same argument wouldn't work for dropping the apostrophe, for instance, because the usage doesn't exist in the context of a world where it is generally accepted by a sizeable number of language professionals and users.)
posted by bonaldi at 4:55 PM on June 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


I'm a technical editor and you'd better believe that I'm still going to be enforcing the use of the serial comma in any documents I edit. They're already plenty difficult to parse (e.g., where do the compound adjectives end and the compound nouns begin???), so anything that reduces ambiguity is doubleplusgood in my book.
posted by Jacqueline at 4:56 PM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


Wait. Clearly I don't read The New Yorker very much, but they put an umlaut in "cooperation"?

Well now I just don't know what to think.
posted by jess at 5:03 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Surely one thing we can all agree on is that the way in which I do things is THE RIGHT WAY and anyone who does things a different way is WRONG WRONG WRONG and any attempt to challenge my rightness will be met by me explaining exactly why I'm right at length until my opponent's eyeballs bleed.

Because that is the way of the internet. Yes.

And the Faerbers? They bring a bottle of lousy, cheap wine, drink all the good stuff, then make terrible small talk and they never invite us back.

Fuck the Faerbers.
posted by Grangousier at 5:12 PM on June 29, 2011 [5 favorites]


The New Yorker style guide is just insane. It's like they're living in some made up version of history - like SCA or steampunk style editing. I would almost like it's quaintness if it wasn't so stupidly smug.

Also, all their articles are written in the same style. It's tedious.

But I liked the thing about Gandhi's gay lover a few weeks ago - that was funny.
posted by serazin at 5:12 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Honestly, I don't think that the versions connote different meanings, though.

(a) “The woods are lovely, dark and deep“
versus
(b) “The woods are lovely, dark, and deep“


Anyone who can't see the difference in meaning in those two examples has no business making rules or giving anyone advice about writing.
posted by straight at 5:13 PM on June 29, 2011 [7 favorites]


Huh? I don't get the difference and I'm a "professional writer"!
posted by serazin at 5:14 PM on June 29, 2011


I think most Americans have been taught AP style. I honestly don't see the ambiguity that some people do.

A comment from that site: "What we will lose is the semantic distinction of the absence of the comma."

This. Now it will sometimes be difficult to know if a comma was left out deliberately or by mistake. It's generally more obvious when a comma is present and used in error versus commas applied in what some would subjectively consider to be an overly generous manner.

They can have my serial comma when they pry it from my cold, dead, and rotting hands!

Ditto. I went along when we had to start spelling "email" without the hypen. I went along when we started using "impact" as a verb. I'm almost at the point where I can hear someone say "irregardless" and not roll my eyes. But give up the serial comma? No, no, and no.
posted by fuse theorem at 5:21 PM on June 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


YOU WILL PRY MY OXFORD COMMA FROM MY COLD, DEAD, AND CLUTCHING HAND.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 5:31 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


THAT, CAN, BE, ARRANGED
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 5:32 PM on June 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


Huh? I don't get the difference and I'm a "professional writer"!

That just made my eye twitch.
posted by SpacemanStix at 5:33 PM on June 29, 2011 [7 favorites]


Huh? I don't get the difference and I'm a "professional writer"!

I think the difference is supposed to be that the first one means the loveliness depends upon the depth and the dark, whereas the second means the forest would remain lovely if it were also shallow and light.

But I'll admit that second reading is a really hard one to make stick in my mind, too. It's as if the sentence "she was lovely, smart, and pretty" was to mean that the loveliness in question came from something other than her personality and appearance.
posted by bonaldi at 5:38 PM on June 29, 2011


I mean, seriously, are there people who are used to seeing English with umlauts at this point? Or who will read "cooperation" as having a diphthong?

<pedant>That's a digraph, not a diphthong.</pedant>
posted by The Tensor at 5:38 PM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


Insisting on the serial comma in a world which is very much full of people deliberately acting otherwise leads irrevocably to ambiguity.

Seriously -- give me a sentence where, if I use the serial comma, you're confused about what I mean. Show me an actual sentence where there's ambiguity of meaning that's there BECAUSE of the serial comma being used. Because there are many, many, many sentences where not using it introduces ambiguity, which is why there always have to be caveats about how you can certainly use it if you need to in a particular sentence. There are three possible rules for the serial comma: (1) Never, (2) Always, and (3) Sometimes. "Never" cannot work. "Sometimes" is overcomplicated. What on earth is the drawback of "Always"?

Incidentally, I consider the sandwich sentence a very bad example of one where you need the serial comma. I'm not saying "There's tuna, ham and cheese" is ambiguous, particularly, although I think without a serial comma, it looks ugly.

Go instead with the far more likely to be problematic: "I went with my parents, Bob and Jane." There is absolutely no way to parse that sentence for sure except in a world in which we use the serial comma. If there is no serial comma ever, we cannot possibly know what it means, as it's grammatical either way. And under the "discretionary serial comma" rule, we're asked to hope that it must mean "my parents, whose names are Bob and Jane," because we hope that if it were "my parents and Bob and Jane," they'd have applied their judgment and added the discretionary serial comma for clarity?

In a world in which it's all you can do to get people to know the difference between "their" and "they're" and "there," the idea of asking people to use or not use a comma based on a contextual analysis of the meaning of the sentence is -- and I'm not exaggerating here or trying to be a jerk, I swear -- hilarious.

And please, do me a favor: Don't tell me we're going to adjust punctuation in formal writing to match what people do on IM. Not yet. I understand it may happen one day, but I hope to have relocated to Neptune by then.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 5:42 PM on June 29, 2011 [18 favorites]


(a) “The woods are lovely, dark and deep“
versus
(b) “The
woods are lovely, dark, and deep“

Parse as follows:

a) The woods are lovely, in that they are dark and deep.
b) The woods are lovely. They are also dark. And deep.

Example a makes the case that it is the very depth and darkness that makes the woods lovely.
Example b provides a list of woodsey features.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 5:43 PM on June 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


I *hate* the woods.
posted by mazola at 5:50 PM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


Even hickory?
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 5:52 PM on June 29, 2011


"Dark and deep" is not a sentence. Maybe you mean colon?

I don't. Compare and contrast:

The woods are lovely: dark and deep.

The woods are lovely; dark and deep.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.


I'm assuming by the nature of this sentence that we're not in an entirely formal context and that we therefore have some stylistic wiggle room. Given that, the three examples progress linearly from the most pregnant pause to the least, and by extension from the most amount of expectation for what follows to the least. What follows the colon in this sentence doesn't seem to merit the level of drama that that particular punctuation mark implies, while the comma on the other hand doesn't seem dramatic enough. Obviously most style guides would deem the latter two incorrect, but that sentence doesn't read like something you'd find in a formal context.
posted by invitapriore at 5:56 PM on June 29, 2011


Seriously -- give me a sentence where, if I use the serial comma, you're confused about what I mean. Show me an actual sentence where there's ambiguity of meaning that's there BECAUSE of the serial comma being used.

No, you're missing my point. If all we were ever doing was reading one sentence in isolation, then yes the serial comma would reduce ambiguity. But if I gave you a selection of ten sentences, some written by serialists and others written by non-serialists, the only way you could parse them all without ambiguity would be to treat them all as if they were written by non-serialists.

Since we do, in fact, live in a world of literature with such a mix of sentences, there is little value or point in trying to hold to a standard that brings no benefit, given that readers must parse them otherwise anyway. For instance:

"I went with my parents, Bob and Jane." There is absolutely no way to parse that sentence for sure except in a world in which we use the serial comma.

As mentioned, that world would have to be exclusive, and it doesn't exist. But in this world, it's easy to parse for sure: the parents are Bob and Jane. If the meaning intended was "Bob and Jane and my parents" they'd have to write it like that, because one of the rules of this world is that ambiguity surrounding commas is out and you have to rephrase or repunctuate. Happily, the recast sentence also works in xenophobe serialist island, so everybody wins.

the idea of asking people to use or not use a comma based on a contextual analysis of the meaning of the sentence is -- and I'm not exaggerating here or trying to be a jerk, I swear -- hilarious.

You know what? It's only hilarious because you're either patronising or you think that this contextual analysis is somehow more difficult than deciding when to use "there" or "their". I think it is no more difficult than deciding when to use a question mark.

And even if it were to be more difficult, all you'd be doing is reinforcing the need to treat this as a non-serial world. If you can't even enforce there/their or the apostrophe, how can you possibly enforce your sole correct comma use?

Don't tell me we're going to adjust punctuation in formal writing to match what people do on IM.
Did I suggest that the IM context would or should become the formal writing context? My point there was that there is absolutely nothing fixed about the amount of punctuation a reader expects, and it varies depending on context and register.
posted by bonaldi at 5:57 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Heh. Oxford partisans are funny.

Punctuation slows reading and can clog layouts. Excise it when possible; insert it when clarity requires.
posted by klangklangston at 6:06 PM on June 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


Slowing reading is a feature, not a bug. Too many people can't understand what they're reading as it is.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 6:11 PM on June 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


Linda_Holmes: If there is no serial comma ever, we cannot possibly know what it means, as it's grammatical either way.

Sure, making it one of over a dozen sentences in your post whose meaning is determined by pragmatics and context rather than by grammar. You know, pragmatics and context, those two critical parts of language that grammar pundits pretend just don't exist in creating absurd reasons to pin the entire meaning of a sentence on the presence or absence of a comma.

And please, do me a favor: Don't tell me we're going to adjust punctuation in formal writing to match what people do on IM. Not yet. I understand it may happen one day, but I hope to have relocated to Neptune by then.

Of course not. It is entirely reasonable to have two different standards for formal writing and epistolary writing, which has had abbreviated modes for as long as there has been writing.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:11 PM on June 29, 2011


Of course not. It is entirely reasonable to have two different standards for formal writing and epistolary writing, which has had abbreviated modes for as long as there has been writing.

Oh, I agree. I use fragments in formal writing constantly. I was responding to a suggestion from elsewhere that perhaps formal writing should continue dropping punctuation just as people are doing on IM. And it made me shiver.

xenophobe serialist island

Sigh. You try to have a perfectly good, civil but vigorous nerd debate about the serial comma, and sure enough, somebody has to start this kind of thing. At which point the civil but vigorous debate comes to an end.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 6:18 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oops, that was supposed to be "I use fragments in informal writing constantly." Also made-up words. And sometimes sounds. "Pfft" is good.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 6:22 PM on June 29, 2011


Psha, right!
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 6:23 PM on June 29, 2011


It's spelled pshaw, you effing troglodyte.
posted by Sys Rq at 6:26 PM on June 29, 2011


You try to have a perfectly good, civil but vigorous nerd debate about the serial comma, and sure enough, somebody has to start this kind of thing. At which point the civil but vigorous debate comes to an end.

Oh, come on. I've been taken aback by how unpleasant this thread has been. I assumed you were being part of it, with your "hilarity" and "do me a favour", and paying so little attention that you continue to say I'm suggesting formal writing should match IM.

If an apology would help you reply to my actual points, you certainly have one.
posted by bonaldi at 6:28 PM on June 29, 2011


It's spelled pshaw, you effing troglodyte.

Indeed, it is. Purely a typo, I assure you.

Can I still get my "effing troglodyte" t-shirt? I think that would be ginormous.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 6:30 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


First of all, I considered the IM thing a shared grammar-nerd joshing between grammar nerds, since you and I are obviously 95 percent on the same team, which is Team Knows What The Hell The Serial Comma Even Is, so I considered that entirely friendly. Entirely. Person-to-person, "Oh, man, that's not happening, is it? I don't have to care how people IM each other, do I?" [grabs your lapels] "HELP ME."

The "hilarious" part was not aimed at you. It was aimed at the Oxford people, who have made what I consider the utterly hopeless suggestion that the people who write their press releases are going to reread every sentence to see whether anyone might misunderstand items in a list, which, yes, I consider more challenging than their/they're/there.

Honestly, I had no idea anyone was ACTUALLY mad. I thought it was just nerds messing around, right up until you called me a xenophobe for disagreeing with you, which has kinda sapped my interest. Sorry.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 6:35 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm a Xenaphobe. I mean, it was kinda cool the first couple of seasons, but then I was over it and everybody kept wanting to talk about omigawd did you see Xena? No. Shut up.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 6:42 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


NOOOOOO I LOVE THAT COMMA IT IS MY FAVORITE COMMA
!!!!

It really is my favorite comma. I've been sadly watching as it falls out of favor among my friends and favorite writers, but I will never, never, and never give it up, I don't care what anybody says.
posted by ourobouros at 6:42 PM on June 29, 2011


right up until you called me a xenophobe for disagreeing with you, which has kinda sapped my interest.
Actually that was aimed at the people way upthread who insist that not only is the serial comma correct, it's somehow right and everything is else is "wrong".

But if you think nobody gets actually mad over this stuff, you can't have worked with a team of editors. I've seen dictionaries hurled and (in one memorable case) blood on an Odwes.
posted by bonaldi at 6:42 PM on June 29, 2011


YOU PUT PUNCTUATION OUTSIDE QUOTATION MARKS?

(That's a joke.)

Peace.

[shakes hands; goes off to live-tweet the premiere of Love Challenge Island Survivor Thing or whatever it is, because I contain multitudes]
posted by Linda_Holmes at 6:45 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


worked with a team of editors. I've seen dictionaries hurled

Yeah. Editors are the worst for dic measuring.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 6:45 PM on June 29, 2011


That's a digraph, not a diphthong.

Actually, it's both a diphthong and a digraph, by the meaning of digraph that you're using (i.e., not ligature).
posted by evidenceofabsence at 6:54 PM on June 29, 2011


Also, I looked it up, and it's totally spelled "nyah."
posted by evidenceofabsence at 6:54 PM on June 29, 2011


Also, having read the phrases "lovely, dark, and deep" and "lovely, dark and deep" over and over again, I have totally forgotten what we were talking about.

Lovely. Dark. And deep?

(Walking away from the keyboard now.)
posted by evidenceofabsence at 7:01 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


There are rules about semicolon usage and period (end-stop) usage. They are pretty ironclad. Comma usage is usually a stylistic issue, and corresponds to where one would generally pause if one were to read the sentence aloud. The Oxford comma is slightly more rule-bound, in that it used to be a stylistic necessity, and has fallen out of fashion except for the cases (multiple examples upthread!) where it is necessary for clarification.

If I were to post a thread about the use of "their" as a gender-neutral replacement for "his or her," I am sure 300 comments would follow. I'm not sure why grammar and punctuation arise more ire than, say, political or gender issues, but there you are. Really, it seems strange to me. I am an English teacher, and am aware of these issues...but you know what? I wouldn't be bothered at all if the word "whom" (oh, there's another contentious thread!) disappeared from the English language.

Why, just a couple of days ago, our esteemed Secretary of State misused the word. Sorry I can't find the quote, but regarding sexual violence, Clinton used the words who and whom both as subjects. Whom is often used this way by educated people so they sound educated. Fuck elitism. (Well, yeah, I am a descriptivist, not a prescriptivist. How'd you guess?)
posted by kozad at 7:07 PM on June 29, 2011


" I'm not sure why grammar and punctuation arise more ire than, say, political or gender issues,"

*cough* class markers *cough*
posted by klangklangston at 7:20 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


"Lovely, dark and deep" might be used to mean something like "Lovely: dark and deep" but I think by context you'd generally know either way and in most non-poetry situations, it would simply mean the same thing as "Lovely, dark, and deep". Having said that, I have an arbitrary affection for the serial comma.
posted by serazin at 7:24 PM on June 29, 2011


.
posted by ztdavis at 7:35 PM on June 29, 2011


David Foster Wallace
Tense Present
Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage

posted by ovvl at 7:45 PM on June 29, 2011


BASTARDS!
posted by 1000monkeys at 8:04 PM on June 29, 2011


I like the Oxford comma because I think it frequently removes ambiguity from lists of things. However, I can get behind a reasonable suggestion like this one in the revised Oxford Style Guide: Use it if it will remove ambiguity! Makes sense to me, and I didn't even go to Oxford.
posted by Mister_A at 8:11 PM on June 29, 2011


Just fucking great. I don't like this, and why I give a fuck about commas is very clear to me.

It used to be a small comfort to feel that there were people in positions of power and influence who gave a fuck about syntactic representations of knowledge and that as I used and abused the language in whatever way I saw fit, there was far above me in the rarefied academic realm an effort to guide the language towards explicit meaning as a principle.

Ambiguity, I can do myself but I expect the gods to be a little less fickle.
posted by vicx at 8:18 PM on June 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


I like the Oxford comma because I think it frequently removes ambiguity from lists of things. However, I can get behind a reasonable suggestion like this one in the revised Oxford Style Guide: Use it if it will remove ambiguity! Makes sense to me, and I didn't even go to Oxford.

The issue is that ambiguity is subjective. Not using it when you think there's no ambiguity only creates ambiguity.

"My parents, Ayn Rand and God" could mean "my parents, who are Ayn Rand and God", or under a system of not using the comma it could mean "my parents, and also Ayn Rand, and also God" and that the author believed this to be unambiguous. If the Oxford comma is expected as common usage, then "My parents, Ayn Rand and God" only ever means "My parents, who are Ayn Rand and God", because the way to list all three uses a comma. If the rule is to only use the comma when not doing so would create ambiguity, or to use it when doing so would remove ambiguity, then the rule is to always use it. Because in addition to always making the sentence equally clear if not more clear, it also makes the work as a whole more clear by having consistent punctuation.

A work is always clearer if the author always uses the Oxford comma. So, always use the Oxford comma. It's telling that as much as the comma's detractors like to call people nerds and idiots, in the face of the many examples of a lack of comma creating ambiguity where none existed, they have yet to be able to produce a situation - even an awkward and hypothetical one like the Ayn Rand hypothetical - where the use of the comma even theoretically reduces clarity.
posted by kafziel at 8:20 PM on June 29, 2011 [5 favorites]


David Foster Wallace demolished
posted by Wolof at 8:20 PM on June 29, 2011


but you know what? I wouldn't be bothered at all if the word "whom" (oh, there's another contentious thread!) disappeared from the English language.

But it's so logical ... very easy to remember.

Whom. Him. Herm.

See?
posted by krinklyfig at 8:21 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, them.
posted by krinklyfig at 8:22 PM on June 29, 2011


A sentence beginning like this:
My parents, Ayn Rand and God...

would pretty obviously benefit from an Oxford comma. It is a fairly unambiguous case of ambiguity; anyone who pays attention to things like Oxford commas will know that a sentence like that needs one.

Contrast with
Magog, Ayn Rand and God...

and there is no ambiguity and no need for the comma. And I say this as a person who has added more Oxford commas to ad copy than you can shake a stick at. But I'm OK with, "if you don't need it, don't use it." I am also OK with people who use it every instance (I was one of these people until like 10 minutes ago!), because who needs to overthink every little thing?
posted by Mister_A at 8:26 PM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


Ambiguity, I can do myself but I expect the gods to be a little less fickle.

Case in point: That comma makes it sound like you can do yourself, but do you expect the gods to be celibate, or have a partner?
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:29 PM on June 29, 2011


I am surprised at how well I'm taking this news. Thanks, Zoloft!
posted by Mister_A at 8:31 PM on June 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


Loving would be easy if your commas were like my dreams. Red, gold and greeeen. Red, gold, and gree-ee-ee-een.
posted by raysmj at 8:44 PM on June 29, 2011


Hey, fantastic, a patronising web developer

Hey, fantastic, an ad hominem served with a boatload of hypocrisy, at least, if the "patronising" bit was meant to have a point.

who believes that language specialists (and admitted chumps like me) haven't bothered to consider issues in their field.

I think if you re-read my comment, you'll find I'm mostly leveling it at you -- and rather narrowly at a single one of your arguments -- rather than the entire field.

But if you like, I will up the ante and say that I've never seen a convincing argument from language specialists on formal grounds. Perhaps someone like yourself could link a few to us -- if, you know, it's not simply specialist stuff simply beyond lay audiences such as poor patronizing web developers like myself who are very likely unable to have any substantial abilities beyond slinging markup and moving pixels around.

As for machine training: If you think that a serial comma is all that stands between us and a really robust English-language parser, then it's good that you're out.

Please re-read my comment. Do you really think any reasonable person would characterize it as (1) a statement that a serial comma is all that stands between us an a natural language revolution instead of (2) an argument criticizing your equivalence between (a) the overhead of resolving a compound token (b) the costs backtracking across phrases and relying on semantics and probability?

If so, I encourage you to continue this kind of comeback. Eventually, people will probably conclude you brought the same care in forming your conclusions on the topic as you bring to engaging people in thread.

If you're looking for a formal argument, you're also out of luck.

It's not because you can't formalize these particular constructs, though.

Because style is about style, it's about what's right and wrong for a given publication. Some publications are looking to save lots of space.

I don't mind this argument; if the idea is to make tradeoffs between space and solid syntax, that's fine. But it doesn't mean that you're not trading something real away, or that the equivalence I popped into the thread to take issue with isn't false.

But in this world, it's easy to parse for sure: the parents are Bob and Jane. If the meaning intended was "Bob and Jane and my parents" they'd have to write it like that

Or use one of the other less confusing and overloaded means of designating appositives.
posted by weston at 8:47 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


Just as long as we all agree that it's &mdash;—not hyphen—and no spaces on either side.

Also, always use &hellip;… because only heathens use periods for ellipses.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:48 PM on June 29, 2011 [4 favorites]


I love commas and plan to continue to use them as frequently as I can.
posted by overglow at 8:53 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


weston: I was half-trolling earlier in this thread because I both believe that the oxford comma is ridiculous and I also think it's almost completely a non-issue. That's the natural humor of this "issue" - it's almost meaningless, and obviously so, and yet any nerd worth his or her salt will have a strong opinion on the matter. And that opinion will almost certainly be based on whatever convention they were taught. it's the apex of meaningless nerd thunderdome.

But here's the real argument for those of us AP-ers against the Oxfordians about this: The oxford comma has it's place, but that place isn't everywhere, and most notably isn't in narrative works. In the OED? Sure. In legal writing, damn straight. Err on the side of as much clarity as is possible in language. That's what those writings are for. Nobody reads them for pleasure.

In narrative writing, however, whether fiction or non-fiction, the oxford comma is a speed-bump which disrupts rhythm. The comma, in a list, is designed to create an infinitessimal, but still present, pause between list items. In English, at least, the "and" ably serves this cause on its own. There is no need for the comma. Moreover, there is a rhythm to how we read/speak these lists. No matter how subtle, we give the cadence in some way of "baDUM baDUM baDUM baDUM baDUm BAAA... dum." (note: there is the very real chance that nobody who isn't me knows what I'm trying to communicate right there.)

The point is that the comma breaks the familiar rhythm, and that there are actually next to no instances where it would be used for the purpose of removing ambiguity which wouldn't be better served by simply re-arranging the list. We're a pretty smart species with a decent grasp on communication and language, and we figure things out based on context. The oxford comma has it's place where it is needed for absolute precision. Otherwise, poetry takes precedence, and the oxford comma runs counter to that.

Thar is all.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:30 PM on June 29, 2011 [5 favorites]


I'll use that extra comma if I damn well please, because I grew up with it, I have a lifetime supply, and you damn kids better get off my lawn, outta my garden, and away from my porch!
posted by BlueHorse at 9:36 PM on June 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


The point is that the comma breaks the familiar rhythm, and that there are actually next to no instances where it would be used for the purpose of removing ambiguity which wouldn't be better served by simply re-arranging the list. ... Otherwise, poetry takes precedence, and the oxford comma runs counter to that.

But the irony in your statement is that rearranging a list then becomes a higher priority than the potential needs of poetry, which may not want to rearrange those elements. This is no less egregious than what you perceive as an overbearing oxford comma rule. If you simply let poetry do its thing, it will undoubtedly run into a situation in which ambiguity needs to be mitigated by a comma. I'm not sure there is any way around that.

And I've never felt the rhythm issue. Perhaps it's because at the end of a list, I take the comma and the and to be a joint pause, rather than treated separately, along with the fact that and does not necessarily serve as a pause on its own, but at times as a simple coordinating conjunction. There is no implied pause in talking about "apples and oranges."
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:58 PM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


Also, always use &hellip;… because only heathens use periods for ellipses.

A new way for me to be typographically pedantic. Thank you! As far as I'm concerned, this thread has redeemed itself.
posted by grouse at 9:59 PM on June 29, 2011


SpacemanStix, the AP rule allows the usage of the comma where using it would help. I understand that some won't feel the rhythm issue, but for many of us it makes a difference. I feel like discretion is a better rule than "always."
posted by Navelgazer at 10:06 PM on June 29, 2011


Otherwise, poetry takes precedence, and the oxford comma runs counter to that. posted by vicx at 10:09 PM on June 29, 2011


Noooooo! I am an advocate FOR the comma. Not because that's what I learned in school, but because it plays a useful role. For example, this sentence has two meanings:

I vetted this idea with the developers, Patty and Kevin.

This one does not:

I vetted this idea with the developers, Patty, and Kevin.
posted by readyfreddy at 10:39 PM on June 29, 2011


Well, at least there will be one less heavily-armed, sandwich-eating panda bear roaming our streets.

Unless we are to foolishly believe that, pandas eat sandwiches.
posted by obscurator at 10:43 PM on June 29, 2011


Or one could write, "I vetted this Idea with Patty, Kevin and the developers."
posted by Navelgazer at 10:51 PM on June 29, 2011


(which also scans better, just to say it.)
posted by Navelgazer at 10:52 PM on June 29, 2011


Or one could tell the truth: Patty, I didn't vet the idea with anyone. I was lying when I implied - with questionable grammar - that I did.
posted by vidur at 10:53 PM on June 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


Not if one wanted to emphasize the developers first, adding Patty and Kevin for good measure.
posted by scrowdid at 11:03 PM on June 29, 2011


In which case they could use the damn comma and no one would be offended. The oxfordians seem to be missing the point of the AP rule completely.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:09 PM on June 29, 2011 [3 favorites]


They had a choice between croissants, bacon and eggs, and muesli.
Shouldn't it be "among" instead of "between"?


Wouldn't among imply you were joining a group, or that you were making an entirely unrelated decision while surrounded by breakfast?
Among croissants, bacon and eggs, and muesli, he had a choice. To give up like a punk and do time, or to go out guns blazing, do or die. He knew deep down he was too hard boiled a con to give up.
Also, you'd have to swap and for or even if it did work. I'd think a better substitute would be 'of' or maybe 'of either'.
I'm not sure how I get sucked into these things.
posted by BrotherCaine at 11:54 PM on June 29, 2011


I'm honestly curious: those of you that can see no possible difference in meaning between, "The woods are lovely, dark and deep," and, "The woods are lovely, dark, and deep," did you ever have to diagram sentences in school?
posted by misha at 12:01 AM on June 30, 2011


It's not that I see no difference, it's just that I don't believe there would be real ambiguity if read in context.

If anything I'd say, if your intent is to say, "The woods are lovely. They are dark and deep - which is what makes them lovely", then "The woods are lovely, dark and deep" is an inherently ambiguous or confusing way to make your point. Which is fine for some contexts (poetry) and silly for others.

But in answer to your question, I failed sentence diagraming and pretty much everything else from 7th grade forward.
posted by serazin at 12:11 AM on June 30, 2011


did you ever have to diagram sentences in school?

I did. :)

it's just that I don't believe there would be real ambiguity if read in context.

Read or read aloud? In regular speech, there would be a pause indicating that the last item is the last item in a list. Leave out the pause and the last two items go together. OK, maybe in fast speech the pause would be less noticeable or non-existant, but in that case, it too would be just as ambiguous as comma-less sentences can be.

(which also scans better, just to say it.)

Stylistically, perhaps, but my example was an example that I had run across and saved just for this occasion. There are better examples where you can't rewrite things so tidily. And, punctuation shouldn't have to rely on style to work. Nor should it get in the way of meaning. Isn't that kind of the purpose of punctuation? To make the meaning clear? Leaving out the comma makes some sentences ambiguous.
posted by readyfreddy at 12:50 AM on June 30, 2011


with questionable grammar

Clunk? Perhaps. Questionable grammar? Nonsense.
posted by readyfreddy at 12:53 AM on June 30, 2011


er, clunky. mefi, Y U no have edit?
posted by readyfreddy at 12:53 AM on June 30, 2011


Poetry examples here are often bad, because it's inconsistently punctuated, ambiguity in meaning is intentional, and the punctuation may be driven by spoken rhythm as well as syntax.
Fragment
Jose Garcia Villa

Anchored Angel
And,lay,he,down,the,golden,father,
(Genesis’,fist,all,gentle,now).
between,the,Wall,of,China,and,
The,tiger,tree(his,centuries,his,
Aerials,of,light)…
Anchored,entire,angel!
He,in,his,estate,miracle,and,living,dew,
His,fuses,gold,his,cobalts,love,
And,in,his,eyepits,
O,under,the,liontelling,sun—
The,zeta,truth—the,swift,red,Christ.
posted by pleasebekind at 1:07 AM on June 30, 2011


It's telling that as much as the comma's detractors like to call people nerds and idiots
You think the only name-calling in this thread is from the comma's detractors? Boy, we're deep into religious blindness now.

they have yet to be able to produce a situation - even an awkward and hypothetical one like the Ayn Rand hypothetical - where the use of the comma even theoretically reduces clarity.

What? OK. "I made sandwiches. There's tuna, ham and cheese" is such a situation. In a non-serial world, this is unambiguous: it must mean three sandwiches. If it were to mean two, it would need to be rewritten.

To a serial user, this is ambiguous: is it the two sandwiches suggested by the punctuation, or is it actually the three sandwiches suggested by the construction of the sentence? It could be either. There is ambiguity, because the possibility of this sentence having been written by a non-serial user.

The much-vaunted unambiguity of the serial-comma is fragile, and it vanishes as soon as the reader is in a context where the sentence could possibly have been written by a non-serial user.

Since many professional language users and much of written literature deliberately shuns the serial comma, this will always be a possibility for the serial reader. Thus the routine serial comma is a redundant and extraenous piece of punctuation in this, the actual world. It confers no additional clarity, because it cannot be trusted.

you'll find I'm mostly leveling it at you -- and rather narrowly at a single one of your arguments -- rather than the entire field
That's fine. "[...] as are the dozens of editors who are, as far as I can tell, in the same boat" must have also meant me, then. Ambiguity must have got in, somehow.

Please re-read my comment. Do you really think any reasonable person would characterize it as...
I think the construction "the cost of training a brain or machine to recognize" can be reasonably read as your putting equal weight on machine reading as you do human reading, yes.
posted by bonaldi at 3:49 AM on June 30, 2011


In a non-serial world, this is unambiguous: it must mean three sandwiches.

Here's a sentence from a non-serial world:

"There's tuna, and ham and cheese."

In other words, the serial comma is not the only structure that can perform a grouping function. There's ambiguity here, as well.

The much-vaunted unambiguity of the serial-comma is fragile, and it vanishes as soon as the reader is in a context where the sentence could possibly have been written by a non-serial user.

This is a fantastic and air-tight criticism, as long as there are (a) no other structures that perform the same function and can induce similar ambiguities, and (b) language is an absolute rule-structure that can and should only be understood if all the rules are well and properly satisfied.

(b) is the real killer, because not only isn't it a practical view, it's a view that creates a language so dead as to be maladaptive.

As for myself, I like a language that's free to change to meet the needs of the people who use it; I like a world where the people using language get to create it (which is great, because that's the world I live in).
posted by lodurr at 4:19 AM on June 30, 2011


... and this is why I don't argue for or against the serial comma based on its lack of ambiguity. I like living in a world where language can be loaded with multiple meanings, and down the rabbit hold discussions like the various subthreads on ambiguity or lack thereof descend into meticulous and dead edge cases.
posted by lodurr at 4:27 AM on June 30, 2011


I apologise, I'm genuinely not getting your point, here.

In other words, the serial comma is not the only structure that can perform a grouping function. There's ambiguity here, as well.
I don't see the ambiguity. In both non-serial and serial world, that sentence means there are two kinds of sandwich.

(a) no other structures that perform the same function and can induce similar ambiguities
I don't see how the possibility of other ambiguous structures relates to the fragility or not of the serial comma. The serial comma is fragile in a non-serial world. I don't see how the existence of additional ambiguous or fragile structures somehow make the serial comma non-fragile.

(b) is the real killer, because not only isn't it a practical view, it's a view that creates a language so dead as to be maladaptive.
Yes, this is exactly the argument against the serial comma. It's an absolute rule-structure that depends upon total adherence for its supposed gains in clarity. Which like you say isn't practical. I too like a language that's free to change, and this world we live in.
posted by bonaldi at 4:29 AM on June 30, 2011


I don't see how the possibility of other ambiguous structures relates to the fragility or not of the serial comma.

It relates to the validity of fragility as a basis for criticism.

Yes, this is exactly the argument against the serial comma. It's an absolute rule-structure that depends upon total adherence for its supposed gains in clarity.

No, it's exactly the argument in favor of letting people use whatever structure works for them. Serial commas improve clarity where they're used, their use elsewhere doesn't prevent real-world human beings from understanding most sentences where they're omitted, and the ambiguity that they permit can be welcome in other contexts.

There's a rigidity in these arguments that's anathema to living language. If you don't want to use serial commas, bully for you. I'm just not seeing anything even vaguely approaching a compelling argument that they should be eliminated from the language. They're a grammatically permissible structure that improve clarity where they're used, and cause no real harm anywhere else.

Strenuous arguments against them on the principle that the existence of structure in one place causes the perception of chaos elsewhere are just deeply unconvincing to me.
posted by lodurr at 4:34 AM on June 30, 2011


To a serial user, this is ambiguous: is it the two sandwiches suggested by the punctuation, or is it actually the three sandwiches suggested by the construction of the sentence? It could be either.

Oh, just when I think I'm out.

This is not true. It's just absolutely, positively not true. No serial user believes you could describe two sandwiches by saying "There's tuna, ham and cheese," any more than you could describe what's on your floor by saying "There's shoes, socks." I realize this was given as an early example, but it is not, in fact, an example of the ambiguity problem. Neither serial users nor non-serial users believe that you can create a list of two objects by simply smacking a comma between them ("I went with Joe, Becky" "I had fish, rice"). And neither believes that the OTHER might potentially write a sentence this way. There is NO ambiguity in the sentence "There's tuna, ham and cheese." It can be interpreted by either a serialist OR a nonserialist only as a list of three items (though, of course, the serialist understands that a nonserialist wrote it).

A lovely nonserialist who wanted to avoid confusing the ear might rearrange them as "There's ham, tuna and cheese," but people who use serial commas don't say things like, "I read books, newspapers." I promise. And we don't think anybody else does, either.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 4:45 AM on June 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


It relates to the validity of fragility as a basis for criticism.
Ah, then I disagree. The (or one very strident) defence of the serial comma is that it reduces ambiguity and reduces the burden of parsing a sentence.

By saying that's it's fragile, I'm saying it therefore does neither of those things, because to do so it would have to be universal and always correctly applied. That doesn't mean the non-serial comma gets any better at those things, it just joins all the other fragile structures of language in putting some burden on the reader.

Serial commas improve clarity where they're used
Yes, which is why they're a vital part of a non-serial world.

I'm just not seeing anything even vaguely approaching a compelling argument that they should be eliminated from the language

Ah! See, nobody is making this argument. They are saying, as Oxford is, that they should be omitted where unnecessary.

Others are insisting that serial commas are always necessary and should always be used. To demand that the whole world be serial -- and therefore that serial comma style be assumed everywhere -- is unrealistic and unattainable. That's what's rigid.

No serial user believes you could describe two sandwiches by saying "There's tuna, ham and cheese"
This is exactly what the example hinges upon! In a fixed serial world, that sentence is punctuated as two kinds of sandwiches. So upon reading it, what is the serial user to do? They can say "ah the prescribed rules say 'these are two kinds of sandwiches'" or they must necessarily say "there is ambiguity here, what do they mean?". You agree with me they must choose the latter, and so dependence on the serial comma has left them in an ambiguous position.

Demanding the serial comma be exclusively used inevitably results in an ambiguous position when encountering real world sentences.

There is NO ambiguity in the sentence "There's tuna, ham and cheese."
200+ favourites appear to disagree and see it as a delightful example of ambiguity.

But, if you like, you can use lodurr's excellent "lovely, dark and deep" example. When a serialist encounters it, they face the ambiguity of deciding whether it's a correctly used serial comma or a correctly used non-serial comma. Only global adherence to, and perfect usage of, the serial comma would remove the ambiguity. And this is an impossibility. The universal serial comma is fragile.

Neither serial users nor non-serial users believe that you can create a list of two objects by simply smacking a comma between them ("I went with Joe, Becky" "I had fish, rice").
American copy editors evidently do. I was honestly deeply bewildered the first time I encountered a headline of the style "local man pledges to eat fish, rice".
posted by bonaldi at 5:15 AM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Ah, then I disagree. The (or one very strident) defence of the serial comma is that it reduces ambiguity and reduces the burden of parsing a sentence.

First, the stridency I'm seeing on that score is in response to stridency on the other side. I don't expect you to agree with that, but that's how I see the stridency developing in this thread: some people taking other people's playful categoricism way too seriously, and proceeding from there.

Second, it's quite clear that it does actually do those things, on the net. As I noted, the idea that serial commas somehow cause people to get flummoxed when they read ordinary sentences is tantamount to arguing that laws against murder will encourage people to kill in areas where those laws don't apply.

The only place that serial commas cause people difficulty in interpreting the vast, vast, vast majority of sentences which lack them is in rigid logical scenarios that don't have much bearing on actual language use. In my mind, the kind of prescriptivism that requires [see following] omission of a comma before the last item in a list is the kind that leads to strident discussions like we're seeing here in this thread.

Ah! See, nobody is making this argument. They are saying, as Oxford is, that they should be omitted where unnecessary.

And you've taken pains to establish that in your opinion, it's never necessary. So in your opinion -- based on these careful arguments you're strenuously (one might even say stridently) making, it should always be omitted. So you are, in effect, making exactly that argument.

I'm getting a whiff of 'distinction without a difference'. [note placement of period outside single quotes. because it parses more cleanly.]

200+ favourites appear to disagree and see it as a delightful example of ambiguity.

So THAT'S what "favorites" means! I'd been wondering about that -- thanks for clearing it up!
posted by lodurr at 5:27 AM on June 30, 2011


Second, it's quite clear that it does actually do those things, on the net.
No, only the use of a serial comma before the final "and" in a list can claim to do that. The invisible but intentional use of a serial comma in a phrase like "lonely, dark and deep" can't claim that.

First, the stridency I'm seeing on that score is in response to stridency on the other side.
You want to do a who-started-it, it might be worth going down the thread from the beginning and seeing just how much vehemence there is pro-comma before anybody dared to speak up anti.

And you've taken pains to establish that in your opinion, it's never necessary.
I disagree. Your own example is a good one. If you want to get over the three-adjective sense of "lovely, dark, and deep" then you can punctuate it with a serial comma. I think rewriting would probably help more, but am sure there are plenty of examples where rewriting would destroy the feeling of the sentence.

The serial comma is sometimes necessary in places to avoid ambiguity or undesirable rewriting. That doesn't mean it is always required.

So THAT'S what "favorites" means! I'd been wondering about that -- thanks for clearing it up!
Do I now need to clear up what "appear" means, too? Fuck's sake.
posted by bonaldi at 5:37 AM on June 30, 2011


Here's a question for anyone here who does machine parsing of english: what happens if you replace 'and' (or 'or', which we haven't mentioned but which is also a part of all this) with commas? Do you get a generally intelligible text? Is the meaning appreciably changed?
posted by lodurr at 5:38 AM on June 30, 2011


No, only the use of a serial comma before the final "and" in a list can claim to do that.

Do I now have to explain what "on the net" means? Fuck's sake.

I disagree. Your own example is a good one. If you want to get over the three-adjective sense of "lovely, dark, and deep" then you can punctuate it with[out] a serial comma. [I'm assuming you meant "without", because it doesn't make sense otherwise.]

But if there is no "serial comma" in usage -- which would be the case in your world without serial commas -- then omitting it adds no new meaning.

The serial comma is sometimes necessary in places to avoid ambiguity or undesirable rewriting. That doesn't mean it is always required.

Which is it: Using it anywhere promotes confusion, or we can use it if we want to? Make up my mind.
posted by lodurr at 5:45 AM on June 30, 2011


All right. Now clicking "favorite" is an argument, headlines are examples of standard grammar, and my failure to be confused is airtight evidence that I am confused because JUST BY NOT BEING CONFUSED, I have admitted I am confused! Or something.

Tempting as it is to hang around to see what lengths you're willing to go to here, it's pretty clear you're just amusing yourself, so I have nothing more to add.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 5:47 AM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Do I now have to explain what "on the net" means? Fuck's sake.
Yes please, because the context of "the internet" didn't do a damn thing to qualify your "it" referring to the serial comma.

But if there is no "serial comma" in usage -- which would be the case in your world without serial commas -- then omitting it adds no new meaning.
Ding fucking ding. Hence it can be omitted where it isn't required, in this actual world.

Which is it: Using it anywhere promotes confusion, or we can use it if we want to? Make up my mind.

So close. The point is not using it anywhere, but expecting it everywhere promotes confusion. In contrast to the insistence way upthread that people who parse sentences not always expecting the serial comma have "trained" themselves "wrongly".

Now clicking "favorite" is an argument
If there is an explanation for 200+ favourites on that post that doesn't include at least some of them thinking it's a good example, I'd love to hear it. Was there a sudden upsurge in bookmarking at the start of this thread?

headlines are examples of standard grammar
Yes, just like I said grammar should be based on IM usage!

my failure to be confused is airtight evidence that I am confused
Your failure to be confused is evidence that you necessarily parse the sentence as if was written by a non-serialist, that's all.

I have nothing more to add.
This will be the second time now you've flounced out of a discussion neatly avoiding any substantive points made. I don't think you had much to add in the first place, really.
posted by bonaldi at 5:55 AM on June 30, 2011


Linda_Holmes : No serial user believes you could describe two sandwiches by saying "There's tuna, ham and cheese,"

Two, no. One or three, yes.

"Tuna and ham and cheese" has all three possibilities.
"Tuna, and ham, and cheese" has only one possibility but sounds tedious.
Which leaves "Tuna, ham, and cheese" and "tuna, and ham and cheese", both with our beloved Oxford comma, as the only phrasings that convey the correct number of sandwiches and don't sound like a two year old reading the phone book.


but people who use serial commas don't say things like, "I read books, newspapers." I promise. And we don't think anybody else does, either.

You wouldn't write that, but I'd consider it quite common in speech... "So what do you like to do for fun?" "Oh, video games, hiking, playing with the dog, things like that". Of course, that amounts to an entirely different argument, about spoken vs written English, because we don't tend to say the word "comma". ;)
posted by pla at 6:09 AM on June 30, 2011


So, the arguments against the serial comma are "don't remove the sentence from its context" and "too many commas slows down reading"?

Huh.
posted by grubi at 6:38 AM on June 30, 2011


kafziel: "My parents, Ayn Rand and God" could mean "my parents, who are Ayn Rand and God"...

Only if you assume the audience consists of complete idiots who would automatically reject this interpretation as nonsense, except perhaps when delivered by Stephen Colbert, then they'd likely understand it as a joke.

If the Oxford comma is expected as common usage...

Well, that's the problem. It's not. Hundreds of publications with a combined audience of millions have published billions of words not using a serial comma. The serial comma isn't standard across all variants of English, much less all the other languages that use Latin alphabets. The two variations have been in practice for over a century now, and yet, culture, language, and letters have not fallen to bits in a cacophony of ambiguity.

weston: I don't mind this argument; if the idea is to make tradeoffs between space and solid syntax, that's fine. But it doesn't mean that you're not trading something real away, or that the equivalence I popped into the thread to take issue with isn't false.

Of course the equivalence you take issue with is false. It's a strawman that ignores the importance of both semiotics and gestalt psychology.

readyfredy: I vetted this idea with the developers, Patty and Kevin./I vetted this idea with the developers, Patty, and Kevin.

The question of ambiguity in the first construct depends on context. If I've already established in the work that Patty and Kevin are customers so managers brought into the vetting process, then there's no ambiguity. And I'm going to shout this for emphasis:

Newspaper style permits the use of commas where it is useful!

But people here are missing the point. Newspaper style is intentionally reductionistic in form. It has a strong preference for active over passive voice for example.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:04 AM on June 30, 2011 [3 favorites]


Which leaves "Tuna, ham, and cheese" and "tuna, and ham and cheese", both with our beloved Oxford comma, as the only phrasings that convey the correct number of sandwiches and don't sound like a two year old reading the phone book.

The "There's X, Y and Z" phrasing itself conveys the correct number of sandwiches, because no thinking human would automatically assume they're being offered a choice between one kind of lunch.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 7:10 AM on June 30, 2011


And that's before you get into the believability of a tuna-ham-and-cheese sandwich. Yech.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 7:11 AM on June 30, 2011


Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish : because no thinking human would automatically assume they're being offered a choice between one kind of lunch.

Of course they wouldn't - Because that doesn't read as a choice, it instead reads as a description.
posted by pla at 7:36 AM on June 30, 2011


Newspaper style is intentionally reductionistic in form. It has a strong preference for active over passive voice for example.

Which means it's not for everyday use outside that context (just as driving gloves make little sense for commuting to work). Hence, serial commas work for my normal use. Yea, America!
posted by grubi at 7:50 AM on June 30, 2011


consider this example:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

...

to me, the flow of the sentence would absolutely suffer for the lack of it. The pacing and the meter of the words is completely thrown off. Read it aloud, and you get breathless at Posterity. You need that serial comma for prosody.


Perhap some of the disagreement may be based around how long we expect a pause to be in a list of items. To me, I see very little difference in prosody without or with the serial comma:

"We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

Tight. The serial comma there is 50-50, but I'd take it out.

The real communicative power of language isn't always so much in precision, as it is in precise ambiguities.

So it's an aesthetic argument. As some have already said.
posted by mrgrimm at 8:00 AM on June 30, 2011


mrgrimm : So it's an aesthetic argument. As some have already said.

lodurr definitely does not speak for all of us with that statement.

IMO, syntactical ambiguity equals "broken".

That doesn't mean a language can't let you express something ambiguous; But if you can do so accidentally, the language needs a tweak to remove the point of failure.

In the present context, always using an Oxford comma absolutely solves the problem. We can debate all day whether or not you usually need it, but I notice that no one has proposed a situation where it causes problems.
posted by pla at 8:27 AM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Of course they wouldn't - Because that doesn't read as a choice, it instead reads as a description.

I have never seen a sentence pair of the form "Here's some [general category]. There's [specific subcategory]." where you're only talking about one type of item. "I made some pancakes. There's blueberry." would be met with "...and?"

Why would you not just say "I made tuna, ham and cheese sandwiches for everyone who comments"? Other than the aforementioned "yech."
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 8:34 AM on June 30, 2011


Of course they wouldn't - Because that doesn't read as a choice, it instead reads as a description.
As a description it is vastly more likely to be "They are tuna, ham and cheese" not "There are/is". I have never seen the alternative.

Hence, serial commas work for my normal use.
Just so long as you aren't doing ambiguous stuff that depends on the reader knowing you're using serial commas, then yes.

In the present context, always using an Oxford comma absolutely solves the problem. We can debate all day whether or not you usually need it, but I notice that no one has proposed a situation where it causes problems.

I have tried to.The Oxford comma causes problems not in the common ", and" situation where it can be merely superfluous, but in the situation where its omission is relevant. It causes those problems by intending to convey meaning, but that meaning being lost because the world is such that we have to always assume and consider the writing is being done by a non-Oxford-comma user.

For the Oxford comma to remove ambiguity takes more than a "tweak", it takes total adherence at all times by all English users. Going to happen? No. Even conceivable? No. Happy medium: Write such as to remove the possibility of ambiguity, using an ", and" where that's required, or rewriting where it's not appropriate.
posted by bonaldi at 8:36 AM on June 30, 2011


So close. The point is not using it anywhere, but expecting it everywhere promotes confusion.

Who expects it everywhere?

You seem to be arguing from a position grounded in a world where people use language according a a set of codified rules, instead of using it according to accepted practices, which is how people actually use it.

This will be the second time now you've flounced out of a discussion neatly avoiding any substantive points made.

"Flounced"? Really?

And are we supposed to be keeping track now of how often there's an opportunity to describe someone's entrance/exit in derogatory terms?
posted by lodurr at 8:40 AM on June 30, 2011


Who expects it everywhere?
kafziel, for one, who lives (or hopes to) live "in a world where people correctly understand the comma's importance."
posted by bonaldi at 8:51 AM on June 30, 2011


I met a happy medium, once. She told me I was going to die. Not sure what she was so damn happy about.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 9:01 AM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


And are we supposed to be keeping track now of how often there's an opportunity to describe someone's entrance/exit in derogatory terms?

If you're keeping track, I sashayed out of the thread earlier.
posted by Greg Nog at 9:01 AM on June 30, 2011


I'm more of a traipser.
posted by klangklangston at 9:30 AM on June 30, 2011


pla: That doesn't mean a language can't let you express something ambiguous; But if you can do so accidentally, the language needs a tweak to remove the point of failure.

Well, first of all, I don't think we can do so without trying to turn English into something like Lojban. Secondly, thus far, none of the advocates for the syntactic necessity of the serial comma have managed to come up with an example that would be pragmatically or contextually ambiguous. Again, it's a stylistic convention that's not universal in tradition or practice in English, much less in European languages. Most people who are literate have been reading both styles without substantial confusion for decades.

BTW, a serial comma is necessary in both styles for the preamble of the U.S. Constitution. The reason why has already been explained.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:49 AM on June 30, 2011


Misha, yes, I diagrammed sentences in school. Every day in 3rd grade and 5th grade began with Mrs. Edgerton having us diagram for the first 20 minutes or so. Personally, I loved it.

This was the same lovely woman who taught us not to use extraneous commas, by the way.
posted by Navelgazer at 9:57 AM on June 30, 2011


,
posted by maurice at 10:18 AM on June 30, 2011 [3 favorites]


a serial comma is necessary in both styles for the preamble of the U.S. Constitution. The reason why has already been explained.

Where? The only comment says it wouldn't be necessary under the new Oxford (branding) rule.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:26 AM on June 30, 2011


... sashayed ...

such a saucy word! I never do anything that colorful. I think I'd probably lurch or stumble.
posted by lodurr at 10:44 AM on June 30, 2011


I never do anything that colorful. I think I'd probably lurch or stumble.

I tend to wobble, but I rarely fall down.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:57 AM on June 30, 2011


Where? The only comment says it wouldn't be necessary under the new Oxford (branding) rule.

I could be wrong, but a serial comma is advisable when one of the items is a phrase that includes a conjunction.

So a comma is optional for, "truth, justice and the American way."

Advisable for, "War and Peace, Pride and Prejudice, and Frankenstein."
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:15 AM on June 30, 2011


Pride and Prejudice and Frankenstein sounds like just the mash-up that could get me back into the classics.
posted by Devils Rancher at 11:21 AM on June 30, 2011


I never do anything that colorful. I think I'd probably lurch or stumble.

I tend to wobble, but I rarely fall down.


I mostly amble. Sometimes, I even preamble. Often, I ramble.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 11:30 AM on June 30, 2011


I could be wrong, but a serial comma is advisable when one of the items is a phrase that includes a conjunction.

I'd say you're probably right, but I'm not so sure it applies when the conjunction is part of the final phrase in the list.

I might also add a comma after "We," as in "We, the People of the United States, in Order to ..."

Also, I prefer "Web site" to "web site" or, worst, "website."

Irregardlessly ...
posted by mrgrimm at 11:39 AM on June 30, 2011


Damn! I just learned to use the Oxford comma in the most recent two of my six decades to date. Now I've got to forget about it? Feh.

I understood the comma as a symbol that could also be used to add a pause/breath?

Don't say that! I have a colleague who peppers her prose with inappropriate commas all over the place and I can see from her placement that she's mentally reading the sentence and puzzling over whether there was a pause in mental speech and whether it was long enough to warrant a comma. So you get stuff like "The shuffling of the many colorful cards from her mother's antigue deck, was so pleasant that she couldn't bear to stop." I mean, who the hell ever uses a comma to separate a the subject from the predicate? Who does that?
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:41 AM on June 30, 2011


Secondly, thus far, none of the advocates for the syntactic necessity of the serial comma have managed to come up with an example that would be pragmatically or contextually ambiguous.

To quote the original article:
There are some cases where the comma is clearly obligatory:
The bishops of Canterbury, Oxford, Bath and Wells, and Salisbury
Or do I misunderstand you?
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:45 AM on June 30, 2011


Mental Wimp:

Speaking as someone who frequently has to edit things people write, far. Too. Many.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 11:48 AM on June 30, 2011


"Oxford University Press, the birthplace of the Oxford comma, said Thursday that despite claims on Twitter there has been no change in its century-old style."

"They haven't changed their authoritative style guide, but they've changed their internal PR department procedures that they use for press releases. The PR department and the editorial department are two different things, so this doesn't necessarily mean much of anything, except that it's maybe a little embarrassing to have your own PR department abandoning your style guide."
posted by John Cohen at 12:03 PM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Advisable for, "War and Peace, Pride and Prejudice, and Frankenstein."

How about for "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies"?
posted by Mental Wimp at 12:05 PM on June 30, 2011


Secondly, thus far, none of the advocates for the syntactic necessity of the serial comma have managed to come up with an example that would be pragmatically or contextually ambiguous.

- I have tuna, egg, ham and cheese
- I'll have a ham and cheese sandwich then.
- Sorry, you can only have ham OR cheese.
- But you said ham AND cheese, a popular combination offered by many sandwich vendors.
- If I had meant that I would have said 'tune, egg, and ham and cheese.'
- I see what you did there.

I will continue to use the serial comma in my own writing, since it is reflective of good elocution and promotes clarity of expression.
posted by anigbrowl at 12:10 PM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, that's meant as a lead-in for a big musical number. Honestly.
posted by anigbrowl at 12:11 PM on June 30, 2011


1) In what reality do people expect use of the serial comma but not the word "and"?
2) Any sandwich shop that doesn't allow cheese and meat in the same dish would go out of business in a matter of hours. Or cater entirely to kosher Jews, who wouldn't be confused.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 12:29 PM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


anigbrowl: I have tuna, egg, ham and cheese.

Not an example both for the reason you helpfully pointed out, and both Chicago and AP would treat the serial comma as advisable given the existence of a conjunction within one of the items.

Mental Wimp: The bishops of Canterbury, Oxford, Bath and Wells, and Salisbury

Not an issue because the style in question does advise the use of a serial comma in this case, the key issue being the use of a conjunction in one of the items. "Canterbury, Oxford and Salisbury" isn't though.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:36 PM on June 30, 2011


Or cater entirely to kosher Jews, who wouldn't be confused.

But what about Halal? What about Halal!?
posted by lodurr at 12:59 PM on June 30, 2011


Actually, some stores sell pre-wrapped sandwiches rather than making them on site, and there are customers for sandwiches containing only ham or cheese as well as for those containing both; in this example, the vendor sells only single-filling sandwiches. Of course, why the customers and sandwich vendors would be communicating only in writing is another question entirely.
posted by anigbrowl at 1:06 PM on June 30, 2011


War and Peace, Pride and Prejudice, and Frankenstein

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wretched, miserable monster with yellow skin scarcely covering the work of muscles and arteries beneath, and watery eyes, that seem almost of the same colour as the dun white sockets in which they are set, shrivelled complexion, and straight black lips..

However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters' organs.

"My dear Mr. Bennet,'' said his lady to him one day, "have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?''

Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.

"But it is,'' returned she; "for Mr. Clerval has just been here, and he told me all about it.''

Mr. Bennet made no answer.

"Do not you want to know who has taken it?'' cried his wife impatiently.

"You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.''

This was invitation enough.

"Why, my dear, you must know, Mr. Clerval says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from Genevese; his family is one of the most distinguished of that republic, whose ancestors had been for many years counsellors and syndics; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it that he agreed with Mr. Clerval immediately; that he is to take possession before Michaelmas, and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week.''

"What is his name?''

"Frankenstein.''

"Is he married or single?''

"Oh! single, my dear, to be sure! A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. A doctor, or so I'm told. What a fine thing for our girls!''

"How so? how can it affect them?''

"My dear Mr. Bennet,'' replied his wife, "how can you be so tiresome! You must know that I am thinking of his procuring organs from one of them.''

"Is that his design in settling here?''

"Design! nonsense, how can you talk so! But it is very likely that he may fall in love with some part or two of one or more of them, and therefore you must visit him as soon as he comes.''

"I see no occasion for that. You and the girls may go, or you may send them by themselves, which perhaps will be still better; for, as you are as handsome as any of them, Dr. Frankenstein might like your bits and pieces the best of the party. Your mouth, for example, is surely one of the best exercised muscles in the country.''

"My dear, you flatter me. I certainly have had my share of beauty, but I do not pretend to not be fond of my anatomy right where it is, imperfect or no. When a woman has five grown up daughters, she ought to give over thinking of selling her own organs to fatten her husband's purse.''

"In such cases, a woman has not often much life left to think of.''

"But, my dear, you must indeed go and see Dr. Frankenstein when he comes into the neighbourhood.''

"It is more than I engage for, I assure you.''

"But consider your daughters. Only think what an establishment it would be for one of them to obtain eternal life for some otherwise doomed component. Sir William and Lady Lucas are determined to go, merely on that account, for in general, you know they visit no new comers. Indeed you must go, for it will be impossible for us to visit him, if you do not.''

"You are over-scrupulous, surely. I dare say Dr. Frankenstein will be very glad to see you; and I will send a few lines by you to assure him of my hearty consent to his performing surgery on which ever he chuses of the girls; though I must throw in a good word for my little Lizzy.''

"I desire you will do no such thing. Lizzy is not a bit better than the others; and I am sure she is not half so handsome as Jane, nor half so good humoured as Lydia. But you are always giving her the preference.''

"They have none of them much to recommend them,'' replied he; "they are all silly and ignorant like other girls; but Lizzy has something more of quickness than her sisters.''

"Mr. Bennet, how can you abuse your own children in such way? You take delight in vexing me. You have no compassion on my poor nerves.''

"You mistake me, my dear. I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these twenty years at least. I'm sure the good doctor would consider them exemplary specimens.''

"Ah! you do not know what I suffer.''

"But I hope you will get over it, and live to see many young men of four thousand a year come into the neighbourhood.''

"It will be no use to us if twenty such should come, since you will not visit them.''

"Depend upon it, my dear, that when there are twenty I will visit them all.''

Mr. Bennet was so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humour, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three and twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character. Her mind was less difficult to develope. She was a woman of mean understanding, little information, and uncertain temper. When she was discontented, she fancied herself nervous. The business of her life was to get her daughters sold off, in whole or in part; its solace was visiting and news. So it was no surprise that when Mr. Bennet did indeed send a few lines to his wealthy new neighbor, Dr. Frankenstein, that those lines consisted in their entirety of: "My dear Dr. Frankenstein. Take my wife. Please."

To be continued..
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 1:11 PM on June 30, 2011 [4 favorites]


My argument isn't with the serial comma as a stylistic flourish. It's something I enforce as a matter of style and prefer in my own reading and writing. My argument is with bad science and linguistics in the service of pedantry over a purely stylistic convention that's not even ubiquitous within American English, much less publication in a half-dozen related languages.

Wikipedia points out that the serial comma can sometimes create ambiguity between an appositional phrase and a list. "... my mother, Ayn Rand, and God." Again, I'd argue most of these ambiguities are resolved by internal logic, context, and pragmatics.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:14 PM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


turns out, its not the Oxford University Press Writing and Style Guide.
posted by wayofthedodo at 1:17 PM on June 30, 2011


The PR department and the editorial department are two different things, so this doesn't necessarily mean much of anything, except that it's maybe a little embarrassing to have your own PR department abandoning your style guide."

This is unfair. For many purposes, the University of Oxford and Oxford University Press ought to be considered different entities. OUP has its very own publicity department, which probably still uses the serial comma.
posted by grouse at 1:23 PM on June 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


Fixed!
posted by Linda_Holmes at 2:03 PM on June 30, 2011


"Oxford University Press, the birthplace of the Oxford comma, said Thursday that despite claims on Twitter there has been no change in its century-old style."

...

turns out, its not the Oxford University Press Writing and Style Guide.

dudes, grouse broke that news 26 hours ago.
posted by mrgrimm at 2:04 PM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Then why wasn't the FPP deleted?
posted by John Cohen at 2:21 PM on June 30, 2011


Then why wasn't the FPP deleted?

That is certainly a valid question. I've been surprised at some of the slim posts that have survived recently, so maybe the mods are on summer break.
posted by mrgrimm at 2:48 PM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Well, they're not psychic. If nobody flagged this post or dropped a note via the contact form, how are they supposed to know that there's a problem?
posted by rtha at 3:08 PM on June 30, 2011


The Devil Tesla said he notified the mods.
posted by grouse at 3:32 PM on June 30, 2011


Well, they're not psychic.

I have it on good authority that Matt Howie is indeed psychic and does tarot card readings.

Also, Jessamyn, has telekinesis and can make laptops chase people around their apartments.

As for Cortex, well, I just shudder at the thought of what psychic powers he may be harboring.


*His parents were part of a secret government program back in the 60s and 70s before he was birthed...
posted by Skygazer at 4:12 PM on June 30, 2011


I have it on good authority that Matt Howie is indeed psychic and does tarot card readings.

Also, Jessamyn, has telekinesis and can make laptops chase people around their apartments.

As for Cortex, well, I just shudder at the thought of what psychic powers he may be harboring.


Almost:

Actually, Matt has a Sidekick, and does taro root readings, which mostly involves serving taro root bubble tea and reading selections from Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi.

Jessamyn has tendinitis and can make lap dogs chase people with pet allergies around their appartments.

And contrary to popular belief, Cortex's parents did not take Cortexiphan back in the 60s and 70s.

[SPOILER ALERT!!!]



This is because Cortex no longer exists, and therefore has no parents. Also, his psychic power mainly consists of knowing exactly how long to toast bread in order to burn it. A handy skill, to be sure, but hardly to be feared, unless though art made of butter. But that's a lost episode. No, not a LOST! episode, a lost episode.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 4:26 PM on June 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


Secondly, thus far, none of the advocates for the syntactic necessity of the serial comma have managed to come up with an example that would be pragmatically or contextually ambiguous.

Mental Wimp: The bishops of Canterbury, Oxford, Bath and Wells, and Salisbury

Not an issue because the style in question does advise the use of a serial comma in this case, the key issue being the use of a conjunction in one of the items. "Canterbury, Oxford and Salisbury" isn't though.


Do you see why I'm confused. The example is pragmatically and contextually ambiguous. So I think I still misunderstand what you mean by an example that is pragmatically or contextually ambiguous.
posted by Mental Wimp at 5:45 PM on June 30, 2011


But it's not an example where any style guide, be it Oxford or Associated Press, recommends omitting the the serial comma.
posted by Holy Zarquon's Singing Fish at 5:52 PM on June 30, 2011


My wife told me I should check this thread out. I saw it, but I'd been avoiding it. Some people say that MetaFilter doesn't do religion well, but it's really grammar that MetaFilter doesn't do good.
posted by Shohn at 6:13 PM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Are you insinuating that grammar is not a true religion? YOU TAKE THAT BACK!
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 6:15 PM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yeah, fuck this. I have become way less grammar Nazi-ish over the years, but this is one thing I refuse to submit to. Sentences that should have them and don't make me angry.
posted by Put the kettle on at 6:31 PM on June 30, 2011


Also, his psychic power mainly consists of knowing exactly how long to toast bread in order to burn it.


That's not as easy as it sounds.

Although, I may be overthinking this.
posted by Skygazer at 6:37 PM on June 30, 2011


That's just it, IRFH. The problem is that only some if us realize that grammar is the ONLY true religion.
posted by Shohn at 6:45 PM on June 30, 2011


But it's not an example where any style guide, be it Oxford or Associated Press, recommends omitting the the serial comma.

But if a style guide basically says "Just put in punctuation where it's needed," what good is it? I mean, you don't need periods after the terminal sentence of a paragraph, but there they are. I think this idea that one should just put in punctuation where ambiguity might result can lead to some disagreements about when ambiguity happens and leads to inconsistent and sometimes confusing usage. In addition, discussions take time and energy and aren't necessary if you just always use the serial comma.
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:15 PM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wikipedia points out that the serial comma can sometimes create ambiguity between an appositional phrase and a list. "... my mother, Ayn Rand, and God." Again, I'd argue most of these ambiguities are resolved by internal logic, context, and pragmatics.

Sometimes punctuation ain't enough.
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:17 PM on June 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


"But if a style guide basically says "Just put in punctuation where it's needed," what good is it? I mean, you don't need periods after the terminal sentence of a paragraph, but there they are. I think this idea that one should just put in punctuation where ambiguity might result can lead to some disagreements about when ambiguity happens and leads to inconsistent and sometimes confusing usage. In addition, discussions take time and energy and aren't necessary if you just always use the serial comma."

Oh my Jesus, dude! The style guide for ANY PUNCTUATION pretty much just says "Put it where it's needed" and then GIVES YOU EXAMPLES THAT ILLUSTRATE THE RULE.

The AP rules for comma use in a series is as follows:

Use commas to separate elements in a series, but do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series: The flag is red, white and blue. He would nominate Tom, Dick or Harry.

Put a comma before the concluding conjunction in a series, however, if an integral element of the series requires a conjunction: I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast.

Use a comma also before the concluding conjunction in a complex series of phrases: The main points to consider are whether the athletes are skillful enough to compete, whether they have the stamina to endure the training, and whether they have the proper mental attitude.

It's pretty simple and addresses the hoary examples that keep getting trotted out. If you're confused on equal versus unequal adjectives (which some seem to be conflating with serial commas), I can type that up for you too.

But to pretend like this is some insanely complicated rule that breaks language is like pretending that men wearing short pants has destroyed our national character and created a legion of man-boys seeking depraved sins of the flesh.
posted by klangklangston at 11:53 PM on June 30, 2011 [3 favorites]


Not that it's gotten through any of the previous times it's been said, but the issue with the "Put it where it's needed" is that it's always needed, because to be in a pattern of ever not using it is to introduce overall ambiguity. "Needed" is entirely subjective - the non-serial author might think "Lovely, dark and deep" is perfectly clear as a simple series even though it's not - and if the rule is "Always use it" then ambiguity never arises. Not just because a simple series of lovely, dark, and deep will always be "lovely, dark, and deep", but because "lovely, dark and deep" will never mean a series.

You want to talk simple? Your three rules that don't cover anywhere close to all sentences could just more easily be a single shorter rule, "Use commas to separate elements in a series". That's it. Done. All problems always averted.
posted by kafziel at 12:16 AM on July 1, 2011


men wearing short pants has destroyed our national character and created a legion of man-boys seeking depraved sins of the flesh

True that.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 12:19 AM on July 1, 2011


but because "lovely, dark and deep" will never mean a series.
Except when it is written by someone who rejects the Oxford comma. There are plenty of those out there in the world already, having written millions of words, and you're not going to change them all.

So your "never" is already down to a fraction of the possible comma-usage a reader will encounter. Hence, it's actually "sometimes". And so, therefore, is the need for the serial comma, which should be used in those situations where it will be ambiguous for any reader.

We are already in the "pattern of overall ambiguity". We should punctuate accordingly.
posted by bonaldi at 3:04 AM on July 1, 2011


Not that it's gotten through any of the previous times it's been said, but the issue with the "Put it where it's needed" is that it's always needed, because to be in a pattern of ever not using it is to introduce overall ambiguity.

Again, and ad nauseum: This is only true if you live in a universe of pure language-use where people can't figure out shit on their own.

We don't (and almost certainly couldn't) live in that universe.
posted by lodurr at 3:34 AM on July 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Not that it's gotten through any of the previous times it's been said, but the issue with the "Put it where it's needed" is that it's always needed, because to be in a pattern of ever not using it is to introduce overall ambiguity.

As someone who's been working as an editor for almost 20 years, in my experience this simply isn't true. I have worked with style guides that said "Always use it! Except where it might introduce confusion!" and style guides that said "Oxford comma? I spit on your Oxford comma! Never use it! Unless leaving it out would cause confusion!"

People who write, edit, and read are always going to do so imperfectly. There will always be some need for clarification, for tightening up this sentence or that, and - as we see in every thread with more than five comments - the inescapable fact that two people might read the same sentence in completely different ways.

In styles guides and editorial work generally, there's a lot less "Always do it This Way!" than you'd think, and the stuff you Always do This Way is usually not done if it will introduce confusion or ambiguity into the text.

Language being what it is, and people (including editors and writers!) being what they are, there is probably no situation where "No ambiguity, not the least little bit ever," will be true for everyone.
posted by rtha at 6:18 AM on July 1, 2011


Forget the Oxford comma, what we all need to start using is the Shatner comma. It, makes, everything, more, meaningful.
posted by klausness at 7:03 AM on July 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


kottke: So basically, Oxford is telling us to use the Oxford comma but isn't going to use it internally. Oxford gone schizo, y'all!

Or perhaps Oxford as an institution recognizes that publicity copy and academic publications are different modes and genres, worthy of different style standards. If you want for your press release to get attention by the news media, you might as well make it easy to plagiarizequote.


Or maybe Oxford's branding guidelines are produced by the same kinds of marketing hacks who produce those sorts of documents the world over, and actual Oxford academics had nothing whatsoever to do with them.
posted by klausness at 7:28 AM on July 1, 2011


"Not that it's gotten through any of the previous times it's been said, but the issue with the "Put it where it's needed" is that it's always needed, because to be in a pattern of ever not using it is to introduce overall ambiguity."

Well, no.

Like everyone's mentioned, that's only ambiguous if you fucking beg the question, robo-boy.
posted by klangklangston at 8:28 AM on July 1, 2011


"Lovely, dark and deep" is perfectly clear as a simple series even though it's not - and if the rule is "Always use it" then ambiguity never arises.

Anyone else feel that trying to promote a singular interpretation of "lovely, dark and deep" in a genre that lives and dies on word play and ambiguity is hilariously dumb, especially given the last few decades of literary interpretation that's more about possibilities opened by the text than the certainties dictated by it?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:31 AM on July 1, 2011


I still think it's a great example for talking about creative ambiguity, but I can see how it's made the larger discussion a little confusing.
posted by lodurr at 9:56 AM on July 1, 2011


Anyone else feel that trying to promote a singular interpretation of "lovely, dark and deep" in a genre that lives and dies on word play and ambiguity is hilariously dumb, especially given the last few decades of literary interpretation that's more about possibilities opened by the text than the certainties dictated by it?

You've missed the point. The point is that the serial comma gives the poet, in that example, a tool for nudging the reader's interpretations in one direction or the other, an additional shade in his palate.

Opponents of the serial comma want to deny him the use of that tool or shade while offering nothing of comparable worth in exchange.
posted by straight at 12:06 PM on July 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


a complex series of phrases

You see what they did there, right?
posted by Mental Wimp at 12:19 PM on July 1, 2011


Heh. Who knew that punctuation was such a hot bed of fear, prejudice, and consternation.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 12:26 PM on July 1, 2011


You've missed the point. The point is that the serial comma gives the poet, in that example, a tool for nudging the reader's interpretations in one direction or the other, an additional shade in his palate.

That additional shade is only detectable if the reader is told or somehow intuits that the poet is using the serial comma in such a fashion that its omission is relevant. Which is a big ask.

Good for leaving a nuanced easter egg for determined students of the poet, I guess.
posted by bonaldi at 12:29 PM on July 1, 2011


Good for leaving a nuanced easter egg for determined students of the poet, I guess.

With regard to prose, I'd agree with you -- but I think people are accustomed to experiencing poetry in that way, so I don't think it's such a big ask. Poetry is, by its nature, rhythmic, and modern poetry especially loads that rhythm with meaning, and I think people who are fond of poetry* grok that at a very basic level.

--
*of which I'm not necessarily one.
posted by lodurr at 12:41 PM on July 1, 2011


straight: You've missed the point.

No, I have not. The point is wrong because neither the Oxford nor the Cambridge style rules apply to the punctuation of poetry, which has a radically different syntax and few standard rules for punctuation or capitalization. Frost breaks the rules in the same stanza, "And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep." He doesn't use prose grammar or advised punctuation in stanza two either.

The primary function of the comma in English poetry is metric rather than grammatical. Ginsburg's Howl for example uses commas (in his case, they might even be Shatner commas) for vocal emphasis and omits them in his run-on climaxes. Don Marquis didn't use them at all when writing as archie. And what do we do with poetry in translation or transcribed from oral sources?

I'll certainly agree that the "lovely--dark and deep" is a better interpretation, not because he omits a serial comma here, but because it matches the metric style of the first three stanzas: "... think I know/...villiage though/...stopping here/...up with snow." It also calls attention to the fact that the poem changes structure from that point on. We could also make comparisons to a similar construct of emphasis in haiku that was often mistranslated to fit an invented English metric form. The shade of meaning was already well developed by the 12 previous lines.

But the argument that interpretation of this particular line depends on style rules that never applied to poetic forms, style rules that Frost himself violates in the same poem, is just appropriating the text to support a given conclusion. As is usually the case, language is multilayered in communicating shades of meaning, and especially with poetry in general and Frost in specific, those shades are developed using cadence, context and pragmatics. As a result, Cambridge and AP can say exactly the same things as Oxford and Chicago.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:45 PM on July 1, 2011


In fact, that's pretty much the core of my argument in a nutshell. Not only can Chicago and AP say exactly the same thing, but great works of 20th century literature have been published using both styles.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:54 PM on July 1, 2011


But to pretend like this is some insanely complicated rule that breaks language is like pretending that men wearing short pants has destroyed our national character and created a legion of man-boys seeking depraved sins of the flesh.

Can you refer me to them?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:45 PM on July 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sunday Dialogue: The Old, the Young and Medicare

Ugh.
posted by obscurator at 7:23 PM on July 2, 2011


to be fair, with only two items that's still not terribly unclear.
posted by lodurr at 5:25 AM on July 3, 2011


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