Monday, July 22, 2013

Commatose

Anybody who knows me can tell you I'm no fan of the Oxford comma. (At least, those who language-know me, which is still most people.) If you don't know, the Oxford comma is the punctuation mark that goes before the final item in list of two or more. For example, "Red, white, and blue."

For most of my life, I preferred the Oxford comma. As early as second grade, when our teacher let us do commas either way, I was a fervent Oxford partisan. But beliefs have a way of evolving over time — sometimes — and upon entering the wide, magic world of journalism, so did my comma stance.

Print journalism adheres most commonly to Associated Press style, which snubs the Oxford comma in most cases. AP style in general (with a few frustrating exceptions) favors brevity in copy, and people in our field use that style over and over and over and over. After enough time both writing and editing, I went from loving the Oxford comma to wishing it would drown in its own ink. That feeling suited me perfectly for graduate school English courses.

(For those of you who have never taken a graduate English course, that was a literary device called "irony.")

The debate still crops up from time to time among my friends — many of whom are teachers, librarians and other language people — and I'm usually very, very lonely. I understand why, because not only does literature not conform to AP style, but the comma has uses in particular situations.

This Mental Floss article touches on some of the most-cited examples, pro and con. I see the case for the Oxford comma in the pros and its clunkiness in the cons. However, most of those sentences also aren't journalistic, and some need to be rewritten regardless of context. Here's how I would redo some of those sentences to avoid the Oxford issue in the first place:

Mental Floss: "She took a photograph of her parents, the president, and the vice president." 

Me: "She took a photograph of her parents as they met the president and vice president."

MF: "Those at the ceremony were the commodore, the fleet captain, the donor of the cup, Mr. Smith, and Mr. Jones."

Me: "Those at the ceremony were the commodore, the fleet captain, Mr. Smith, Mr. Jones and the donor of the cup, Mr. Cupdonor."

MF: "Zinovieff shot over five hundred of the bourgeoisie at a stroke—nobles, professors, officers, journalists, men and women."

Me: "Zinovieff allegedly shot more than 500 bourgeoisie men and women. Among the victims were nobles, professors, officers and journalists."

MF: "There are certain places where for the sake of clarity and good form the presence of a comma is obligatory, but on the other hand a too liberal use of this form of punctuation tends to slow up the pace of the reading matter and to create confusion and hesitancy in the mind of the reader."

Me: "Oxford commas. Just more keys to stroke."

MF: "This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God"

(Family functions must be excruciatingly awkward.)

Me: "This book is dedicated to Ayn Rand, God and my parents."

MF: "By train, plane and sedan chair, Peter Ustinov retraces a journey made by Mark Twain a century ago. The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector."

Me: "By train, plane and sedan chair, Peter Ustinov retraces a journey made by Mark Twain a century ago. The highlights of his global tour include encounters with an 800-year-old demigod, a dildo collector and Nelson Mandela."

See? Oxford comma or not, no confusion there. Writing!

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