The ambiguous Oxford comma

April 21, 2017

The more finicky a distinction, the more fanatically people take sides over it. The Oxford comma (aka serial comma, series comma, etc.) is a case in point. Some people – often copy editors or writers – adopt it as a tribal badge and commit to it so completely that it becomes part of their identity. They become true believers.

Being a true believer means adhering to the faith: swearing, hand on stylebook, that the Oxford comma is the best option, end of story. ‘It eliminates ambiguity,’ they assert without qualification. Many claim to use it ‘religiously’, or they convey their devotion to it in analogous secular terms.

Either way, this is dogma, and like all dogma it masks a more complicated (and more interesting) truth.

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Book review: But Can I Start a Sentence with “But”?

July 20, 2016

Editors are necessarily a fussy lot. We hunt typos, errant commas, and assorted orthographical aberrations and inconsistencies with the industry and pleasure of a bumblebee in a high-summer meadow. And if we’re any good at it, we consult authorities – often. Because we know (oh, how we know) what assumption is the mother of.

For academic writers and editors, the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) is one of the biggest and best authorities, especially for US English. Even here in Ireland, I check CMOS often and with great regard. (After years of frequent use, editors become intimately familiar with style guides: our feelings for them are not always friendly.)

The team behind CMOS run a monthly Q&A for subs, proofreaders, writers and the stylistically uncertain. Many queries can be resolved by reference to the relevant section in CMOS, though at 1026 pages it can take some digging, while others are more esoteric puzzles that offer no obvious solution. The editors’ answers are clear and helpful, as you’d expect, but they’re also sometimes… sassy. Snarky, even.

And now there’s a book, But Can I Start a Sentence with “But”?, a selection from the Q&A. (Its publishers, University of Chicago Press, kindly sent me a complimentary copy.) The foreword is by Carol Fisher Saller, who is responsible for many of the As in the Q&A and whose book The Subversive Copy Editor, 2nd edition, I reviewed recently.

but can i start a sentence with but - chicago style q&a book coverSaller and her colleagues are a fount of level-headed sense, and it’s manifest throughout this short book. On the very first page we read: ‘In style matters, there are often competing options, all acceptable.’ This, as you may imagine, is music to my ears. Page 2: ‘When consistency gets silly, you can rebel.’

These are solid maxims of the editing trade, yet they are unknown to some professionals who assume there is always a Right Way and who sacrifice sense and compromise clarity to avoid deviating from a rule, however trivial. So it’s reassuring and constructive to see editorial flexibility upheld and indeed stressed by so august an arbiter.

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