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A call to arms for punctuation

I marked National Punctuation Day last year and the year before, and again in anticipation of this year’s event. Domestic duties today have kept me away from the marching bands and the floats this time, but I want to point out something of grave importance beneath all the hoopla.

The Chicago Manual of Style, tweeting as @ChicagoManual, reminds us, “On today, National Punctuation Day, CMOS would like to remind everyone to celebrate the glory of the serial comma.”

The serial comma, sometimes called the Oxford comma, the final comma in a series, is both seemly and symmetrical. It marks a logical division and forestalls confusion. And for too long it has been neglected.

It has been scorned by newspapers from ancient times, for reasons no one recalls. Omitting it may have made Linotype operator’s job a fraction easier, or it may have saved some cheese-paring publisher a pennyworth of lead every quarter. But though there is no sound reason to omit it, and every reason to use it, the gnomes of the Associated Press Stylebook continue to shun it.

I have stood up for the semicolon, and I will not be silent as the serial comma languishes in disrepute.

Citizens! Are we not writers and editors? Do we not have independent judgment? Are we to remain in slavish subservience to the AP Stylebook? No! And I say again, no!. It is time we shook off our chains! To the Bastille! Down with tyranny! Up with the Oxford comma! To the barricades!

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 12:20 PM | | Comments (20)
        

Comments

Yes, yes, and yes!

YES!

"I will no be silent" - son, I am disappoint.

"On today" seems a little jarring; I know it was common c. 1863, as it shows up now and then in Civil War correspondence (along with "on yesterday" and many variations on prox., ult., and inst.), but this is the first time I've seen it in current writing.

Re: "I will no be silent."

Must have been the Scot in me coming out.

YES!

If only we had a clever bumper sticker to promote our cause for pause; perhaps one that reads, "I PAUSE FOR SERIAL COMMAS."

Hear, hear, and three cheers for our leader. Or from a slightly earlier period of French history:

Sons of rant and drama,
Will you claim your comma,
Or bow down to old AP?
Sons of toil and boredom,
Will you form a quorum,
And regain your liberty?
Onward, onward, swords against the foe,
Forward, forward, the comma banners go!
Sons with copy round us,
Break the chains that bound us,
And to Hell with old AP!

(My apologies for the sexism; the original 1925 lyrics by Brian Hooker didn't worry about the issue.)

As the Guardian style guide says, we need the serial comma (Oxford comma in the UK) because:

I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis and JK Rowling

Even though I personally use the Oxford comma in almost every situation, I'm a little reluctant to agree that there's no sound reason not to. In a sentence like

"I am writing to my Congresswoman, Alia Shawkat, and Michael Cera"

including the Oxford comma introduces an ambiguity that its omission would not. Are you omitting that as a sound reason because it's equally true that in other cases omitting the comma introduces an ambiguity? If so, then never mind, I agree with you.

I do agree, but I don't think we have to get all hyperbole about it. If I run across an ambiguity caused by the serial comma or lack of, I query the author and am glad I am still needed. Like with any other ambiguity, miscue, or stubbornly awkward construction.

Here Here! The woman I work for is of a different mind; I keep putting the serial commas in, and she keeps taking them out.

Gabe, if your congresswoman is named Alia Shawkat, then your sentence is better written, "I am writing to Congresswoman Alia Shawkat and Michael Cera." If it's important to note that your congresswoman is Alia Shawkat, then, "I am writing to my congresswoman, who is Alia Shawkat, and to Michael Cera."

While in general fewer words are better, sometimes you need to add some to remove any chance of ambiguity.

Has Cambridge no comma of its own? Why should Oxonians claim all the commae?

As an old linotype operator in both the job shop and news paper, punctuation was looked at differently. Job shops it was accuracy and on the news side it was speed.

"To the Bastille": maybe not.
In French you omit the final comma in a series.

Gabe: Because some use Oxford commas and some don't, the sentence is ambiguous whether you put the comma in or leave it out. It needs to be reworded along the lines of Thomas's suggestions.

Patricia, that's commata.

"Commata" sounds like part of a deponent verb: commata erat. Or one of the past participles of a regular verb.

"Commata" sounds an awful lot like Stigmata, definition of which I only recently learned. I'll just be ignoring that whole business.

Or "stomata," which sounds worse.

Re: "And I say again, no!."

Methinks the period after the exclamation mark is redundant.

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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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