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The Oxford comma and the prince's religion

Who knew that so many cared so much about so little — the marks of punctuation? A number of responses to the previous post merit a response.

The Oxford comma

Frank Moorman has strong views on the serial comma, “an issue about which I was ready to resolve with swords at dawn on a barren heath.” Sheathe your steel. The Oxford comma, or final comma in a series, is hale and hearty in academic writing. It is typically omitted in journalistic writing. So there are two ways of punctuating a series, each acceptable in its realm. The Chicago Manual of Style “strongly recommends” the serial comma, “since it prevents ambiguity.” But even the Associated Press Stylebook says that the final comma should be used when ambiguity is a risk.

The old principle of cuius regno, ejus religio — “whose region, his religion,” or follow your prince’s practice — can be applied here. Follow whichever style your employer dictates, and indulge your own taste in private.

The discretionary comma

As Bill Walderman points out, there are often situations in which the writer wants to use a comma to indicate a pause rather than a syntactical division. That is perfectly all right, though it does complicate matters for some writers. There are commas that have to be there, such as the commas setting off an appositive phrase; that’s a rule, not a question of personal preference. Then there are commas that function like rests in a musical score, indicating that the cadences of spoken language are being represented. The trick is not to confuse the two.

The apostrophe

As mapuser pointed out, there are certain specialized categories, like the model number he mentioned, in which the use of the apostrophe in the plural makes sense.

As to use of the apostrophe to make numbers or years plural, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage likes them, and the Associated Press likes them not. The Chicago Manual of Style is agnostic. So whether it is the 1980s or the 1980’s is entirely a question of what they do in your shop. Cuius regno, ejus religio.

The dash

Of course you can use the dash to set off merely parenthetical material. This is America. The point I was trying to make — without being doctrinaire about it — is that overuse of the mark — particularly among dash-happy journalists — tends to reduce its effectiveness — as with any other device grown stale with repetition — so that it lacks much punch when you want to indicate a break in continuity.

The exclamation point

Damn! I knew I was profligate in allowing a dozen.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 7:52 PM | | Comments (3)
        

Comments

Speaking of commas, what is your opinion on the use of commas with ellided verbs. For example, how would you punctuate the following sentence?
"Mark ordered the roast beef his wife the fish and their daughter the ham."
I think I would do it this way:
"Mark ordered the roast beef; his wife, the fish; and their daughter, the ham."
This corresponds with all the rules of punctuation, but it seems overly punctuated to me.

"Of course you can use the dash to set off merely parenthetical material. This is America. The point I was trying to make — without being doctrinaire about it — is that overuse of the mark — particularly among dash-happy journalists — tends to reduce its effectiveness — as with any other device grown stale with repetition — so that it lacks much punch when you want to indicate a break in continuity."

Is this from Tristram Shandy?

A fellow Shandean, Mr. Walderman?

Mr. Grau, in your sentence I'd use the full set of commas but avoid the overly complicated comma-semicolon constrcution. Some literal-minded type is sure to object that the use of commas alone leaves the reader to conclude that the sentence calls his wife a fish and his daughter a ham; but the verb "ordered" clearly controls the predicate.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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