Oxford commas, Nelson Mandela, and Stephen King

September 15, 2014

The Oxford comma (the one right before and in the title of this post) has been in the news again. It never really goes away, but now and then it intrudes more noticeably into general and specialist discussion. I’ve a couple of brief points to make about it, but anyone unsure of the terrain should first read my earlier post on the Oxford, Harvard, or serial comma, as it is variously known.

The Oxford comma is one of those in-group niceties that some wordsmiths use to mark their editorial or writerly identities. It has become a sort of tribal badge of style, reinforced by whether your preferred authority prescribes it – for example, the Chicago Manual of Style strongly recommends it, while the AP Stylebook says leave it out.

It’s remarkably divisive, so I’ll restate for the record that I’m not a die-hard Oxford comma user or leaver-outer. I like it, and I tend to use it, but not always. Neither its use nor its omission is a universal solution – ambiguity can arise either way, so it doesn’t make sense to be inflexible about it.

This tweet is a case in point:

@socratic tweet - oxford comma on mandela, 800-year-old demigod and dildo collector

Read the rest of this entry »

Belief systems, which erode clarity

June 11, 2013

I’ve written before about a comma(,) which muddles meaning, and a comma with restrictive which. The first was in a newspaper editorial, the second in a de Maupassant translation; both were inserted seemingly because of an unfortunate belief in the bogus rule about that and which.

Here, inevitably, is another example, this one in bell hooks’ book All About Love:

Ultimately, though, the authors remained wedded to belief systems, which suggest that there are basic inherent differences between women and men.

The appearance after belief systems of a comma followed by which induces a pause and primes the reader to expect a relative clause about the consequences of remaining wedded to belief systems in general. But that’s not what happens.

First, uninflected suggest implies that the antecedent (what which refers to) is plural, i.e., belief systems, not the (singular) fact that certain authors remain wedded to them. Then the rest of the line shows that the writer is talking about specific belief systems.

So the relative clause is restrictive – the type of belief systems referred to is semantically restricted. Adding a comma makes it non-restrictive, which makes no sense here. I had to reread the sentence to parse it properly, this time ignoring the misleading comma.

Maybe the writer used which rather than that to avoid repeating that (“belief systems that suggest that”), though of course the second that is optional. Or maybe she just preferred which there. Either relative pronoun would have been fine. Adding a comma was not.

Again I’m inclined to think the comma was added by an editor who remains wedded to a belief system* which misinforms them about the grammaticality of which in restrictive clauses in all varieties of English.

Further reading: a discussion among editors on the that/which pseudo-rule. Or see the links above for more detailed discussion.


* Note the complete lack of a comma here. Savour it.

Comma with restrictive ‘which’

January 5, 2013

In Guy de Maupassant’s short story ‘Le Horla’, which I read in The Mountain Inn and other stories (Penguin Classics, 1955; translated by H. N. P. Sloman), I came across a restrictive clause using which and set off by a comma:

I had an experience today yesterday, which has upset me considerably.

Lest there be any doubt: the context indicates it was the particular experience the narrator had that upset him, not the fact of his having any old experience. The normal approach in such cases is to forgo the comma and use either which or that: I had an experience today which has upset me considerably.

I wonder at what point – and from whose hand – the comma appeared. Was it meant simply to signal a slight pause, its grammatical ambiguity an accident of shifting styles? Or was it inserted needlessly by an editor schooled in the fake that/which rule? Either way, it bears comparison with this rogue comma in a recent Guardian editorial.

A comma, which muddles meaning

November 19, 2012

From a Guardian editorial of 14 November:

There is another lesson to the Petraeus affair. The former general fashioned for himself a role, which is much more significant than top generals have during wars. [screengrab]

Readers may briefly infer that what is “much more significant” is not a role but Petraeus’s fashioning a role for himself, or they may infer that top generals don’t normally have a role during wars. And then they’ll realise they’ve miscued because of a rogue comma.

The article should read “a role which [or that] is much more significant”. The clause led by which is restrictive, so there should be no comma before it.* Adding one makes the clause non-restrictive and obscures the antecedent – what the relative pronoun which refers to.

The ambiguity is quickly resolved, but it ought never to have arisen. Readers are being made to work unnecessarily for a straightforward point. Whether the comma came from the writer or from a sub-editor trained in the totally fake that/which rule, the sentence is unwittingly spoiled. Punctuation, instead of lending structure, has warped it.

The that/which rule is more typical of US style; elsewhere there is usually no problem with restrictive which. But the Guardian style guide includes the distinction, seemingly in the name of clarity and elegance. So the quotation above, though not a dire failing, is telling: it shows how communication is undermined through misguided deference to a bogus rule.

We can be grateful for the many other instances of restrictive which in the Guardian that have not suffered an intrusive comma. From today’s edition:

we don’t know what position we are going to have in a Europe which is much more tightly integrated as a result of the eurozone crisis.

Ostrovskaya was earlier cited as a critic of my book The Whisperers in the “controversy” which Ascherson mentions.

a picture published by the Sunday Sport which her lawyers described as a “fake up the skirt photo”.

All these phrases are fully grammatical and intelligible. They don’t need commas before which, nor do they need which changed to that.

If writers and editors are led to believe that a comma must precede relative pronoun which as a matter of correctness, some will adopt this erroneous edict and apply it incorrectly – a misstep apparent in the example up top, and in this Language Log post where Geoffrey Pullum calls the rule “a complete disaster”.

The that/which rule is a spurious invention that goes against the standard usage of centuries of good writing. It replaces judgement and grammatical awareness with uncertainty, anxiety, and mechanical behaviour. And the muddle is passed on to readers.


After a prompt on Twitter by @BoswellAffleck, the @guardianstyle account graciously conceded that I “may well be right”:


* My earlier post on the that/which rule explains the terminology and offers analysis, history, and commentary from usage authorities.

Book review: Punctuation..?

September 18, 2012

User design, a book design company based in the UK, kindly sent me a copy of their recently reissued book on punctuation, simply titled Punctuation..? Or not so simply: shouldn’t those two full stops be a three-dot ellipsis? Maybe it was intended to get editors talking.

More booklet than book, Punctuation..? consists of 35 illustrated pages aimed at a “wide age range (young to ageing) and intelligence (emerging to expert)”. It’s an attractive pamphlet that covers the usual punctuation marks – comma, dashes and co. – and some less familiar ones, such as guillemets [« »], interpunct [·], and pilcrow [¶].

The book’s advice is basic and broadly helpful. General readers won’t mind its traditional definition of a noun as “a word used as the name of a person, place or thing”, though to me this everyday description is dated and deficient. The prose sometimes jars: “As with many rules, there is always an exception”. Well, which is it?

There are more serious shortcomings. Comma splices are not always errors, but they oughtn’t to appear in a book on punctuation without comment; this one has a few. It says em and en dashes are “longer than the hyphen (-) which is not a dash”, which implies some hyphens are dashes. This construction recurs. (See my post on that vs. which.)

For clarity, some words should be in inverted commas or italics (“the word to”), and some shouldn’t (“What about ‘rent’?”). “[D]iscreetly indented paragraphs” is probably meant to be discretely. Semicolons are not the mark “least used in many modern books” – what about pilcrows and interpuncts? – and there’s more semicolon trouble in this example of exclamation mark use:

Ah! you are wrong, once she sees me cleaned up; washed and shaved, she will find me irresistible!

It suggests that when she is washed and shaved, she will find the speaker irresistible. The first comma is also problematic. The same page says exclamation marks are used to “demonstrate hope or regret”, as in “I hope Betty can come!” No: the word hope does that. Elsewhere, words are repeated (“ready to to feed”), omitted (“at end of this sentence”), and questionably hyphenated (hook-up as a verb).

Punctuation..? has a sense of fun, particularly evident in the sometimes witty sketches that enliven the book’s already-pleasant appearance. Their style may be seen in the image below. The tone is light and friendly, some of the marks are well described, and there is welcome coverage of technical marks, such as prime symbols, which would often be overlooked in a work of this type.

Unfortunately, these virtues are overshadowed by the slip-ups in grammar, style, spelling, punctuation, and fact. Other reviewers have been less critical, but I don’t know if they failed to spot the problems that bothered me, or just didn’t care. Punctuation..? is a nice idea for a book, but it needs and deserves  more work and better editing.

Comma clusters and texting style

June 25, 2012

My writing at Macmillan Dictionary Blog continues this month with posts about text messaging and comma usage.

How’s your txtng style? analyses how the language you use in text messages differs from your style in email and your prose elsewhere. I compare the grammar and style of my own text messages with what I know about others’, and I dismiss the suggestion that texting is somehow harmful to language:

New modes and styles of expression are an important part of language change and growth – they have ‘spawned all sorts of clever, funny and inventive new uses of language’, as Michael put it. Texting, like slang, is an ‘active frontier’, and the innovation and flux it illustrates is a sign of linguistic health. So long as communication is effective, and young people learn (or are taught) when texting style is inappropriate, there is no call for alarm. Despite occasional panic, texting is not ruining language – it’s just another way for social creatures to be social.

In the comments, readers have added their thoughts on texting in general and on aspects of their own habits and strategies, including abbreviations in other languages and how different phone types can influence text messaging style.


A clutter of commas looks briefly at the subtlety and diversity of comma style. Gertrude Stein admitted to a “long and complicated life” with punctuation marks; such complication, I write,

is conspicuous in the comma. From one writer or paragraph to the next, difference abounds and customs drift. This is in part because so much variation in comma use is legitimate, which allows ample room for nuance in rhythmic and rhetorical expression. Ernest Gowers wrote that the correct use of commas – “if there is such a thing as ‘correct’ use – can only be acquired by common sense, observation and taste”.

But it’s not quite so vague and elusive as this might make it sound. There is such a thing as correct use, but it may be better to think not of rules but of conventions – and to remember that these change over time and from one context to the next.

Few modern writers, for example, use commas as frequently as Dickens did; I consider the contrasting effects of ‘open’ and ‘close’ punctuation. Adrian (of The Outer Hoard) experimented by re-writing my post with his own punctuation to see where we differed, and he shares his findings in the comments.

Further comments are welcome at either location. You can also visit my Macmillan Dictionary archive for older posts on words and language.


Lane Greene follows up on “A clutter of commas” at the Economist‘s Johnson blog, saying he has “never understood why some people think that their personal comma preference is linguistic law”. Greene recalls an editor of the New Republic insisting that commas always appear in pairs. See Greene’s post for more on this strange belief.

Update 2:

Ruth Walker at the Christian Science Monitor joins in the discussion: “Proper punctuation can be a marvel of space-efficient communication.”

As good (as) or better than faulty parallelism

May 1, 2012

I read the following in a Discovery News article, and it gave me pause:

Fussy readers will frown at the faulty parallelism of “as much, or more, than…”. After all, we don’t say as much than. Strictly speaking, it would seem a second as is missing: as much as, or more than, the face.

This construction is sometimes called “dual comparison”, and it takes various forms: as good (as) or better than; as well (as) or better than; as bad (as) or worse than – you can add your own adjectives or adverbs to the formula. All are susceptible to the kind of casual ellipsis pictured above.

You may be wondering how acceptable the unparallel forms are: whether they’re OK in semi-formal contexts such as science news websites, for example. Let’s see what usage commentators have to say.


Bryan Garner says parallelism “helps satisfy every reader’s innate craving for order and rhythm”. He believes the second as “must appear”, and that dropping it is a “common error”. His appeal is to logic. This is also essentially the argument made by Robert Burchfield, who in his revised edition of Fowler says difficulties arise

because both bad and good (as well as other adjectives) obviously require as, not than, in comparisons. The juxtaposition of as and than without intervening punctuation is not logically defensible. Thus the sentence we’re sure they can judge a novel just as well if not better than us (London Review of Books, 1987) needs correcting to just as well as, if not better than, us.

Burchfield says a wiser course is to sidestep the problem by placing the comparative later in the sentence. So the LRB line could be recast thus: just as well as us, if not better.

But this is not the whole story; other authorities are less stringent. Kenneth G. Wilson’s Columbia Guide to Standard American English says the structure

is idiomatic, at least in Conversational levels and in their written representations, but Edited English avoids it because it is often criticized for its faulty parallelism. . . . Particularly in longer sentences, punctuation gets more complicated when you restore the as: He is as handsome and well-mannered as, or even handsomer and better-mannered than, his older brother.

I don’t see how the punctuation gets more complicated there, though: it’s just the usual two commas in a more unwieldy sentence.

The same source, in a separate entry, says that only crude faulty parallelisms usually bother us: “we speak and write a good many more that go unnoticed.” Unless we have that “craving” Garner mentions, I suppose, along with a meticulous reading and listening style.

The most thorough treatment I came across is in the exceptional Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage. It says the objections began (as they so often do) in the 18th century, beginning with George Campbell in 1776, and they have continued ever since:

This issue arises from the 18-century grammarians’ concern with developing a perfectly logical language – logical from the point of view of Latin grammar – and eliminating as many untidy English idioms as possible.

It says the locution might nowadays be considered “simply another idiomatic usage” had Campbell not noticed it, and that it is “a venial fault” since readers are not confused by it. After examining the various ways punctuation can affect the construction, MWDEU concludes that it “need not be routinely revised out of general writing that does not strive for elevation”.

A search on COCA suggests that as good or better than – seemingly the most common of these expressions – appears especially in magazines and newspapers, often as quoted speech. But academic occurrences are not unheard of, and for as well or better than are of comparable frequency. A few examples:

He knew the lawn as well or better than she did (Margaret Edwards, Virginia Quarterly Review, 1993)

they scored as well or better than the Swedes on tests of reproductive and contraceptive knowledge (Public Interest, 1993)

third-party settlement can be as bad or worse than negotiation in encouraging extreme claims and positions (Canada–United States Law Journal, 2000)

CPDT training is as good or better than the pre-service training (Education, 2003)

You can click on the following charts for more information on specific instances.

As good or better than:

As well or better than:

If on the other hand you are striving for elevation, and you want to attend to proper parallelism, you can:

1. Add as and use two commas.

2. Place the comparative later. This was Strunk’s preferred solution: My opinion is as good as his, or better / if not better.

3. Rephrase, e.g., at least as X as Y.

Different styles, tastes, contexts and hunches will call for different solutions, and it’s always good to have options.


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