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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James Thurber explains the New Yorker comma

May 17, 2016

James Thurber’s book The Years with Ross (1959), which recounts the early years of the New Yorker under Harold Ross’s stewardship, has much to recommend it. Thurber fans are likely to have read it already but will not object to revisiting a short passage or two, while those yet to be acquainted may be encouraged to seek it out.

james thurber - the years with ross - new yorkerRecalling dinner one spring evening in 1948, Thurber describes being mostly a spectator while Ross and H. L. Mencken hold court:

The long newspaper experience of the two men, certain of their likes and dislikes, and their high and separate talents as editors formed basis enough for an evening of conversation. They were both great talkers and good listeners, and each wore his best evening vehemence, ornamented with confident conclusions, large generalizations, and dark-blue emphases. . . .

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Punctuating Yeats and reading writers’ minds

March 23, 2015

‘Yeats’s handwriting resembles a mouse’s electrocardiogram,’ writes the late Daniel Albright in his preamble to the marvellous Everyman Library edition of W. B. Yeats’ Poems, which he edited.

Albright gives a similarly forthright account of the poet’s spelling and punctuation, excerpted below. While acknowledging his debt to Richard Finneran, who oversaw a different collection of Yeats’s poems, Albright parts company from him in two ways:

First, he is more respectful of Yeats’s punctuation than I. He supposes […] that Yeats’s punctuation was rhetorical rather than grammatical, an imaginative attempt to notate breath-pauses, stresses, and so forth; and that the bizarre punctuation in some of Yeats’s later poems is due to the influence of experimental modernists such as T.S. Eliot and Laura Riding. I suppose that Yeats was too ignorant of punctuation to make his deviations from standard practice significant. Although Yeats surely wished to make his canon a text worthy of reverence, he conceived poetry as an experience of the ear, not of the eye. He could not spell even simple English words; he went to his grave using such forms as intreage [‘intrigue’] and proffesrship. His eyesight was so poor that he gave up fiction-writing because the proof-reading was too strenuous. Finally, Yeats himself admitted, ‘I do not understand stops. I write my work so completely for the ear that I feel helpless when I have to measure pauses by stops and commas’.

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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 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 or dogmatic about it.

This tweet is a case in point:

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

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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.

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* 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.

Update:

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

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