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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:
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.
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:
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Ah, the hyphen. As one of the world’s most ambiguous bits of punctuation, the hyphen has become the source of confusion, despair, and bone-rattling terror for writers around the world. But the mystery of the hyphen is far from impenetrable – and by understanding why we use this little dash, you’ll get a much better sense of how to use it.
The Basics of the Hyphen
Let’s start with the core function of hyphens: The hyphen clarifies modifiers.
Stepping back for a moment, let’s examine what I mean by “modifiers.” In any given sentence you will have (at a minimum) a subject and a verb. For example: Bob vomited. And then we have our “object” possibility, such as: Bob vomited on Jill. You can also attach a setting, cause, and other details. For example: Bob vomited on Jill when asked to explain the hyphen. And finally, we can attach modifiers to any part of this sentence using adjectives or adverbs, such as with: Bob violently vomited on poor Jill when asked to explain the damned hyphen.
But what happens when we have multiple words modifying the same phrase, or multi-word modifiers? Take, for example, this sentence:
The pale red headed stepchild sat on the high quality rug.
Now, due to our familiarity with some of these phrases (and we’ll talk about that more in a second), we’re likely to divide up the sentence like this:
The pale red-headed stepchild sat on the high-quality rug.
In other words, the step-child, who was red-headed and pale, sat on a rug that was high in quality. But that’s not the only possible interpretation. For example, we could divide the sentence like this:
The pale-red-headed step-child sat on the high-quality rug.
In this case, pale is modifying the color of the hair, not the child. Or we could do this:
The pale-red headed stepchild sat on the high quality rug.
Perhaps the pale-red headed stepchild, as a car would head east? Further, we’ve really mussed up our rug. While it was previously of high quality, it is now a rug that is both high and quality (probably made of hemp) or one that’s made of a quality that could be described as “high” (i.e., quality modifies high rather than the other way around, which again describes a rug that’s high).
Let’s go ahead and hammer this concept into your head.
The price of corn had reached an all time low.
The price of corn had reached an all-time low.
(it’s not low in time, but the lowest it’s been in all time)
The short skirted woman had infinite legs.
The short-skirted woman had infinite legs.
(she’s not a short, skirted woman—or if she is, her infinite legs might just make that acceptable)
The ambrosia like energy drink was highly addictive.
The ambrosia-like energy drink was highly addictive.
(it’s not ambrosia being compared to an energy drink)
The rousing victory song caused an enthusiastic riot.
The rousing victory-song caused an enthusiastic riot.
(The victory song was rousing, rather than it being a song of rousing victory.)
Okay, let me screw with you for a second.
The ambrosia-like energy-drink was highly addictive.
Is my second hyphen wrong? Well, no. In fact, there’s a pretty good argument for hyphenating it: If you don’t link “energy” and “drink” directly, the “ambrosia-like” term could be describing either the energy or the energy drink. It’s ambiguous. To modern readers, however, the phrase “energy drink” is fairly evident as being linked. So do we need to hyphenate it?
This sense of familiarity is the greatest cause of ambiguity in the use of hyphens. We can assume that people will read a commonly coupled phrase as being linked, even if we ourselves don’t link it with a hyphen. But what about foreign readers? What about readers twenty years down the line? What about those from a different culture? What if the subject isn’t what readers may automatically assume, such as if I changed the sentence above to, “Coffee, the ambrosia-like energy drink…”? Then it’s not so clear. In the end, it’s a judgment call situation—as is, fittingly enough, the phrase “judgment call situation”—and not always an easy one. Each writer must decide if the other parts of a sentence make the meaning obvious without a hyphen.
There are sentence components besides phrase familiarity that render a hyphen unnecessary, or at least make its appropriate use ambiguous. Next up is contextuality. If I say, “the metal heroin needle,” it’s pretty obvious from context that the heroin needle is what’s metal, not the heroin itself, so we’re fairly safe in leaving out the hyphen (but, no, it’s not wrong to stick it in—the hyphen, that is).
Next, we have typography. To take an example I recently found on an advertisement, there were two instances of the phrase, “Made with all natural fruit ingredients.” The first was laid out just like that, and really needs a hyphen at “all-natural” (because, no, not all of their ingredients were from natural fruit). However, they also had the exact same phrase laid out like this:
It’s fairly obvious from the layout itself that “all natural” is linked, and that the “all” is not intended to modify the word “ingredients.” This can also happen easily in a normal sentence. For example, I could just emphasize that the blood curdling nature of the hyphen is important – and that typographical choice sets off the phrase. This can also be done with bold, quotation marks, and hyperlinks. In all of these cases, the presence of a hyphen is certainly not wrong, but it may not be necessary.
The “Re-String” Litmus Test
I’m often tempted to use a hyphen when it’s not appropriate to a sentence. (We can say I err on the side of clarity – but we could also say that I’m something of a hyphen molester) One of the best tests to figure out if a hyphen really does resolve ambiguity is to re-string the line of adjectives (or words that double as adjectives). When we look at the phrase “the three hundred blue geese,” we might want to put a hyphen between “three” and “hundred.” But is there a difference between three sets of a hundred blue geese and three hundred blue geese? The two remain, in all practical definition, entirely identical. And we can’t really say that “hundred blue” is a point of confusion; it just won’t register with readers.
We can use that same test to see that “the three hundred year old men” needs several hyphens, since it could be three men who are a hundred, or a set of men who are three hundred, or three hundred men who are one year old apiece.
As a general rule, if you can link all the words in a sequence in any given manner (A-B-C, A-B C, A B-C) without changing the essentially meaning, a hyphen is pointless—and, indeed, actually incorrect.
1) Check your dictionary.
There are a great many words in the English language that started out as two words, were promptly paired with such frequency that a hyphen became a part of their common construction, and were sometimes – after a few decades or centuries – combined into a single word. In cases like these, the hyphen is often left out because we’re so used to the words being associated, and we’ve forgotten that a hyphen is part of the official spelling. And as often as this mistake happens, we err in the opposite direction – hyphenating two parts of a single, compound word (stepchild, for instance – an error I made in the original draft of this blog entry). The best solution is to check a dictionary, online or offline, whenever there’s doubt.
2) Multi-word adjectives almost always need hyphens (when placed before the noun).
If you use a phrase like “high-quality,” “bone-rattling,” or “skull-splitting” as an adjective, you will almost always hyphenate the phrase. Sometimes these hyphens will not be strictly necessary when the descriptor is after the noun (for example, “I had a skull-splitting headache” as opposed to “the headache was skull splitting”). Some writers believe that these multi-word adjectives should still be hyphenated after the noun, but again, it’s a judgment call.
3) Recasting Is Your Friend
The sentence example I used above, “Coffee, the ambrosia-like energy drink,” will be unclear without a huge amount of hyphenation, and even then it’s very poor communication (“ambrosia-like-energy” squirms uncomfortably in one’s mind). If I really want to say the energy is like ambrosia, I’d be better off recasting to “Coffee, the drink with ambrosia-like energy.” When something isn’t working, recasting is often the best solution.
Some people hate the hyphen. It’s frightening. It’s mysterious. It’s sinister. Worst of all, it calls for the use of conscious awareness of your writing! How could a little blip on a page be so powerful? But as much as this piece of punctuation does evil (which, I’ll admit, it does), it also does good. Without the hyphen, we’d be frightened of a man eating shark, when that man just happened to be hungry and have a taste for enormous seafood; we would suppose that life changing dates was an act of life playing with our calendar rather than having a few nights out with an exceptional new friend; and we’d think that a person with a devil may care attitude owns a devil and may care about attitude.
Hyphens are ambiguous in their use a good portion of the time, but by understanding the fundamentals you’ll be in a much better position to make an educated choice – and one you can stand behind – when shoving a space off the page in favor of this tremendously effective little dash.