Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

A blog about words, wordplay, and etymology, with slightly more than occasional political rants.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

All your diction dripping with disdain

There's been much debate, in the circles in which I run, about the Oxford comma of late. Because I run in circles with people who debate about commas, I'm ashamed to say. And listening to this debate I've learned one important thing. People get really, really worked up over one tiny piece of punctuation.
Here's the deal. The Oxford, or serial comma, is the punctuation that comes right before and, but, or nor in a list of things. As in "I like puppies, rainbows, and drag racing." Not all people think that the Oxford comma is needed, that the sentence is just as clear if written "I like puppies, rainbows and drag racing."
I have an opinion on this. I've tried my hardest not to, but I think it's in my English major DNA. I'm not going to push my opinion on you here though, because the point of this entry is to demand, loudly, to know why the hell anyone cares about such a thing.
Now I'm not above pointless debating. I've dedicated more of my life than I care to admit to debating what would happen if Wolverine got a tattoo, what with the mutant healing factor. I mean, would it just seep in, or slough off, or would it stay. It's like a scar, but it's not a scar... I mean what it all comes down to is that we'd need to figure out first exactly just how his mutant healing factor works. If his cells just regenerate really quickly, then the skin that contains the ink would come to the surface sooner first...
Okay, wait, no. Not the point. The point? Oh, the point is punctuation. And how damned silly it is to get worked up about it.
This seems hypocritical coming from someone like me, who froths at the sight of misplaced apostrophes (apostrophes aren't used to make plurals, for God sake. Your establishment doesn't serve fajita's, it serves fajitas. Unless, of course, your restaurant serves thinks that belong to a fajita, in which case, part of your sentence is missing). Can I be forgiven based on the fact that I get paid to care about these things?
You know that book Eats, Shoots, and Leaves that everyone seems convinced I'll love? I hate it. The woman, I kid you not, picketed outside the movie Two Weeks Notice to complain that it should be Two Weeks' Notice. Like, maybe she's a lovely person with a great social conscience, but I really wonder as to the last time she held up a picket sign in favor of something important, you know? I might complain loudly, and at length, outside of an establishment that abuses apostrophes, but holding a sign? Please. Never. Okay, maybe under the right circumstances.
But then, I do care about things like little things like punctuation. If a piece of business literature is filled with little punctuation errors, it will make me think twice about the company. If they can't be bothered to proofread their copy, what else are they lax about? I know a knitter who won't use a knitting pattern if there are a lot of mistakes in the text between the pattern bits - minute details are very important in things like sock patterns, and if someone's lax in the area of grammar, well, it might be the red flag that prevents you from making socks the size of your head. And there are times when punctuation is important. Take the age old case of "Let's eat grandma," vs. "Let's eat, grandma." In that case, a lack of punctuation may lead to some very expensive therapy bills down the line. 
Also, my friend sent this to me, which is what got me thinking about minutiae in the first place. And the cartoonist really does have a point.
Okay, fine, I'll say it. I'm pro-Oxford. And I'm not afraid to admit it.


Anonymous said...

I'm so glad you posted about this to reassure me that I have not actually lost my mind. No one down here uses the Oxford comma and it drives me bonkers when they tell me I'm wrong to us it. I love being a nerd and having nerd friends.

Bonnie Jacobs said...

You would "demand, loudly, to know why the hell anyone cares about such a thing."

Because I'm tired of the confusing results when that comma is omitted. That's why! Since I taught grammar and punctuation, I've done my bit, though half of my students really didn't care and probably promptly forgot it. Maybe the other half will spread clarity among the masses. Beep! Not likely.

Back in the 1940s and 1950s, I was taught to include that comma. Sometime in the 1970s or 1980s, the rule changed for awhile. Yes, apparently officially. It has now changed back, but the ones who learned it the "wrong" way are still in positions of power and still punctuate the way they were taught.

Brigid Daull Brockway said...

@ Bonnie: The style books are all over the place on whether or not to use it... some insist yes, others no, others that it's completely optional. The AP style book is still anti-Oxford, what with column inches. So it hasn't so much changed as become a free-for-all.

Lucius Weddge said...

I find that I don't care much about punctuation until it impedes understanding; at which point it cuts to the whole point of language and proves critically important. That, however can be a very fine line. Does it matter that I find passive voice in a written paper to be like nails on a chalkboard; most often no... When I read "A History of Everyday Things" in its English translation and every sentence appeared muddled and confused with passive voice it mattered a great deal. As with most things I think moderation helps. Some small stylistic aberrations are acceptable so long as they do not diminish greater meaning.

VEG said...

I have to respectfully disagree here. The Oxford Comma is just wrong to me. I see your logic in using it and why it changes the meaning often but I was always taught you don't use a comma before the 'and'. I have a feeling it's a locational thing though. In the UK, where I grew up, we don't recognize the Oxford Comma so I just can't bring myself to use it now. My American friends, however, grew up WITH the Oxford Comma so it seems like American English embraces it, while UK English does not.

I'm 100% with you on apostrophes, however. If I see just one more person who can't distinguish between "it's" and "its" I will blow holes in my calm forever.

Megi said...

I hadn't even realized that the Oxford comma had a name or was "optional" until I was in college getting my Psyc. degree and was forced to memorize the AP style. I defied it and used the damned thing anyways because I'm a rebel like that.
Also, was that me that sent you that comic? Cause, yeah, my memory is just _that_ bad.

Anonymous said...

Dear Vegetable Assassin,

Is your sole reason for not using the Oxford Comma that you were TAUGHT not to? If you actually believe it's logical and meaningful, why not shed the bonds of rote education and be free?! Long live the Oxford Comma, and long live free will, my friends.