09 April 2009

Comma Comma Comma Comma Comma Chameleon

Unlike Vampire Weekend, I think the Oxford Comma is quite an important device. It's a rather important piece of my grammatical furniture, up there with the jewel that is the semi-colon, that prince of punctuation marks.

You're aware of the Oxford Comma? No? Well, sometimes referred to as 'the rhetorical comma' or 'the serial comma', it's the comma that falls before the final 'and' in lists. Often disregarded, I was long ago convinced of its rightness by Con Houlihan in a series of articles on good English he wrote for Ireland's long defunct Evening Press, once upon a time.

The Oxford Comma makes rhetorical, aesthetic, and logical sense. Okay, you can argue with me on the aesthetic point, but not the other two. Think about it. Do you say 'Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity' or 'Liberty, Equality and Fraternity'? Do you say 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness' or 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness'? Do you say 'red, white, and blue' or 'red, white and blue'?

Listen to yourself. You pronounce that comma. And you know it makes sense. If you're going to drop one comma because you're too lazy to make a small mark on the page, well, why not drop the rest?

Language Hat has a fine little post today on the importance of the well-deployed comma. I'm going to quote it in full, though you'll need to go there to see the thriving comments thread.
'Over at the Log, Geoff Pullum provides an excellent example, from The Economist (April 4, p. 11), of why the "comma-heavy" style (with the "Oxford comma" before and and commas after introductory phrases) is preferable:
Traders and fund managers got huge rewards for speculating with other people's money, but when they failed the parent company, the client and ultimately the taxpayer had to pay the bill.
To me, that unambiguously means that when they failed the parent company (i.e., let it down), the client and the taxpayer had to pay the bill. Unfortunately, that's not what the author meant to say. When the intended meaning is pointed out, I can force myself to read the sentence that way, but it's a strain. As Geoff says, the sentence should be rewritten as follows:
Traders and fund managers got huge rewards for speculating with other people's money, but when they failed, the parent company, the client, and ultimately the taxpayer had to pay the bill.
Nobody could possibly misunderstand that.'
It's nice to learn from the original Language Log post the name of the other key grammatical point at issue here: 'the post-adjunct comma'. I shall annoy people with that too.

3 comments:

nmrboy said...

as a fellow fan of oxford commas (and vampire weekend), i think you state the point very clearly when you say that people pronounce the comma in speech but don't write it down. you can ask someone to read out something they've written, and they automatically insert missing punctuation and in doing so often restore the original meaning that may not be present in the written form. it seems to me that people who don't write good (like what we does) actually don't know how to read punctuation, or that it can be read the same way words can.

n.

Neil said...

A few things.

Firstly (and I notice that someone has said that in reply to what you're quoting), the Oxford comma doesn't alter the sense of the example quoted. It alters the sense when there is an extra "and" in one of the items in the list. For that reason, I always include the Oxford comma - if I read the work of someone who doesn't use it, I have to work out whether or not the 'and' marks a separate item. The "post-adjunct comma" changes the meaning in this case.

Secondly, I don't see the phrase "post-adjunct comma" anywhere in the posts you linked to. Did you infer the term?

Thirdly, do you really think that pronunciation can justify the placing of commas? English, more than any language, conveys meaning via commas (for example, in the case of restrictive and non-restrictive clauses). My boss sometimes places commas before any subsequent verbs in sentences she writes. This isn't at odds with her pronunciation, but in speech it doesn't sound wrong. In writing, however, it changes the meaning (or rather, reduces the passage to nonsense), and literally makes me cringe when proofreading. (By contrast, hearing someone pronounce "red, white and blue" as written wouldn't surprise (or, indeed, trouble) me.)

Neil said...

A few things.

Firstly (and I notice that someone has said that in reply to what you're quoting), the Oxford comma doesn't alter the sense of the example quoted. It alters the sense when there is an extra "and" in one of the items in the list. For that reason, I always include the Oxford comma - if I read the work of someone who doesn't use it, I have to work out whether or not the 'and' marks a separate item. The "post-adjunct comma" changes the meaning in this case.

Secondly, I don't see the phrase "post-adjunct comma" anywhere in the posts you linked to. Did you infer the term?

Thirdly, do you really think that pronunciation can justify the placing of commas? English, more than any language, conveys meaning via commas (for example, in the case of restrictive and non-restrictive clauses). My boss sometimes places commas before any subsequent verbs in sentences she writes. This isn't at odds with her pronunciation, but in speech it doesn't sound wrong. In writing, however, it changes the meaning (or rather, reduces the passage to nonsense), and literally makes me cringe when proofreading. (By contrast, hearing someone pronounce "red, white and blue" as written wouldn't surprise (or, indeed, trouble) me.)