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ICftW: Oxford Commas – Now part of a Nutritious Breakfast

Hey there writers,

Today, I have yet another contribution in my obsessive war-waging for the Oxford comma. This time it’s a wonderful comic demonstrating the eternal rightness and goodness of the Oxford comma (now part of a balanced breakfast). Check it out:

Oxford comma comic - eggs, toast and orange juice

Image courtesy of Shortee

 

We’ve already explored how politicians and strippers can get mixed up if you don’t use the Oxford comma. My Reddit post on the topic exploded with comments from both Team Oxford Comma and our dreaded opposition. Things are getting pretty intense in this battle. I’m actually considering making some Team Oxford Comma pins, emblazoned with the tag line “Give me clarity or give me death.” What do you think? Worth making? Let me know.

Write on,

Rob


ICFTW: The Strippers, JFK and Stalin

If you’re on my blog, chances are you already know about my obsession with the Oxford comma. As such, I’m very excited to share an Oxfordian comic for the weekly writer’s comic series. Check it out:

Oxford Comma: The Strippers, JFK and Stalin

This image is pulled from The Moosebody, and reminds us that even humor from academic minds can contain picture of communists in thongs. Thanks for that, Moose. He doesn’t seem to be the original creator, though, and while I followed the rabbit hole about 8 steps down, I could find the origin of the meme. If anyone knows, drop the info in the comments and I’ll update ASAP.

I also want to point out that in the original post presenting this cartoon on “The Gloss,” ~90% of respondents said they thought the Oxford comma was “so hot.” Hear hear!

Write on,

Rob


The Oxford Comma (by Chelsea Foulk)

I was thumbing through a poetry chapbook made by a former student at Utah Valley University, and stumbled on a piece titled “The Oxford Comma.” As you probably know from my previous entries on the topic, I’m quite a fan of our dear serial comma, so I was deeply enthused to find that the author’s feelings reflected my own. It felt mandatory to track down the author and ask for permission to re-publish the work here. Chelsea Foulk, who is also the creative mind behind InClover Art, was kind enough to grant said permission.

So, without further rambling, here is “The Oxford Comma” by Chelsea Foulk.

The Oxford Comma

I would kill for the Oxford comma. If it were on a train track with a train careening to hit it, I would push the nearest fat man onto the tracks, just for the chance to give that comma a few more seconds to exist. I imagine some would cheer and carry me on their shoulders to the avenged comma, so I could take it in my arms and shout, “I love you, Comma! I love grammar, literature, and the Oxford comma!” And still others would be in shock of the carnage of the obliterated fat man. Those would be the ones who don’t understand the Oxford comma: the ones who write, “I’ll have two eggs, orange juice and toast,” those who like toast in their orange juice. Or instead of, “the strippers, Stalin, and Hitler,” they party with, “the strippers, Stalin and Hitler.” Those perverts who like to watch dictators wear pasties. Eva Braun must have been an Oxford non-believer.

I can’t say I would die for the Oxford comma, though. If it were on a track with a train careening to hit it, and a fat man stepped to me and shouted, “Jump! Jump onto the tracks in front of the train! For grammar, and literature, and the Oxford comma!” I would timidly shrink back, my head hung low, and order a glass of orange juice and toast.


Avoiding Accidental Polyamory with the Direct Address Comma

There are old jokes known as “Tom Swifties,” and I’m a big fan. My favorite is this:

“I have dissociative identity disorder,” said Tom, being Frank.

Obviously, the pun works better when it’s spoken, but you get the idea. There are many words in the English language that can apply to a sentence ambiguously, and the direct address comma is a way to avoid confusion on the verb-subject-addressee relationship.

Example One: “Let’s describe them, guys,” vs, “Let’s describe them guys.”

The first means we should describe a previous subject (the “them”). The alternative version means that we should describe “them guys.”

Example Two: “Thou shalt not kill, Christians,” vs, “Thou shalt not kill Christians.”

The first is a somewhat accurate paraphrase of what the Bible said. The second is what the people who ran the crusades seemed to think the Bible said.

Example Three (and this is my favorite): “You should share, Dr. Smith,” vs, “You should share Dr. Smith.”

The first is a prompt to have Dr. Smith share something, while the second seems to be a proposition for a menage a trois – or perhaps polyamory.

The simple direct address comma determines whether the person who comes at the end of the sentence is an addressee or is the subject directly connected to the sentence’s verb. In any case where you’re saying something directly to a person, you’ll use this comma. It’s part of the proper standards, it separates the sentence’s structure nicely, and it avoids accidental polyamory.


Fixing Apposition Fumbles

The English language leaves plenty of room for communication fumbles, but one of the most hilarious happens with apposition. Apposition, the placement of a second term or phrase after a first to elaborate on the nature of that first term or phrase, is an invaluable tool – but when you don’t treat it with care, it will come back to bite you.

Example the First

For this example, let’s pretend I’m one of those (idiotic) people who don’t use the Oxford comma. And let’s pretend I have a sense of humor, and thus am telling a joke. The joke starts like this:

The lady walked into a bar, followed closely by a duck, a psychopath and a vegetarian.

There are two excellent ways to interpret this. First, a woman walked into a bar, then a duck, a psychopath, and vegetarian followed her in. Second (and I absolutely prefer this one), a woman is followed into a bar by a duck who is a psychopath and a vegetarian (like Hitler!).

Image courtesy of Shenziholic
(I am so happy that this image exists!)

But let’s assume that what we really meant was that a group of four (woman, duck, psychopath, vegetarian) all came into a bar. How would we fix the ambiguity? Well, the first and most obvious way is to use the Oxford comma (so add one more reason to the list!). However, you could also re-cast the sentence as “A woman, a duck, a psychopath and a vegetarian walked into a bar.” The structure of the sentence makes the lack of apposition clear (there would be a comma after “vegetarian” if we were going for apposition, after all).

By the way, now that I’ve started the joke, I’m ever-so-curious how to ends. Leave your punchline in the comments section below for a chance to win my favorite type of cookie, chocolate chip and giant. (I’ll work on how I’ll locate that giant later.)

Example the Second


Alas, the Oxford comma can’t save us from all our apposition woes! For this example, let’s create a fake interview.

Interviewer: Your art here is certainly revolutionary! What would you say inspires you?
Artist: I’d have to say it’s my girlfriend, the blue whale, and Ghandi.

Wait just a smidge: did he just call his girlfriend “the blue whale”? Oh, he’s gonna get it when he gets home, I tell you what! So, how can we fix this? Well, one solution is to use the semicolon.

 Artist: I’d have to say it’s my girlfriend; the blue whale; and Ghandi. 

As a “super comma,” the semicolon is a savior in situations like this – although it admittedly looks a touch odd on the page to your standard (publicly educated) readers. So we could re-cast the sentence as follows:

Artist: I’d have to say it’s my girlfriend, blue whales, and Ghandi.

The singular-plural non-match can redeem the sentence, lending clarity and getting the same point across. Or we could order it as “Ghandi, my girlfriend, and the blue whale,” which would give us a gender mis-match that clarifies the sentence for all but the truly imaginative. Or we could do this:

Artist: I’d have to say it’s three things: my girlfriend, the blue whale, and Ghandi.

The previous segment of the sentence does all our clarification work for us! Bravo.

Example the Third

Now I’ll use the classic apposition example of a book dedication.

To my dad, the Pope, and the inventor of Swiss cheese.

While this book dedication may have been attempting to pay homage to the Pope, it instead made quite a major claim about a biological relationship to him! This one actually gets even more hilarious if you remove the Oxford comma:

To my dad, the Pope and the inventor of Swiss cheese.

What an accomplished parent! Both the Pope and the inventor of Swiss cheese? I daresay, I’m impressed. Again, however, we have some easy fixes. We can go the re-cast route mentioned above:

To the inventor of Swiss cheese, my dad, and the Pope.

But, oh no! leaves us with ambiguity (the “my dad” could be in apposition to the inventor). My preference here is to use the mighty tool of typography!

To my dad,
the Pope,
and the inventor of Swiss Cheese.

Since this is a book dedication, this sort of layout works perfectly well and an intuitive “one item per line” rule makes the division apparent.

Summary


Apposition fumbles can happen in the most hilarious ways. I’m tempted to say “leave them,” because then I’d get a good chuckle, but it’s probably best if you fix them up. Apposition fumbles can almost always be fixed with minimal effort by using one of the following tools: the Oxford comma, the semicolon (as a “super comma”), a re-cast of the sentence (re-sorting the list, rephrasing to an obvious mismatch [plural/singular, masculine/feminine], adding an introductory phrase that declares the number of items, etc.), or typography.


7 Reasons I’d Wage War for the Oxford Comma

The Oxford Comma: Give Me Clarity or Give Me Death

I ask every writer and editor I work with one crucial question: “What’s your opinion on the Oxford comma?” At times this has even been my conversation opener, because, much like religious nuts who won’t befriend those not of their faith, I just can’t bear people who don’t believe in the serial comma. I feel like spending time with anti-Oxford-comma-ists may cause me to break out into a terrible rash.

I don’t want to exaggerate my stance too much, but I would fight a war and massacre civilians (if needed, only if needed) in defense of my beloved comma convention. In fact, I believe that the world would be a much better place if we all switched over to consistent Oxford comma use. Here are the top seven reasons why I take such a strong stance.

1) Americans know the Oxford comma.

For the last thirty-plus years, anyone who received a public education in America was taught the Oxford comma as a standard. Americans are easily confused; let’s not throw a new trick at them. More importantly, if we’re going for clarity through consistency, it’s best to start from the most universal point. And no offense to the Brits, but you’re outnumbered five to one.

2) Serial commas are sanctified by CMOS (aka, “the one true style guide”).

In the 16th edition of CMOS, the serial comma entry states:

Chicago strongly recommends this widely practiced usage, blessed by Fowler and other authorities [...] since it prevents ambiguity.

While the Associated Press does tend to have a monopoly in certain writing markets (by which I mean news), even press writers often turn to the conventions of CMOS because … well, CMOS just makes more sense a lot of the time. Many other territories, including fiction and web writing, are tending toward CMOS for just that reason.

In other words, serial commas are recommended by in the most broadly accessible and known U.S. style guide.

3) Oxford commas create accurate rhythm.

Yes, I’ll admit, in the original use of the comma a non-serial approach made a lot of sense: Commas were replacing the conjunctions being implied in a list. “Would you like a date with Scarlet Johansson or Angelina Jolie or Amanda Palmer or Amy Adams?” The commas simply replace the “ors,” and since the final list item includes the conjunction, the comma isn’t technically necessary. But writing isn’t about mere technicalities. It’s about communicating, and often about capturing how (intelligent) humans speak.

Studies have found that as little as seven percent of communication comes from your actual words. In face-to-face communication the majority of your message comes from tone of voice and body language. We become disembodied when we write, so it’s essential that we imply voice through reflecting actual human speech.

When you’re speaking you will pause prior to the final-item conjunction in a list. Therefore, the Oxford comma more fully reflects the rhythm of human communication.

4) Lists become more scannable.

What’s the average attention span for the typical human? Well, I’d Google it, but I just don’t have the attention span for that right now. But believe me when I say your content won’t be read carefully by most readers. It will be scanned through for essential points. This is also why headers, sub-headers, bold and italics, and bullet points are important.

By separating each item in the list with a comma, you’re making it easier for people to scan through that list without confusion. It is also more clear to a skimmer when a list has started, especially when the list is just three or four items, so that segment of your writing gets more attention.

5) Internal conjunctions become more clear.

Let’s look at the list of important scannability points I wrote in item four, above. If we were to write this without a serial comma it would look like this:

This is also why headers, sub-headers, bold and italics and bullet points are important.

Ow. That actually, physically hurt me.

Where does our list end? To your typical AP user, the “and” is going to signal the conclusion of a list. But what about the second “and”? What about the the way the first “and” functioned as connective tissue between bold and italics?  Is the last item “italic,” “bold and italics and bullet points,” or “italics and bullet points”? Even if readers understand the sentence, they will receive a false stop at the first “and.”

All this could have been prevented if the sentence had a sassy gay friend serial comma.

6) You don’t have to muck up the rules.

If we were to universally accept the Oxford comma, there would be no instances where you would suddenly have to omit the Oxford comma for clarity. However, in the current AP guidelines we’re told to:

Put a comma before the concluding conjunction in a series, however, if an integral element of the series requires a conjunction. [...] Use a comma also before the concluding conjunction in a complex series of phrases.

In other words, you should never use a serial comma with AP style, unless you should. To hold to the AP concept, we have to indulge numerous exceptions that make the rules as clear as Oppenheimer’s conscience.

7) The serial comma has grace and poise.

There are many instances when the non-serial version of a list simply looks bad. When you say, ”I ate apples, oranges and bananas,” you get the feeling that the list is tilted in one direction (which isolates those poor apples by shifting the sentence’s center of gravity to the right). It shouldn’t be tilted in emphasis, rhythm, syntax, or in any other way, yet omitting the serial comma gives an aesthetic that seems to shift the balance.

Are you thinking it’s strange that I want my words to look aesthetically pleasing, just be careful: There are lynch mobs of typographers who have razed cities for less offensive sentiments. If you’re not careful they may beat you to death with the bloody remains of the Papyrus font.

Yes, I believe in the Oxford comma. Yes, I would fight, die, and kill for the Oxford comma. Yes, I believe we should accept it as the universal standard. Serial commas increase clarity, balance, scannability, consistency, universality, and rhythmic accuracy, and they have received the blessing of top-notch editors and CMOS itself. In the end, the Oxford comma is the only real choice.


Happy Birthday -COMMA- Henry

direct address comma cake
Update: I’m still tracking down the original image, but this error seems to be an epidemic in the cake-making industry. Another recent birthday celebration I attended had a similar issue. The birthday girl allowed me to punctuate her cake — in red frosting, even!


On Saturday, I spent time with my family watching the new Narnia film and going to a Pirate-themed restaurant where my father kept trying to talk in Pirate lingo.  We also had a special guest: Henry, a family friend, who happened to be celebrating his birthday.
In addition to my family taking Henry along on this day out, my little sister baked him a cake.  I loved her creation; it featured a giraffe and several animal toys (Henry recently returned from Africa), and candy letters that spelled out Happy Birthday Henry.


The problem is, it was spelled just like that.  No comma.  No comma!  My smart kid sister, my university professor parents, and Henry were all gathered around the mispunctuated cake.  I just had to bring up the problem before we sang Happy Birthday.
It’s a direct address.  You’re not using “happy birthday” to describe “Henry” (“Look at that Henry!  He seems like a happy birthday Henry to me.  What a fellow!”).  You’re saying Henry to clarify who you’re addressing.  The comma is more than a little necessary.
So, yes, it’s true.  I stopped the entire family as they were about to sing and forced them to break the dangling bottom of the “6″ from the pack of candy characters, situate it as a comma, and (of course) take a picture prior to starting the real celebrations.