Sunday, November 1, 2015

Why Your Oxford Comma Is a Waste of Ink

The more social-media contacts you have, the higher the likelihood is that some of them will be grammar nerds, a.k.a. grammar Nazis, a.k.a. over-correcting twerps who regularly post lists of expressions everybody says wrong. They will get shirty if you argue back that "I could care less" is an idiomatic expression and they should just live with it and stop whining that "I couldn't care less" is what you really mean. And now and then they will hold forth a humorous meme demonstrating how punctuation can save lives ("Let's eat grandma!"). Inevitably one of their sacred cows will be the almighty Oxford comma, the tiny stroke of the pen (or character on the screen) that changes "Tom, Dick and Harry" to "Tom, Dick, and Harry."

Frankly, or rather sarcastically speaking, I could care less.

I used to be careful to use the Oxford comma because that's what I was taught to do, and I've never had a problem with absorbing the accepted style. But then I started writing for a newspaper and I was forced to reverse my long-standing policy and cut the comma after Dick. Why? Because the AP style guide says so. Why? Because the AP style guide says so. Why? Because the AP style guide says so. All right, I get it. But why? Because in so many hundreds or thousands of copies of so many pages of broadsheet, each unnecessary comma wastes an appreciable, cumulative amount of ink and space, both of which cost money.

For some people going into journalism, losing the Oxford comma is like losing the religion transmitted to them by their ancestors and wise village elders. I have seen, for example, a quote on "Overheard in the Newsroom" where someone leaving the newspaper trade said, "I look forward to being able to use an Oxford comma without having my motives questioned." But I haven't taken it so hard. In fact, I think I've been pretty well converted to the AP style guide's point of view. And now I have that one more little, inky reason to be irritated with the know-it-alls who consider the Oxford comma an issue on the same level as freedom of the press, feeding the hungry and rescuing abused and neglected puppies.

The self-anointed true believers of English grammar consider the Oxford comma a mark of pure doctrine. But I submit they are really grammatical legalists, raising a parochial punctuation peccadillo to the order of dogma.

The presence or absence of a comma after the penultimate item in a comma-delimited list is not a unit of grammar at all. It is at best a convenience to the reader. Grammar is concerned with the transmission of meaning. The meaning is in the words, not in the punctuation marks. This becomes evident when you hear a list of items read out loud and understand it perfectly without reference to the Oxford University Press manual of style (or the AP style guide, for that matter). Sure, you might read aloud the words "Let's eat grandma!" with a different intonation than "Let's eat, grandma!" But that isn't what we're talking about. We're talking about a phrase like "Tom, Dick, and Harry" - a phrase which, read aloud, wouldn't sound any different without that second comma.

Sure, some telling examples have been held up for ridicule, like the lede sentence "This week's top stories are climate change, the Obama-Castro handshake and gay marriage" - but I defy anyone who sees the humor in that sentence to prove that they didn't understand its intended meaning. Read aloud it wouldn't sound any different. Adding a comma after "handshake" might redirect a mischievous reader from seeing the comical possibilities of the sentence, but the comma after "change" and the word "and" really should be sufficient to convince a reasonable person of the author's intent. If there's a possibility such a sentence could be misunderstood, whether read in the newspaper or announced by a TV news anchor, it's because of the word order and not the Oxford compliance of its punctuation.

If you want to ensure your writing cannot possibly be misunderstood, take more care about how you put the sentence together. The correct placement of a punctuation mark doesn't matter as much as sentence structure and word order. Begin by supposing there is a better way to express the intended meaning of your sentence; then look for it. A less-than-preferred style of punctuation may be irritating and distracting; it may play into the hands of satirical wags who enjoy nothing more than turning people's words against them; it may even give away a writer's educational or professional background; but after all, it's a matter of style and not of grammar. It's the lace frill on the sleeve of a dress, not the seam that holds it together. And only an elitist prig would plaster a "Not Done" sign on a point of style so fine that it is, in fact, done every day by some of the most intelligent and literate writers in our society.

There are no words for this.
Except, you know, "bullshit."
To the true convert, to the enthusiast, to the Oxford comma fanatic, their little mark is essential to clear communication, regarded as something no reasonable person would reject. But I reject it, and I think I have reasonable grounds. Take a sentence containing a list of three or more items, such as: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Galatians 5:22-23). Whether there's an "and" or not is immaterial. In this instance, there is no "and." The commas between the items are sufficient to show us that they are members of a list. The comma serves, more or less, in lieu of the word "and."

If you wanted, you could list the items thus: "love and joy and peace and patience," etc. A poet, for example, could arbitrarily insert or omit "ands" between these list items to make them fit his meter. No comma is necessary before or after any of these "ands," because each "and" serves the same purpose as a comma. It would be tiresome to insist on both a comma and an "and" in each instance: "love, and joy, and peace, and patience..." And this tiresomeness extends to the last comma in the list. Rather, it should be replaced thus: "faithfulness, gentleness and self-control."

Based on my reasoning, to insist on a comma before that "and" would be like demanding a double comma or a double "and." And in the oral recitation of the list, such a comma would probably not alter the speaker's vocalization one bit - unless your reader is one of those hyper-literal types who interpret every dot on the page with a deliberate alteration of rhythm or tempo. Not every writer is e.e. cummings, nor is every speaker Victor Borge, but even if they were, the difference each comma in the list would make in their oral performance would be musical or impressionistic, not a difference in the meaning of the sentence.

Once upon a time literature was written with much less punctuation than is now fashionable. Also, writing extended much closer to the edges of the page and was more tightly spaced. Books these days, especially hardcovers and quality paperbacks, are so tremendously wasteful of paper and ink that they make my arm ache to hold them and my bookcase strain to contain them. And all this space-wasting design accomplishes is to spare the reader effort to focus on each line of text and move his eyes from left to right. Just as people's homes these days contain more and more space although ever fewer guests are coming over to share it, so also we are lavishing more empty space upon, around and amidst the printed word though fewer people are reading it.

If you really think we need to do something to save trees and cut down on pollutants, how about using less ink and paper? If the same book can be printed either as a tome fit to hold a door open or in a format that you can hold in one hand or even slip into a pocket, why are we still printing tomes? And if banishing the Oxford comma from one's style guide could shave lines off a newspaper story or pages off a book, why is it still wanted? In the spirit of "reduce your carbon footprint and stop saying stupid things," I would conclude: "Save the forests. Down with the Oxford comma!"


TWZRD said...

I shall remember this the next time I extend an invitation to some rhinoceri! (A word my spellcheck doesn't believe in, BTW.)

The little blue manual 'Mechanics for Writing", which was issued by the Metro Nashville Public Schools in 1966 ( back when such literati as Dr. Arna Bontemps were on the school board), pretty much did away with that Oxford Comma. It's my 50 page condensed "how to write anything" bible, and I couldn't write without it. ["Put a comma before "and", "but", "or", "not" and "for" when they join two main clauses. Do not use a comma if the clauses are short." ] Too bad I probably have one of the last. I think kids would be well served if they still gave out such in the appropriate grade.

Robert E. Waters said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Robert E. Waters said...

Actually, I was taught the AP style- or rather, to regard the use of a final comma in a series of items as optional. I'm a convert to the Oxford comma, not because I'm a legalist but because I don't think ambiguity in expression is justified by "Oh, they'll understand anyway" is as bad an idea in other forms of written expression as it is in theology.

Never underestimate the ability of even an educated and intelligent person to misunderstand the written word. I think it was Melanchthon who said that nothing can be so carefully written that it cannot be misunderstood.

I vividly remember an odd statement by old LCA theologian Eric Gritsch which interpreted FC SD IV, 31 ("Above all, therefore, the false Epicurean delusion is to be earnestly censured and rejected, namely, that some imagine that faith and the righteousness and salvation which they have received can be lost through no sins or wicked deeds, not even through wilful and intentional ones, but that a Christian although he indulges his wicked lusts without fear and shame, resists the Holy Ghost, and purposely engages in sins against conscience, yet none the less retains faith, God's grace, righteousness, and salvation.") to mean that it was somehow an "Epicurean delusion" to teach that one CAN lose salvation through indulging our wicked lusts without fear and shame, resisting the Holy Ghost, and purposely engage in sins against conscience, and that one CANNOT do so without losing faith, God's grace, righteousness, and salvation! This remains the standard ELCA understanding to this day, even though it's perfectly clear that the passage says the exact opposite and that in any case, if this were a delusion it could hardly be understood as an "Epicurean" one!

In other words, clarity is a good thing and anything which promotes clarity is a good thing. You can never have too much clarity.

Of course, the Oxford Comma can become a fetish and a stumbling block. But calling it a "waste of ink" is going too far. Being unclear and sloppy because "they'll understand it anyway" strikes me as the kind of slacker mentality that has resulted in a generation of illiterate college students and is literally killing the written English language.

Robin D Fish Jr said...

I would answer this, but I would be repeating what I already said in the column above, with emphasis on the concepts that "grammar is about words, not punctuation marks" and "to communicate more clearly, reconsider your sentence structure and word order." On the flips side, since I wrote this, my newspaper was bought by a publisher who has reinstated the Oxford comma, so I'm keeping my head down.