We are not animals, are we?
December 11, 2014 9:12 PM   Subscribe

 
Neil Gaiman's comment was great: "I stand with my parents, Charles Darwin, and God."

I tend to chafe against the idea that you should leave it out, unless it's needed to resolve ambiguity. That just feels too messy.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:20 PM on December 11, 2014 [40 favorites]


They stand correctly, or wrong.
posted by eriko at 9:26 PM on December 11, 2014 [5 favorites]


I tend to chafe against the idea that conforming to a style guide ought to take precedence over clarity of expression.
posted by flabdablet at 9:26 PM on December 11, 2014 [11 favorites]


When I got my content team to standardize on AP as our base style guide I had to agree to making Oxford commas one of the exceptions. When I moved over to my tech writing team and brought the style guide I'd assembled along with me, that exception was considered non-controversial.

Folks on my team still catch me forgetting it, but would probably take it as a sign of progress that I inwardly rage against my own degeneracy whenever I see a lone "," in a suggested edit in the revision sidebar.

It just makes things easier, at the expense of additional telegraph costs.
posted by mph at 9:27 PM on December 11, 2014


I hate them, they hate.
posted by clavdivs at 9:29 PM on December 11, 2014 [2 favorites]


My inner descriptivist would like to point out that a comma indicates a pause, and that in real speech people often do not include a pause before the and at the end of a list because a pause there is rarely necessary for comprehension.

Fans of the Oxford comma: do you use it when you speak?
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 9:34 PM on December 11, 2014 [5 favorites]


Like the great Jimmy Stewart, I do indeed use the Oxford comma in my speech.
posted by fallingbadgers at 9:36 PM on December 11, 2014 [24 favorites]


Until one evening I noticed something truly terrible. Something so mind-bendingly haunting that it brought my brain to a screeching halt. While reading one of my children’s books, I noticed the author used the Oxford Comma at one point in the book, but then later did not use it.
You can’t do that.

I was dumfounded. How could you possibly use the Oxford Comma at one point and then ignore its existence later. You can’t do that. Pick a stance and stick with it, don’t go back and forth on it.
This is exactly the kind of foolish consistency I'd expect from a grammar nazi who can't be bothered to spell "dumbfounded" correctly.
posted by flabdablet at 9:36 PM on December 11, 2014 [14 favorites]


New respect for James Van Der Beek in his response. Nailed it.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 9:40 PM on December 11, 2014 [9 favorites]


I tend to chafe against the idea that conforming to a style guide ought to take precedence over clarity of expression.

That's why you use the Oxford comma, and consistently. There are plenty of instances where you could omit it without loss of clarity. But there are plenty of instances where it is necessary as an aid to clarity. So it is better to always use the Oxford comma, even if it is unnecessary at some points.
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:40 PM on December 11, 2014 [10 favorites]


The classic example is not actually unclear; the comma would never appear if JFK and Stalin were themselves the strippers. Some examples:

I went to the store with Bob, my brother.
I went to the store with my brother Bob.
I went to the store with Jack and Jill, my parents.
I went to the store with my parents Jack and Jill.
I went to the store with Bob, Jack and Jill.

So far I am in pretty unambiguous territory. I didn't use the Oxford comma in the one place I could have and the world still makes sense. But then…

I went to the store with Bob, my brother and my husband.

Now I have put myself and my audience in an awkward situation. This is why you should use the Oxford comma; you never know who you might accidentally marry of you don't.
posted by WCWedin at 9:42 PM on December 11, 2014 [29 favorites]


"...the sense should be intrinsic and not have to be explained by commas and otherwise commas were only a sign that one should pause and take breath but one should know of oneself when one wanted to pause and take breath."

-Gertrude Stein
posted by clavdivs at 9:45 PM on December 11, 2014 [9 favorites]


Additionally, in a world in which its use is not encouraged unless necessary, I find that I'm double-checking the writer to see if they left it out correctly. Too many people aren't aware of their own ambiguities when they write, and a rule that always leaves it in prevents this from happening, unless items in a series are explicitly together, which is a harder rule to flub.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:46 PM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


"I stand with my parents, Charles Darwin, and God."

See, that's funny because with the Oxford Comma I can tell that he means that even such vastly different personalities agree that the Oxford Comma should be always be used. And without it, I can still tell that he means the same thing, because nearly 100% of the time it's really not that hard to discern meaning when an Oxford comma is missing .
posted by 23skidoo at 9:46 PM on December 11, 2014 [5 favorites]


This post comes at a weird time for me. After almost 30 years using the Oxford comma I've found myself accidentally leaving it out in sentences I've written in the past few weeks. I feel like this might be some sort of subconscious midlife crisis? Or maybe I had a really minor stroke? It's freaking me out a bit, to be completely honest with you.
posted by town of cats at 9:47 PM on December 11, 2014 [9 favorites]


...a comma indicates a pause...

Also, a comma delimits a list, and separates an appositive, a common grammatical construct, making it useful across one, two, three, and possibly more writing scenarios.
posted by j_curiouser at 9:49 PM on December 11, 2014 [58 favorites]


> ...that's funny because with the Oxford Comma I can tell that he means that even such vastly different personalities agree that the Oxford Comma should be always be used. And without it, I can still tell that he means the same thing, because nearly 100% of the time it's really not that hard to discern meaning when an Oxford comma is missing.

[Emphasis added]
posted by chicobangs at 9:51 PM on December 11, 2014 [4 favorites]


Editors who insist on putting them in are less irritating than editors who insist on taking them out. The latter deserve vigorous application of the clue-by-four. For the former, mere surreptitious pissing in the coffee will suffice.
posted by flabdablet at 9:53 PM on December 11, 2014 [12 favorites]


not in favour, b/c i like clean prose. i also am in favour of language that seems like speech--so i tend to use dashes which bugs editors completely. plus on the internet i refuse standard orthography as a rule of thumb.
posted by PinkMoose at 9:57 PM on December 11, 2014 [6 favorites]


Jesus. There are already 205 comments mentioning "Oxford comma" on Metafilter. Why is this such a popular subject? Why do people – especially here, it seems – rail against it?

In the nitpicking spirit of the discussion, I will posit that it is inappropriate to use the term "Oxford comma" in the context of American English, in which the serial comma is regularly used and is prescribed by most style guides. The term "Oxford comma" is only relevant as it relates to the usage of the serial comma in contradiction to the prevailing standard for British English.

The serial comma is silly, useless and confusing, and the word and should only be preceded by a comma when it is used as a conjunction.

Oh, and as for Charles Darwin and strippers? Learn how a fucking comma is used.
posted by Aiwen at 10:02 PM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


I have a friend who always insists that I proof read her writings. She never uses this comma in a list. It bugs the hell out of me. I always put it in. She never seems to notice. I am 100% in favor of this useful, punctuational, disambiguation tool.
posted by njohnson23 at 10:08 PM on December 11, 2014


,
posted by belarius at 10:09 PM on December 11, 2014 [8 favorites]


Every time I see the serial comma I expect a new clause, and it drives me mad!
posted by Aiwen at 10:09 PM on December 11, 2014


I refuse to type 206 comma's'
In this thread.
I will admit, a moratorium on the apostrophe is possible.
posted by clavdivs at 10:16 PM on December 11, 2014


Of course I managed to make a mistake in my comment. That should be:

Learn how a fucking colon is used.

Oops.

Thank you, thank you. I also wish to thank my parents: Charles Darwin and God.
posted by Aiwen at 10:17 PM on December 11, 2014 [13 favorites]


That's true, the fucking colon next to the parents is visually conducive.
posted by clavdivs at 10:19 PM on December 11, 2014 [2 favorites]


All.I.ask.is.that.you.hu-mans.ser-i-al-ize.your.di-rect-ed.a-cyc-lic.graphs.
in.a.u-nique-ly.pars-a-ble.man-ner.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:24 PM on December 11, 2014 [14 favorites]


The Oxford Comma is literary clickbait at this point.
posted by me3dia at 10:28 PM on December 11, 2014 [11 favorites]


The serial comma is silly, useless and confusing--Aiwen

justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow asked if we use the Oxford comma when we speak, and this phrase is a perfect example. I include a pause after each word. Saying the above phrase without the pause sounds very strange to me. Maybe people who don't use the Oxford comma also speak differently.
posted by eye of newt at 10:30 PM on December 11, 2014 [15 favorites]


iF yOU ArE gOInG tO eSCheW thE sERIaL COmMa, tHE MAstEr wOUld nOt ApProve.

It wiLL Be dARk SooN, theRE is No WAy OUt oF HEre, iT wiLL bE DArK soON.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 10:31 PM on December 11, 2014 [10 favorites]


to date I’ve got over one hundred responses from people that are both for and against the Oxford Comma.
And yet he somehow forgot to include any of the "against" responses in his article. Not cool, man.
posted by narain at 10:31 PM on December 11, 2014 [4 favorites]


The serial comma is silly, useless and confusing--Aiwen

justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow: "My inner descriptivist would like to point out that a comma indicates a pause, and that in real speech people often do not include a pause before the and at the end of a list because a pause there is rarely necessary for comprehension."

I don't think I speak awkwardly, but thinking about your question about pauses...

Here's how I would say "The serial comma is silly, useless and confusing" ("useless and confusing" being subsets of "silly")

There is a big ole pause, after "silly".

Here's how I would say "The serial comma is silly, useless, and confusing" (three different things)

Here, however, there are no pauses anywhere, really. So I don't think "commas should be placed according to whether or not there are pauses when speaking" is a good rule of thumb.

(Disclosure: I am staunchly pro-serial comma)
posted by Bugbread at 10:44 PM on December 11, 2014 [4 favorites]


The serial comma is silly, useless and confusing

This example argues in favor of using it, actually. Is "useless and confusing" standing in apposition to silly, or is it three distinct properties? There are way too many accidental ambiguities like this for writers, and it's perpetually annoying to mitigate it all on the reading end, also. That little comma saves a whole lot of effort on both the writer and reader.
posted by SpacemanStix at 10:46 PM on December 11, 2014 [22 favorites]


Also, the commas-as-pauses argument has already been responded to a while ago, but I can't resist leaving this counterexample here:
We need only say that modern punctuation is grammatical and logical and that Shakespearean punctuation appears to be rhetorical. Thus in modern texts a certain speech in this play is printed:

This man said, sir, that Don John, the prince's brother, was a villain.

But no one talks in gasps like that! [The original Quarto and Folio] print it thus:

This man said sir, that Don John the prince's brother was a villain.

Isn't that just how most people would say it?
Preface to Much Ado About Nothing, ed. George Sampson, 1923.

(Sorry, didn't mean to be part of a pile-on. Typing takes too long on a phone...)
posted by narain at 10:47 PM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


Obviously we just need more syntax markers to make parsing simple. I believe { is not yet taken...
posted by pwnguin at 10:56 PM on December 11, 2014 [2 favorites]


This is exactly the kind of foolish consistency I'd expect from a grammar nazi who can't be bothered to spell "dumbfounded" correctly

Next you're going to insist it's "judgement" and not "judgment," only one is allowed to exist...now there's some foolish consistency for ya.

Psst
posted by aydeejones at 10:57 PM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


But what of double spacing aftrr a period when typing?
posted by humanfont at 10:58 PM on December 11, 2014


The only people who double space after a period are old.
posted by five fresh fish at 11:08 PM on December 11, 2014 [15 favorites]




Heck, I think HTML rendering collapses multiple contiguous spaces into a single space.  It doesn't matter if they do double-space.
posted by benito.strauss at 11:15 PM on December 11, 2014 [1 favorite]


My inner descriptivist would like to point out that a comma indicates a pause

#NotAllCommas
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:20 PM on December 11, 2014 [17 favorites]


I am perfectly willing to compromise on conventions for commas so long as we can all agree that punctuation marks only go inside of quotation marks if they're part of the quotation.
posted by Pyry at 11:20 PM on December 11, 2014 [22 favorites]


On the other hand, TeX automatically typesets a larger space after a period, so in TeX-land it doesn't matter if you don't double-space...
posted by narain at 11:22 PM on December 11, 2014 [3 favorites]


The only people who double space after a period are old.

I was taught to do so when I learned to type, but I think even then (~1997) it was on its way out.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:22 PM on December 11, 2014


This example argues in favor of using it

It certainly does not. I will repeat the entire sentence, as several of you seem to have missed the point by omitting the contrast to the and introducing a new clause:

The serial comma is silly, useless and confusing, and the word and should only be preceded by a comma when it is used as a conjunction.

Is the following really preferable?

The serial comma is silly, useless, and confusing, and the word and should only be preceded by a comma when it is used as a conjunction.

Even if we accept the notion that punctuation is used to mark the length of pauses in speech – in effect arguing that its usage has not evolved since the time of the ancient Greeks – it seems to me that the pause before the second and should be longer than the pause before the first. What then? Do we need a new punctuation mark?

Rejecting the serial comma helps the reader to distinguish between the and which is used to connect simple phrases and the and which is used to connect clauses. They are quite different.

Of course, English is a free language, and everyone can write exactly as they please. A writer who does not employ the serial comma would do well to employ it when it assists clarity, and serial commaists should also recognise the utility of omitting it when it is not needed.
posted by Aiwen at 11:25 PM on December 11, 2014 [4 favorites]


Here's how my brain reads this:
The serial comma is silly,
useless and confusing,
and the word and should only be preceded by a comma when it is used as a conjunction.

The commas tell you how to divide up the string into parts and put it back together into a thought. Without all the commas it doesn't get parsled out correctly.
posted by bleep at 11:35 PM on December 11, 2014 [7 favorites]


When it should be:
The Oxford comma is: silly, useless, confusing
And the word and should only be preceded by a comma etc etc
posted by bleep at 11:39 PM on December 11, 2014 [2 favorites]


Yes.
posted by Bella Donna at 11:40 PM on December 11, 2014


Aiwen: "Is the following really preferable?"

...Yes?

I'm assuming that's not the answer you were looking for, but, yeah, in that example, the latter was really preferable.
posted by Bugbread at 11:45 PM on December 11, 2014 [17 favorites]


The one without the serial comma reads to me like you're addressing a MetaFilter user named useless and confusing.

It seems to me that which version you prefer is mostly a matter of which one you are more used to seeing and are consequently able to parse preattentively, while the other one takes conscious effort to interpret. If so, I don't think we're going to come to any agreement here.

Then again, surely on some level we knew that already.
posted by narain at 11:50 PM on December 11, 2014 [6 favorites]


The Oxford comma is: silly, useless, confusing
And the word and should only be preceded by a comma etc etc


You forgot your serial commas before "etc" …
posted by Aiwen at 12:01 AM on December 12, 2014


narain: "It seems to me that which version you prefer is mostly a matter of which one you are more used to seeing and are consequently able to parse preattentively, while the other one takes conscious effort to interpret. If so, I don't think we're going to come to any agreement here."

Yeah, actually, I kinda debated answering "Yes, it's preferable", because "preferable" seems to be making a grand statement about some sort of absolute quality. I don't think there really is a "preferable" or "non-preferable". I should have just said "I prefer it". I have absolutely no problem with people who don't use the serial comma. Hopefully, people who don't use the serial comma also have absolutely no problem with me using it.
posted by Bugbread at 12:09 AM on December 12, 2014


It seems to me that which version you prefer is mostly a matter of which one you are more used to seeing and are consequently able to parse preattentively, while the other one takes conscious effort to interpret. If so, I don't think we're going to come to any agreement here.

Well said. I do hope, however, that I have succeeded in demonstrating that a case can be made against the serial comma.

I also wish to note that the serial comma is not used in most (any?) European languages.
posted by Aiwen at 12:12 AM on December 12, 2014


So what exactly is the problem with using the comma as a tool for clarity in expression? How do you jump from "ambiguous situations" to "always/never use it", rather than "use when it solves the ambiguity"? Style guides have many, many more similar suggestions, but why isn't anyone vehemently railing for/against beginning sentences with Of or And, or whatever?

Oxford comma debates are indeed clickbait.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 12:14 AM on December 12, 2014 [3 favorites]


The "debate" over the serial or "Oxford" comma is a ridiculous one. Why would you argue over whether one should use an optional graphical mark? I guarantee you that any person who writes more than a tiny amount will write sentences both with and without serial commas. That's okay. There are situations in which serial commas resolve ambiguity, but there are just as many situations where serial commas create ambiguity. So use them whenever you like - and generally this will come down to preference, so arguing about it is like arguing about whether banana is a good flavor for ice cream.

The very worst part of this argument that people love to have is the absolutely ridiculous pretense that there are people somewhere who are omitting Oxford commas and thereby confusing everyone, and that these awful people are doing something terrible and must be made to stop. Every college bookstore and trinket shoppe in the United States seems to carry a stupid t-shirt tut-tutting people for not using this simple optional graphical custom which is almost completely unnecessary either way. Nobody has ever actually thought that Stalin and JFK were strippers. Resolving meaning contextually is something readers are going to have to do, and English is a wonderful language because we can leave a little ambiguity in to improve the spacing and flow of a sentence.

In short: all this screaming about how everyone must always use an Oxford comma is about 90% pretentious twaddle. We don't need to chide people for writing plenty clearly.

Here's a good illustration of the silliness of all this from the linked article:

"I was dumfounded. How could you possibly use the Oxford Comma at one point and then ignore its existence later."

Probably the same way you can use a nonstandard spelling of "dumbfounded" and then use a period at the end of a question in two consecutive sentences.

Nothing but pretentiousness.

You know what actually is a serious problem in the way people write - a problem that makes reading more difficult and kills the momentum of writing? Too many commas. There are probably dozens of examples people have given in this thread where there are completely unnecessary commas. Maybe we should weigh that against the staunch pro-Oxford-comma sentiment. Sometimes you just don't need to interrupt the reader constantly in the name of helping them understand the obvious.
posted by koeselitz at 12:19 AM on December 12, 2014 [8 favorites]


The only people who double space after a period are old.

I know, right? I'd've thought it wouldn't take so long to learn such a simple thing.
posted by Greg_Ace at 12:22 AM on December 12, 2014 [8 favorites]


koeselitz: "You know what actually is a serious problem in the way people write - a problem that makes reading more difficult and kills the momentum of writing? Too many commas. There are probably dozens of examples people have given in this thread where there are completely unnecessary commas."

And, again, this probably just comes down to what you're used to. I haven't noticed anyone in this thread using too many commas (which means I'm probably one of the people you're talking about). I haven't found commas to make reading more difficult, nor have I found them to kill the momentum of writing. It all just comes down to "what you're used to".

Like, totally non-English example: Japanese children's books don't use Chinese characters, just hiragana and katakana. For my kids, those books are very easy to read, while adult books are not. For adults, however, the lack of Chinese characters makes books hard to read. I can read a newspaper much faster than my son. He can read a children's storybook much faster than me. It all comes down to what you're used to. Same thing in pretty much any language. Yet somehow everyone believes that the writing style they're used to also just happens to be the writing style that is correct, and the writing style they're not used to just happens to be the writing style that's wrong.
posted by Bugbread at 12:33 AM on December 12, 2014 [5 favorites]


Well said. I do hope, however, that I have succeeded in demonstrating that a case can be made against the serial comma.

Believe what you want, man, I was trying to say that no case needs to be made either way because different people read and write differently so let's just let people write what feels natural to them. But if you want to stockpile anti-comma arguments as weaponry against the pro-comma folks in some sort of a grammatical Cold War situation, well, do what makes you happy, I guess.
posted by narain at 12:56 AM on December 12, 2014 [2 favorites]


And that goes for the pro-comma people too, obviously. Do what you want in your own writing, but cut it out with the telling other people they're doing it wrong.
posted by narain at 12:59 AM on December 12, 2014 [2 favorites]


"My inner descriptivist would like to point out that a comma indicates a pause, and that in real speech people often do not include a pause before the and at the end of a list because a pause there is rarely necessary for comprehension."

That word, I do not think it means what you think it means. Unless this is opposite day. Is this opposite day?

Written language is distinct from spoken language. English punctuation is only partly phonetic. A logical argument built around the assumption that a written language must be perfectly equivalent to its spoken counterpart is prescriptive, not descriptive. It's therefore wrong in many respects and identifying this argument as descriptive deserves bonus points for the bank shot.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 1:20 AM on December 12, 2014 [8 favorites]


Yes, narain. It is completely pointless to argue that anyone is doing it wrong. The point is that people may in fact have thought through the reasons behind their individual style choices. And I unfortunately have to think about these serial commas every day (I am not exaggerating).

In any case, this point was poorly made by me; what I meant as more of an example sentence expressed too extreme of a position, and it's no wonder it got latched onto.
posted by Aiwen at 1:25 AM on December 12, 2014


I don't have any strong opinions on the Oxford comma, for or against. Feel free to use it if it makes the sentence less ambiguous, and feel free to ignore it if it makes your writing flow better. It's a stylistic thing, go with what suits you.

I do have very strong opinions on people who take part in protracted arguments about its usage. It's a pseudo-intellectual dick waving contest. It's a literary shibboleth used to shut down opinions from people who haven't read multiple style guides, or had an education where grammatical minutia is drilled into you. I honestly can't conceive of a set of circumstances where I'd decide 'Oh, the use of a comma (or lack thereof) will be the hill I'm going to die on today, because I feel so strongly about a tiny little line.' And if no one thinks that, then the reasons for having the argument, and making a big thing about it are just really ugly.

(Also, this comment by Ivan Fyodorovich on language peeving is worth reading. Hi Ivan!)
posted by Ned G at 1:29 AM on December 12, 2014 [4 favorites]


It's a pseudo-intellectual dick waving contest.

Well, yes, but that can be fun sometimes. There is a time and place for everything, and if a thread about the serial comma is not the time and place for linguistic wankery about that very subject, then where, and when? (See what I did there?)

Of course, it is also important that this thread takes up the issue of linguistic fidelity being used as a weapon to denigrate someone or their opinion, and I thank you and koeselitz for bringing this up.
posted by Aiwen at 1:50 AM on December 12, 2014 [5 favorites]


no, big deal
posted by mannequito at 2:11 AM on December 12, 2014


In a way, I think that's fair enough, I've definitely been guilty of over-arguing insignificant points, long after everyone else has given up (which makes me really fun to be around at parties).

However, there is still something about the Oxford comma debate that really rankles, and I can't quite put my finger on it. I think it's because it's become a symbol somehow, that people define themselves as 'a person who has opinions on the Oxford Comma' (eg, it's the first thing mentioned in this ask). Now, I'm not quite sure why it annoys me as a symbol, but I think it's because it seems to imply 'I'm clever and well educated, therefore I want to talk to other clever well educated people, and to no one else'. I'm not doing a very good job of expressing this, but it's the same reason that hearing someone define themselves as 'sapiosexual' sets my teeth on edge. So yeah, as an argument to have sometimes, I've not got a problem with it, but since the Oxford comma argument has taken on this cultural significance, discussing it in terms of a fun nerd argument is misleading.


(Also, my previous comment wasn't aimed at anyone in this thread, so I'm sorry if it came across that way).
posted by Ned G at 2:13 AM on December 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


My take-home from this is that the prestige usage is the Oxford Comma. I shall take care to use it in future, until the prestige usage changes.
posted by alasdair at 2:23 AM on December 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


I have a friend who always insists that I proof read her writings. She never uses this comma in a list. It bugs the hell out of me. I always put it in. She never seems to notice.

Check your coffee.
posted by flabdablet at 2:28 AM on December 12, 2014 [5 favorites]


Fans of the Oxford comma: do you use it when you speak?

I do. I think also that things like this, my beloved semi-colon and em-dashes are also to a large degree set with what you were reading at some formative ages. I read a lot (like, a lot, like literally over a hundred) of Victorian and Edwardian ghost stories as a teenager, and it's left an indelible mark on my writing (well, I think so, anyway).

I do have very strong opinions on people who take part in protracted arguments about its usage. It's a pseudo-intellectual dick waving contest

Oh yes, yes, a thousand times yes! Grammar nazis - especially those willing to die on the hill of minor stylistic differences - really, really shit me. Unfortunately, I am a communications professional and this is something I am forced to endure from colleagues on a semi-regular basis. Abase yourself to whatever pathetic grammar altar gives you a stiffy, but get the fuck out of my comms with that meaningless shit.

I must confess to a very ungentlemanly surge of pleasure recently. A colleague of mine - recently fired for basically being rather a weirdo and being way too aggressive - used to constantly dip her nose in my work, to inevitably get overcome with alarm on seeing my Oxford commas, or heaven forfend a fucking ampersand (this is in web-based or email comms, mind, so we're talking lots of listing things and pithy headings), carrying on like I'd just taken a shit in her handbag, or was flagrantly breaking a law by the use of such things.

It took forces on par with the Large Haldron Collider to restrain my ire at such redundant and petty interference (not to mention the implication it was making with regard to our respective skill levels).

Once she was fired, I took an almost primal joy in tapping out an Oxford comma under a heading with an ampersand in it.
posted by smoke at 2:38 AM on December 12, 2014 [4 favorites]


I don't have a particular stance on the comma thingie, but I do have a very strong one on white text over a dark image background. Yuck.
posted by signal at 3:03 AM on December 12, 2014


It is almost as if the matter were subjective
posted by Drexen at 3:18 AM on December 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


no no that can't be right
posted by Drexen at 3:18 AM on December 12, 2014


It's not subjective. There is a beetle in the goddamn box or there isn't.
posted by thelonius at 3:30 AM on December 12, 2014


Fred was going to divide $1000 between me, Bob, and Tom.

But Bob and Tom didn't believe in serial commas, so Fred gave me $500.

Suck on that, Bob and Tom.
posted by BlueHorse at 3:45 AM on December 12, 2014 [21 favorites]


It upsets me that so much attention is given to the Oxford Comma, which is of so little import and requires so little thought in its correct deployment. Use it when necessary, otherwise omit.

We are in much more pressing need of new punctuation, to remove ambiguity and promote expressive style in our Internet culture. We are in a new and golden age of public epistolary discourse. yet novel usage exposes lacunae in old rules.

So, I propose some innovation.

1. The Double Colon. To be used when assigning an opinion or statement to someone who never said any such thing. "You heard Obama:: the federally funded death panels will be run by Mexicans and French liberals. Armed French liberals."

2. From French usage, the Satirical Double Chevron. When a statement is meant not to be taken at face value, for iroinic or surreal effect when intended for a mixed audience <>>.

3. Dolorous Slashpair. Rhetorical surrender in the face of unreasonable intransigence: when you tire of wrestling with a pig and are happy to let them go on their way under a false sense of victory - but need to signal that this is purely through one's own gracious and magnanimous laying down of arms. \I suppose it is possible that NATO is entirely responsible for Moscow annexing New Zealand, but perhaps we should move on to the custard riots in Perth/.
posted by Devonian at 3:50 AM on December 12, 2014 [11 favorites]


Fred was going to divide $1000 between me, Bob, and Tom.

Your punctuation is fine; your grammar is atrocious.
 
posted by Herodios at 4:13 AM on December 12, 2014 [2 favorites]


Devonian, your ideas intrigue me and I request an immediate subscription to any journals, periodicals or newsletters to which you might contribute.

I've sometimes seen ~ used to indicate.. maybe not quite sarcasm? But a kind of un-seriousness. Like:

It is almost as if the matter were subjective~

But it's maybe kind of ambiguous because it can also mean the speaker is feeling happy/carefree in general~~~~~ o/'
posted by Drexen at 4:17 AM on December 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


It is almost as if the matter were subjective~

I read this as: "It is almost as if the matter were subjective...NOT.
posted by busted_crayons at 4:20 AM on December 12, 2014 [2 favorites]


Heh! Well, in my reading (/writing?), I'd interpret the sarcasm/irony ~ as applying to the "It's almost as if". So it'd be like:

"It's almost as if (*nudging, winking, elbowing furiously*) the matter were subjective." In other words:

"It's obviously subjective, and I'm going to sarcastically/playfully pretend it's hard to discern, to emphasise how obvious it is."
posted by Drexen at 4:25 AM on December 12, 2014


I haven't noticed anyone in this thread using too many commas (which means I'm probably one of the people you're talking about)

I haven't noticed any egregious comma overuse either, but I think I know what koeselitz is talking about. Comma overuse shows up a lot in writing that is trying really hard to be "good writing" and falling short of the mark, much like unnecessarily complex vocabulary or shoehorning in adjectives at every opportunity. Some writers take the "a comma indicates a pause" rule to heart, and use commas like Valley Girls use "like." Others have yet to master the distinction between commas and other non-terminal punctuation, and default to using commas. Still others - and I am sometimes guilty of this myself* - write very long sentences and don't know when to stop. They're grammatically correct sentences, not run-ons, but they just go on forever. In contrast, it's nearly impossible to misuse an Oxford comma: by definition it can only go in one place, and its omission is a stylistic choice no matter how many people consider it a universal grammatical error. So, yeah, wannabe grammar snobs should probably stop wringing their hands about the Oxford comma (which, as Ned G points out, is mostly an educated-nerd shibboleth at this point) and start worrying about the general phenomenon of too many commas.**

*I am also guilty of using hyphens instead of em dashes, as above, but there's no goddamn em dash key on my keyboard.

**♪ Too many commas (too many commas) Too many commas (too many commas) ♪ sorrynotsorry
posted by Metroid Baby at 4:28 AM on December 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


The head of our Board of Directors proofread an invitation I sent out and removed my fucking Oxford commas! It was the most infuriating thing. Don't tell me how to comma, bro. I don't care if you're a lawyer!
posted by showbiz_liz at 4:34 AM on December 12, 2014 [2 favorites]


However and also, I don't really care for the weird cult of no-I'm-right-you're-wrong which seems to have sprung up around the use of this comma. I put them in because my job is to write and edit consistently, but when I see it mentioned in an online dating profile I am baffled. I wonder if it would be Such A Thing if it didn't have such a hoity-toity name.
posted by showbiz_liz at 4:37 AM on December 12, 2014 [5 favorites]


The Newark Comma
posted by thelonius at 5:11 AM on December 12, 2014 [4 favorites]


I write for advertising and the only rule is to try to make it go faster. No commas.

E.g. "A Mars a day helps you work rest and play":
posted by colie at 5:36 AM on December 12, 2014


I would never debase myself so far as to use the common Oxford comma. I prefer the Harvard comma.
posted by uncleozzy at 5:52 AM on December 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


My inner descriptivist would like to point out that a comma indicates a pause, and that in real speech people often do not include a pause before the and at the end of a list because a pause there is rarely necessary for comprehension.


I've done some work on the prosody of lists, and I can tell you that generally:

1) People do not speak in nice, neat lists. They start them, say a few other things, and then come back and finish (or not). So a nice, neat sequence like "I bought apples, bananas, and a pear" is actually not that common.

2) Generally speaking, you either get one prosodic phrase for the whole list, or each individual list item gets its own prosodic phrase.

3) If everything's all in one prosodic phrase, you get what's called downstepping: each item is slightly lower in pitch than the one before.

4) If everything's in its own prosodic phrase, the melody on each item can be a lot of things: you can have a series of rises, and then a final fall on the list item; all rises; all falls; all falls with a rise on the penultimate item, and then a fall...So, sometimes there's a something that sets off the pentultimate item from the final item, and sometimes, there's not.

So, to answer your question,

Fans of the Oxford comma: do you use it when you speak?

No, because writing and speech are really quite different.
posted by damayanti at 5:55 AM on December 12, 2014 [18 favorites]


I think the Shatner and Walken commas are just as valid, if not more so.
posted by Strange Interlude at 5:58 AM on December 12, 2014 [9 favorites]


However and also, I don't really care for the weird cult of no-I'm-right-you're-wrong which seems to have sprung up around the use of this comma. I put them in because my job is to write and edit consistently, but when I see it mentioned in an online dating profile I am baffled. I wonder if it would be Such A Thing if it didn't have such a hoity-toity name.

Yes, it's the chipotle of editing right now. Of all the dozens of editorial decisions regarding how information is spun for us before it gets to our desk, it's one of the most trivial.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 6:06 AM on December 12, 2014 [2 favorites]


Is there any example whatsoever, no matter how artificial, where an Oxford comma decreases comprehension?

I honestly don't understand why using it is controversial.
posted by Foosnark at 6:21 AM on December 12, 2014 [6 favorites]


Oxford comma and two spaces after a sentence-ending period, fo' life.
posted by longdaysjourney at 6:28 AM on December 12, 2014 [5 favorites]


I'm with Foosnark. The serial comma always works. It leaves no ambiguity. Leaving out the last comma sometimes does. What benefit is gained from making it optional?
posted by Benny Andajetz at 6:43 AM on December 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


Foosnark: "Is there any example whatsoever, no matter how artificial, where an Oxford comma decreases comprehension?"

Yes. There as as many situations where the Oxford comma creates ambiguity as there are where it resolves ambiguity. This is well known, or ought to be.

That doesn't mean there should be "controversy." It's just an optional thing. But heaven forbid there be an optional thing in the English language. Heaven forbid we stop harassing people for something so incredibly inconsequential.
posted by koeselitz at 6:53 AM on December 12, 2014


koeselitz:

Those examples are really arguments for sentence construction, not examples of a properly used serial comma making things ambiguous. No punctuation is going to save a bad sentence.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 7:00 AM on December 12, 2014 [8 favorites]


I am pro Oxford Comma, forever. Most of the time, however, the irritation I experience when someone leaves it out doesn't rise to a discernible level.

Can we talk about the Grocer's Apostrophe, instead? Elminating that is a Grammatical Nitpicking Crusade that I could actually get behind.
posted by Ipsifendus at 7:04 AM on December 12, 2014 [4 favorites]


Can we talk about the Grocer's Apostrophe, instead? Elminating that is a Grammatical Nitpicking Crusade that I could actually get behind.

What gets me riled up is people who put apostrophes in pluralizations of acronyms (like NGO's to mean 'more than one NGO'). People seem to do this even if they otherwise have perfect apostrophe usage.

On an unrelated note, I love that the site spell check recognizes 'pluralization' but not 'pluralizations'.
posted by showbiz_liz at 7:09 AM on December 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


There is no site spell check. There is only browser spell check.
posted by koeselitz at 7:13 AM on December 12, 2014


(Or maybe device spell check.)
posted by koeselitz at 7:14 AM on December 12, 2014


Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?
posted by asterix at 7:22 AM on December 12, 2014 [2 favorites]


I don't use Oxford commas, unless I do. And when I do, I have a reason for using them. Either way, when a copy editor fucks with my comma placement, I usually STET that shit, unless they have a point, then I don't.

I trust this is sufficiently clear.
posted by jscalzi at 7:28 AM on December 12, 2014 [4 favorites]


It seems to me that most arguments against the Oxford comma boil down to "You can't make me, so there!" Probably the type of people who are OK with the grocer's apostrophe.

And as I have said before, if two spaces at the end of a sentence are good enough for iOS, they're good enough for me!
posted by TedW at 7:33 AM on December 12, 2014


I have nothing to add to this conversation but I'm going to comment anyway, bringing the comment count to 100, so nobody will read the whole damn thread. Don't you love Metafilter?

Is there something admirable about consistency in writing? Sometimes you need the Oxford Comma - or whatever you want to call it - and sometimes you don't. Mix and match: why not? We have been living in a postmodern world for half a century now. Accept the writer's choices, assuming she is a good writer.

Funny thing about double-spacing after a period: we all know it comes from the nature of the manual typewriter's eccentric nature...but I just learned it was wrong a couple of years ago. Yes, I'm quite old. But it only took me a month to retrain my typing hands to add a single space. Boy, does it look better!
posted by kozad at 7:35 AM on December 12, 2014


I am relatively ecumenical when it comes to the Oxford Comma.


I have a real problem with the University of Bolton Apostrophe.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 7:48 AM on December 12, 2014


People seem to do this even if they otherwise have perfect apostrophe usage.

In both of these uses the apostrophe serves as a diacritic indicating that the trailing S is a suffix.

Now, since I've just provided a -- pardon, the -- LOGICAL EXPLANATION that OBVIOUSLY JUST MAKES SENSE and can be applied CONSISTENTLY, that means we've solved the issue. It will definitely stand eternally as an unchanging and universal rule, like the rest of language. That is until someone riles us up by coming along and using it in the WRONG WAY!! What are they even thinking. Man, they should really learn about how it's better to be right than wrong!

Or maybe language is actually a complex, inscrutable, ever-evolving patchwork of behaviours and expectations that can't be described or explained very well at all, and never definitively, and to which no one explanation or understanding ever pertains clearly and unambiguously or unchangingly, it's all arbitrary, tautological and subjective and inherently inadequate for fully describing things anyway and wait no no that can't be right can it~

THAT WOULD BE SILLY.
posted by Drexen at 7:49 AM on December 12, 2014 [2 favorites]


(Actually, you know what? That was a needlessly snarky and pushy comment. I apologise.)
posted by Drexen at 8:15 AM on December 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


A good writer or editor would know how to recast a sentence to avoid a situation where adding an extra comma would avoid a "LOL Ayn Rand and God are YOUR PARENTS?" kind of thing. A good writer or editor understands that the Oxford comma isn't the only way to go.

In a list, the comma stands in for the word "and." The American flag is three colors. It is red. It is also white. It is also blue. It is red and white and blue. "Red, white, and blue" reads, to me, as "Red and white and and blue."
posted by emelenjr at 8:26 AM on December 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


I like that Oxford commas are an important topic that celebrities should have an opinion about!

I used to not care too much one way or the other but now that I've been a proofreader for a while, non-Oxford-comma texts drive me nuts because of the appositive issue. (I like WCWedin's example.)
posted by ferret branca at 8:27 AM on December 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


What gets me riled up is people who put apostrophes in pluralizations of acronyms (like NGO's to mean 'more than one NGO').

What gets me riled up is people who call any initialism an acronym.
 
posted by Herodios at 8:28 AM on December 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


TedW, I'm not sure if this is what you're referring to, but on iOS, tapping the space bar twice is a shortcut for typing a period. iOS only inserts one space after that period.
posted by emelenjr at 8:29 AM on December 12, 2014


we are not, animals are we?
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 8:34 AM on December 12, 2014


I write for advertising and the only rule is to try to make it go faster. No commas.

"That's what makes a Subaru, a Subaru" is what makes a murderer a murderer.
posted by emelenjr at 8:47 AM on December 12, 2014 [4 favorites]


Benny Andajetz: “Those examples are really arguments for sentence construction, not examples of a properly used serial comma making things ambiguous. No punctuation is going to save a bad sentence.”

Really? In what sense is this an improperly constructed sentence?
I dedicate this book to my mother, Ayn Rand, and God.
me: “You know what actually is a serious problem in the way people write - a problem that makes reading more difficult and kills the momentum of writing? Too many commas. There are probably dozens of examples people have given in this thread where there are completely unnecessary commas.”

Bugbread: “And, again, this probably just comes down to what you're used to. I haven't noticed anyone in this thread using too many commas (which means I'm probably one of the people you're talking about). I haven't found commas to make reading more difficult, nor have I found them to kill the momentum of writing. It all just comes down to ‘what you're used to’.”

I'm not sure you know what I mean – or probably it's that you don't have to read the work of American students regularly. I recently helped a professor at a university look over the final papers that her Art History students had written. Overused commas are a very big problem. For example, many students seem to believe that you have to put a comma after "though" in every case. Several wrote sentences that looked like this:
Though, some people believe that medieval art was terrible, obviously, they are wrong.
I think many young students really have gotten the impression that using many commas makes them sound more erudite or precise. As pro-Oxford folks have pointed out, there are many cases (not all, but many) where using a comma to delineate lists of things is more precise; but that doesn't mean commas should be used all over the place. Another common instance is that commas tend to creep out of the serial list and into the rest of the sentence for many young students:
For breakfast I had, eggs, coffee, and bacon.
Meanwhile, I don't think I've ever seen an example in the wild of a sentence whose meaning is genuinely made ambiguous by the lack of an Oxford comma.

I know people aren't arguing that commas ought to be overused; people who write more than the average person just tend to have precise ideas about how graphical marks should be used, and so the Oxford comma enjoys some reverence. But I would suggest that by overemphasizing it we're doing a disservice to less practiced writers who are (I think) often led into the trap of believing that an overuse of commas makes them sound more intelligent.
posted by koeselitz at 8:53 AM on December 12, 2014


– I should say, however, that while I believe this is really a problem among students, I also will agree with Bugbread that there is a component of personal preference here. Maybe it's just seeing so many overused commas in one place; but once they start to annoy you, you see them all over. Take for example a sentence from this wonderful little article just posted on the front page:
His death, at the age of 74 from a heart attack, was certainly not welcome, but it provided Sesame Street with one of its greatest teaching opportunities: how to explain death to children.
The first two commas are clearly not necessary, and in fact interrupt the flow of the sentence quite a bit, I think. They're there because "at the age of 74 from a heart attack" as a clause is subordinate to "his death;" but the alternative clearly works fine and seems a lot cleaner to me:
His death at the age of 74 from a heart attack was certainly not welcome, but it provided Sesame Street with one of its greatest teaching opportunities: how to explain death to children.
Now the flow and pacing of the sentence is clear to the reader at first glance, without anyone having to sort out what is subordinate to what. The commas seem extraneous here.

I have a feeling some people agree on this; after all, this isn't a list, so it has little to do with Oxford commas specifically. But I see comma use as sort of a realm of various instances, and Oxford commas are in that realm. If we're going to encourage one thing in the written text people produce, I think it should be a spareness where commas are concerned.
posted by koeselitz at 9:07 AM on December 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'm pro-Oxford comma. When speaking, I do in fa

ct pause after naming items in a list. Without the comma it's like "Can you get some bread, milkandeggs?" It drives me nuts!
posted by freecellwizard at 9:19 AM on December 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


Really? In what sense is this an improperly constructed sentence?

I dedicate this book to my mother, Ayn Rand, and God.


It's poorly (not improperly, I'll give you) constructed because it allows ambiguity. That isn't the fault of the serial comma, however.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 9:25 AM on December 12, 2014


the grocer's apostrophe

The correct spelling of this is "grocers apos'trophe" or "grocers apostrophe's".
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:37 AM on December 12, 2014 [3 favorites]


Benny Andajetz: “It's poorly (not improperly, I'll give you) constructed because it allows ambiguity. That isn't the fault of the serial comma, however.”

Well, if that's the case, then we can argue just as easily that the Oxford comma isn't necessary because the only sentences that require it are poorly constructed ones.
posted by koeselitz at 9:44 AM on December 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


Apostrophes grocers, maybe?

This reminds me of my former career as a tech writer, where discussions of the Oxford comma and the correct terminology for a radio button would soak up hours of time.

Also, many of the people in this thread might enjoy this WORDS HAVE MEANINGS t-shirt, of which I am a proud owner.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 9:59 AM on December 12, 2014


Well, if that's the case, then we can argue just as easily that the Oxford comma isn't necessary because the only sentences that require it are poorly constructed ones.

This is a general point of comma-optional styles. If the passage in question is semantically ambiguous--the case for most of the contrived examples frequently discussed--you either add the comma or restructure to remove the ambiguity. In fact, "He invited the strippers, Stalin and Kennedy," is one of those cases where you should probably ask the writer what is intended instead of assuming it is a serial list or an appositive.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 10:43 AM on December 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


I am very pro-Oxford comma. The example phrase used in the OP: "We invited strippers, JFK and Stalin". Logically, no JFK and Stalin weren't strippers, but reading that sentence I have to actually stop and think and say "no they weren't strippers", or I have to go back and make sure I didn't miss something earlier that mentioned who these strippers were (maybe its a strip club specializing in 20th century heads-of-state). That does interrupt the flow of the sentence.

There is no sentence where it adds ambiguity. The "ambiguous" example: "to my mother, Ayn Rand, and God"
Not ambiguous because they are 3 different people, as indicated by the commas. If Ayn Rand and the mother are the same person, the author could have done any number of things:

to my mother Ayn Rand, and God
to God and my mother, Ayn Rand
to my mother, Ayn Rand, and to God

It is not the comma's fault the sentence is ambiguous, it is the author's.

But I would suggest that by overemphasizing it we're doing a disservice to less practiced writers who are (I think) often led into the trap of believing that an overuse of commas makes them sound more intelligent.

This sounds like we need better education on how to use commas, and also that trying to sound more intelligent by using extra commas (or extra big words or extra adjectives) just makes you look like you're trying to sound intelligent.

The risk that some people might use something wrongly does not mean we shouldn't use it.

I'm not an editor or a writer, but I am an avid reader who grew up being taught to use the Oxford Comma, and now that it's being pushed as unnecessary my whole world is crashing down.


Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?
That song has been stuck in my head for the entire time I've been reading this thread. (And just that line too!)
posted by LizBoBiz at 10:51 AM on December 12, 2014 [2 favorites]


I am very pro-Oxford comma. The example phrase used in the OP: "We invited strippers, JFK and Stalin". Logically, no JFK and Stalin weren't strippers, but reading that sentence I have to actually stop and think and say "no they weren't strippers", or I have to go back and make sure I didn't miss something earlier that mentioned who these strippers were (maybe its a strip club specializing in 20th century heads-of-state). That does interrupt the flow of the sentence.

Which is the whole point. The editor is supposed to think about what the sentence says, and what the author might mean, rather than blindly slapping a serial comma into every spot that looks like it might be a serial list.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 10:57 AM on December 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


There's one thing I think we can all agree on, this construction makes Oxford comma quibbles pale into insignificance.
posted by flabdablet at 11:00 AM on December 12, 2014


And is it alright to use a construction that many people think is alwrong?
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 11:11 AM on December 12, 2014


Like many other grammatical "rules" such as never beginning a sentence with a preposition, serial commas are useful to teach because the chance that a student will make a mistake by using one is probably less than the chance they will make a mistake by not using it. Unfortunately, one side effect is to cause people to say that words they read on a page are confusing because of a "rule" they have internalized, rather than a more straightforward comprehension of what they are actually reading.
posted by AndrewInDC at 11:14 AM on December 12, 2014


When speaking, I do in fa

ct pause


...in the middle of words?
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:14 AM on December 12, 2014 [2 favorites]


Actually, it's all about ethics in copywriting.
posted by chicobangs at 11:51 AM on December 12, 2014 [2 favorites]


LizBoBiz: “I'm not an editor or a writer, but I am an avid reader who grew up being taught to use the Oxford Comma, and now that it's being pushed as unnecessary my whole world is crashing down.”

It's been defined in the dictionary as optional for many decades.

Meanwhile, when I hear people talk about Oxford commas, it's almost invariably to tell other people snobbily that they are "doing it wrong" by not using them.
posted by koeselitz at 11:54 AM on December 12, 2014


I was trying to say that no case needs to be made either way because different people read and write differently so let's just let people write what feels natural to them.

But when I'm writing for other people, I don't want to put speed bumps in my sentences that distract them. From reading this thread, it seems there's no usage that won't cause some people to get a little derailed by either the presence or absence of a serial comma, so it seems to me the best advice is to reword any sentence where one might or might not use one.
posted by straight at 11:58 AM on December 12, 2014


Written grammar is there as a guideline to make it easier to communicate. In school, teach whatever will be helpful for development, but I'd match with whatever seems to be the norm for the medium you are communicating in. Grammar changes just like spelling does.

My personal opinion is that punctuation serves as an indicator for what would cause the speaker to depart from a strict mono-rhythm or monotone. Dashes and semicolons indicate breaks where the speaker has not ended the previous statement with a tone identifying the end of a sentence. Parentheses indicate significant changes in pitch, tremor, or physical stance for the text in the parens. I naturally speak with an Oxford comma in my grammatical accent, so I will type with an Oxford-commadian accent. Also, wouldn't the issue be with putting unnecessary commas elsewhere? I can see why "the strippers, JFK and Stalin" could be confusing, but if I were talking about three separate entities I would use 2 commas as I speak: "the strippers, JFK, and Stalin." If I were talking about the strippers' stage names, where "the strippers" would be a descriptive clause, I wouldn't pause at all: "the strippers JFK and Stalin."
posted by halifix at 12:16 PM on December 12, 2014


Until one evening I noticed something truly terrible. Something so mind-bendingly haunting that it brought my brain to a screeching halt. While reading one of my children’s books, I noticed the author used the Oxford Comma at one point in the book, but then later did not use it.

You can’t do that.

I was dumfounded. How could you possibly use the Oxford Comma at one point and then ignore its existence later. You can’t do that. Pick a stance and stick with it, don’t go back and forth on it. From that point forward I picked up on the usage of the Oxford Comma in all of my children’s books. Surprisingly, the number of times in which an author would use and then not use the Oxford Comma was more than I would expect.


I've noticed the same thing about the double space after a sentence. I could never begin to count the number of manuscripts I've edited, and I've never edited a single one in which the author used the double space and used it on every sentence.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:21 PM on December 12, 2014 [2 favorites]


"A planet, Pluto, and some other large rocks orbit the sun at a distance," Tweeted the astrophysicist, an author and an Oxford Comma enthusiast.
posted by tempestuoso at 12:37 PM on December 12, 2014 [4 favorites]


An interesting example of Oxford comma use – the third of John Berryman's Dream Songs, the last stanza of which I've always loved:
Acacia, burnt myrrh, velvet, pricky stings.
—I'm not so young but not so very old,
said screwed-up lovely 23.
A final sense of being right out in the cold,
unkissed.
(—My psychiatrist can lick your psychiatrist.) Women get under things.

All these old criminals sooner or later
have had it. I've been reading old journals.
Gottwald & Co., out of business now.
Thick chests quit. Double agent, Joe.
She holds her breath like a seal
and is whiter & smoother.

Rilke was a jerk.
I admit his griefs & music
& titled spelled all-disappointed ladies.
A threshold worse than the circles
where the vile settle & lurk,
Rilke's. As I said,—
There are serial commas in the first line, but a distinct lack of them in the second and third line of the last stanza. I think this works – two different ways of doing it in one poem – because it improves the music of the language. I have never seen a reason to make a strong distinction between poetry and prose. If the sound of a phrase calls for an Oxford comma – ambiguity or not – they should use one; if it calls for no commas, they should do that instead. Every situation is different.
posted by koeselitz at 12:43 PM on December 12, 2014


As a programmer, I never ever EVER write:
If i < NumListItems Then
because in a more complicated statement it might lead to an ambiguity:
If a = True And b And c = False Then
Did I intend
If a = True And b And (c = False) Then
or
If a = True And ((b And c) = False) Then
The fact that such a confusion is rare does not change the fact that simply making a habit of clearly grouping code with parentheses make the chance near-zero.
If (i < NumListItems) Then
List = List & ", " & ListItems(i)
End If
List = List & ", " & "and " & ListItems(NumListItems)
God, I am such an engineer.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:46 PM on December 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


"(Actually, you know what? That was a needlessly snarky and pushy comment. I apologise.)"

No, don't apologize. The assumption that apostrophes only signify possessives and cannot signify a plural, ever, is exactly the sort of uninformed nonsense that's typical of prescriptivist peeving.

This whole argument about the serial comma is an example of this -- because people have at least one native language and use language every day, they believe they are authoritative experts on language and can assert universal rules that others must follow on the basis of their own unexamined assumptions.

The particular type of fallacy present in these two examples is a need to attribute to language an artificial consistency such as we find in mathematics and to therefore promulgate the assertion that a failure to conform to these platonic rules is somehow a fundamental error. This sort of peeve and peever is all about asserting that it has to be done exactly one way in all cases because reasons.

"It's been defined in the dictionary as optional for many decades."

My impression is that a lot of the debate about this is driven by a combination of regional differences, historical changes, and a lack of awareness thereof. American English writing instruction has explicitly warned against the use of the Oxford comma for a long time; I have very strong and distinct memories of being taught this in elementary and middle-school. In contrast, British English prescribes its use. So among anglophones in the internet globalization era there's a lot of resulting confusion.

But also it's the case that in the last twenty years or so (and perhaps this is partly because of the rise of the internet), at the higher levels of prestige American usage there's been a trend toward favoring the Oxford comma.

The consequence of this is that you have three distinct levels of accumulated cultural capital with regard to the serial comma in American culture, from least to most:
 
  • L1. Elementary, naive literacy which naturally includes that final comma in a list.
  • L2. Standard, semi-prestige literacy, recalling the school lessons on eliding that final comma.
  • L3. Some portions of prestige literacy, which has discarded that lesson as mistaken and so deliberately embraces the Oxford comma.
And the way that cultural capital works, which we see most virulently with language peeving, is that accumulated capital is ostentatiously displayed to peers, aggressively defended from those below, and the greater accumulations of capital above are denigrated as superfluous affectations. It's very important for L3s to disdain the ignorance of L2s and necessarily ignore the existence of L1s. L2s probably still do disdain the ignorance of the L1s while mostly being unaware of the L3s -- though if they are aware of the L3s, they probably would call the L3 usage a form of educated stupidity.

The other important aspect of how cultural capital works is that the value of cultural capital is always externally rationalized. Precisely in the same sort of way that goldbugs who favor the gold standard for money externally rationalize the value of gold. Accumulation of cultural capital qua cultural capital cannot ever be admitted to be about class, about the mirroring of economic class distinctions. But, rather, all accumulations -- just like accumulations of economic capital -- must be seen as being inherently virtuous because what is accumulated is inherently valuable and right. So, by golly, my preference about the serial comma reveals something about my character -- probably that I'm smart enough to recognize that my preferred usage is self-evidently the correct usage. If pressed, I will present to you a standard argument for that correctness or, failing that, something ad hoc and built from intuition and limited experience.

Finally, because this is all about class, class resentment demands that those with greater accumulations be vilified as people indulging in vice. Just as we are contemptuous of the hovel, admire the home, and sneer at the mansion; we are contemptuous of the ignorant, admire the learned, and sneer at the prideful and snobbish over-educated -- with those values normalized for our own particular class affiliation.

This is basically how all language peeving works. I mean, sure, it's cultural capital and it's how aesthetics work, too. Your favorite band sucks is this applied to popular music. But there are two distinct things that make language peeving particularly annoying and pernicious. The first is that it's almost without fail built around utterly false beliefs about language -- and it's not as if we can't know anything in a scientific fashion about language, because there's an entire discipline in the social science devoted to exactly this topic. The second is that dialectical differences in language have long been a primary target for those who work to systematically reinforce their privilege and oppress others. Language peeving correlates strongly to marking and reinforcing economic class distinctions -- it's primarily about punching down.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 12:50 PM on December 12, 2014 [6 favorites]


Like Ned. G., I find it a little puzzlingly irritating that the Oxford comma, of all things, remains so fetishized as a Divisive Grammar Subject. I suspect it's mostly a shibboleth of sorts -- not to distinguish between devotees and despisers of serial commas, but to identify those who not only know what an "Oxford comma" is, but know that we are expected to hold strong opinions about it.

Yeah, "we" -- I qualify for that tribe of grammatical geekery -- but this isn't a hill I die on as long as the writing is clear. I tend to use it, but it doesn't ruin my day to see it omitted. Though, when I'm editing, I am not going to let an awkward sentence stand just to indulge someone's defiant campaign against the accursed serial comma.
posted by desuetude at 12:52 PM on December 12, 2014 [4 favorites]


Yeah, "we" -- I qualify for that tribe of grammatical geekery -- but this isn't a hill I die on as long as the writing is clear. I tend to use it, but it doesn't ruin my day to see it omitted. Though, when I'm editing, I am not going to let an awkward sentence stand just to indulge someone's defiant campaign against the accursed serial comma.

I'm completely mercenary about it. I edit for serial commas because the stylebook at my job demands it. If our stylebook was comma-optional, I'd use that style. I don't think "barbarians at the gate" arguments offer much, being little more than theoretical asspulls.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 1:46 PM on December 12, 2014


it's primarily about punching down

I really hope that this discussion hasn't been about punching in any significant way. I like to have some "go at it" discussions at times about things that don't really matter where at the end of the day we can agree to disagree and go have a beer. It's like arguing about rules in baseball. You can get genuinely worked up, but at the end of the day, I still like everybody here.
posted by SpacemanStix at 1:58 PM on December 12, 2014 [3 favorites]


Like Ned. G., I find it a little puzzlingly irritating that the Oxford comma, of all things, remains so fetishized as a Divisive Grammar Subject. I suspect it's mostly a shibboleth of sorts -- not to distinguish between devotees and despisers of serial commas, but to identify those who not only know what an "Oxford comma" is, but know that we are expected to hold strong opinions about it.

I do think that there are some ambiguity issues that are better resolved one way or another, so there's some inherent logic to it for me. If I were honest, there are also aesthetic issues about grammar and reading that feel familiar and like home, and as such, are hard to give up. I have memories of learning this rule (among others) and internalizing a particular cadence to writing and typing and reading that is familiar and feels right. When you love to read or write, you make yourself at home in language in certain ways. To break a particular beloved rule or style, you sometimes develop high standards. It's allowable, but it needs to be doing something that is also aesthetically good for the discipline. So, change has to be earned, too. It's like when you have to edit beloved material out because of space constraints. Giving up something hard earned and familiar can sometimes feel like your are abandoning someone. I'm not sure what this all means at the end of the day, but I realized that there are things about grammar and writing that can get pretty personal, and as such, are influential variables.
posted by SpacemanStix at 2:15 PM on December 12, 2014


I'm hoping it's not an issue of punching up and down, because I use the serial comma, but this one proofreader of my translations always removes the serial commas. I've been attributing this to personal preference, and it would suck to find out that it was actually revolutionary action, and that I'm the oppressor.
posted by Bugbread at 2:32 PM on December 12, 2014 [1 favorite]


"I really hope that this discussion hasn't been about punching in any significant way."

It's been pretty good. But surely you're aware of how often this isn't the case, and in the worst ways? The exact same kinds of intuitions, judgments, and arguments are involved when, for example, an employer doesn't hire a black person who uses the AAVE dialect.

You don't have to look very hard to find explicit judgments about intelligence and competency built around the presence or absence of the Oxford comma and, anyway, it's just one brick in the much larger walls that people build around this sort of thing.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 2:43 PM on December 12, 2014


It's been pretty good. But surely you're aware of how often this isn't the case, and in the worst ways?

Oh yes, and I think your observations about class and cultural capital are good ones.
posted by SpacemanStix at 2:47 PM on December 12, 2014


Upthread, a few people mentioned using ~ as an irony marker. I'm afraid this would take me some getting used to - in western otaku communities especially, but elsewhere as well, the ~ has at least two uses:

Used at the end of a sentence to denote that you are saying something in a lovey, sing-songy tone, e.g. "And now, I'm going to snuggle under the comforter and watch some Yuru Yuri~"

When combined with asterixes and bracketing a word or phrase, it is used to mock the supposed importance of a person, idea or thing, e.g. "Oh please shut up about how moe is *~killing the anime industry~*"

I guess the bracketing use would be good for sarcasm - not too hard to get used to. This idea has wheels. Language is a wonderful thing~
posted by Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane at 3:16 PM on December 12, 2014


Dolorous Slashpair

I do hear that this is popular on the internet
posted by threeants at 10:52 AM on December 13, 2014 [1 favorite]




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