On killing the Oxford comma

Pat Borchers, former Dean of the Creighton Law school, and now Director and Professor of Law at the Werner Institute at Creighton, has alerted me to an important event. These days, Pat thinks a lot about clarity and conflict resolution. In that vein, he writes:

This could top the famous debate that raged in Ann Landers’s column about whether toilet paper should be put on the spindle so that the paper has to be pulled toward the user (so essentially over the top) or down (so essentially from the bottom).  Now I’m an “over the top” man, but I managed to keep my friends who were on other side of the issue.

Quietly, almost as if it was hoped the change would go unnoticed, Oxford has killed the Oxford comma. See here.

Pat explains his happiness at the death of what he sees as an unnecessary appendage and then sharpens our writing horizons this way:

I realize that I am one of the few people who cares about such matters, but I say “hooray.” I recognize that in some circumstances the “Oxford comma” can avoid ambiguities. However, the sentences in which the meaning turns on the comma are likely bad sentences that need to be rewritten. Meanwhile, I continue to attempt to educate people on the difference between “to lie” and “to lay.” “To lie” is the intransitive verb, because there is no recipient of its action. “I lie (not lay!) in bed.” However, “I will lay the book on the nightstand.” (“The book” is the recipient of the action — transitive verbs are sort of like conveyor belts.) I now mention a few other favorites. “Who” is the direct object and “whom” is the indirect. “Who is knocking at the door?” “Whom should I send to the door?” “It’s” is the contraction for “it is.” “It’s time to leave for the movie.” “Its” is the possessive of “it.” “Every dog has its day.” “Who’s” is the contraction of “who is” while “whose” is the possessive of “who.” “Who’s knocking at the door?” “I know whose shoes got left in the front hall.” “That” is the restrictive relative pronoun while “which” is the non-restrictive one. “Was” is the past tense while “were” is the subjunctive mood. “I wish it were (not was!) nicer outside today.” Oh dear, I could go on for a long time. But allow me to say that “please bring me carrots, peas and apples” is equally as clear as “please bring me carrots, peas, and apples” and the former requires one fewer (not less!) characters.

Pat, you are a good friend, but I must end with the central question that you leave unanswered:

Why would you ever ask for carrots and peas and apples when you could instead ask for a burger, a slice of onion, fries and a beer?  

RGK

38 responses

  1. If Mr. Borchers were to write me a note asking for “carrots, peas and apples,” I would bring him a bowl of carrots and a separate bowl filled with mixed peas AND apples.

  2. When I taught English 101, I came to appreciate the value of a grammatical rule that can always be applied (a rare thing in English). It is never wrong to use the Oxford comma; it is sometimes wrong to omit it. Therefore, I told my students, always use it.

  3. Dave,

    That’s great. A cartoon explaining the Oxford comma, stripers, and Stalin warms me all over. Thanks.

    All the best.

    RGK

  4. Dear thusbloggedanderson,

    When I took English 101, I thought I was taking a foreign language. So, I have no idea what you’re talking about. Same, same for Borchers riff!

    All the best.

    RGK

  5. I understand “who” v. “whom” differently than Mr. Borchers. I learned in grammar that “who” is the subjective form and “whom” is the objective. “Who is knocking at the door” is correct because “who” is the subject, whereas “Whom should I send to the door” is correct because “whom” is the (direct) object.

    Everything else, though, completely gels with the grammatical world in which I was raised.

  6. I knew the folks at Oxford would come to their senses eventually. The Benedictine nuns taught me that I should not use the Oxford Comma, although I did not know it had a name until recently. It has been the topic of much discussion, mostly light-hearted, among the members of the Eighth Circuit BAP. When faced with the choice between what the nuns taught me in grade school and the dictates of Oxford University I staunchly defended Sister Paul and her colleagues.

    While we are on the subject of linguistic disasters, I would like to add the death of the adverb. You rarely hear anyone use adverbs any more. Speakers almost always incorrectly substitute the adjective. It is a sad thing.

  7. Yes, that one was debatable at best. A better example would have been “To whom should this letter be addressed”? That one is obvious because of the preposition. Your second sentence is another good example because the verb has a clear subject. On reflection, I believe that you are correct that “who” is the preferred usage in my original example. I would also use “whom” in a declarative sentence such as “I am the one whom you seek.” Again, in this example the verb “seek” has a clear subject “you.” Thank you for forcing me to come up with a better example. Pat.

  8. Dear Bob,

    Why is it that only former law school deans (who graduated with honors in physics) and bankruptcy judges (who are by definition always smarter than the dolts serving on the Article III trial bench) know this grammar stuff?

    To whom should I address that question?

    All the best.

    RGK

  9. Dave, that is entertaining, but I take issue with the use of the first comma. If intended the latter mean, I would set it off with a dash or a colon. “We invited the strippers — J.F.K. and Stalin.” Or: “We invited the strippers: J.F.K. and Stalin.” Or if one were dead set on using a comma, the sentence can be easily rescued from ambiguity: “We invited the strippers, who are J.F.K. and Stalin.” I knew this would be a fun topic. Best, Pat.

  10. Pat. I would add “fly direct” to your list. In fact, I tend to blame the airlines for starting this terrrible trend

    At the risk of exposing myself as the pedant I proabably am, I also point out the newer phenomenon of the disappearing reflexive prououn. “You take care of you.” “I like me.” This trend seems to have been started by advertisers and promoters of psychobabble.

    Bob

  11. Bob, to continue on a subject that is surely of interest only to us, I blame the airlines for another horror, which is introducing double consonants into past participles. Every traveler’s most feared word “canceled” is now usually spelled “cancelled.” It has gotten so bad that I believe U.S. dictionaries have given in and accept that as an alternative spelling when, in fact, it’s the British spelling. There’s the equally galling acceptability of “judgement” as an alternative to “judgment.” Once again, the Queen is getting back at us. On the reflexive, I loathe its mistaken use. “John and myself went to the store.” No, “John and I went to the store.” The more common one, even among well educated people, is substituting it for “me.” “The meeting was co-chaired by Rich and myself.” For some reason, people are reluctant to use the word “me.” I personally think it’s an over-reaction from getting corrected from saying things like “Me and Rich were lighting firecrackers on the Fourth of July.” Best, Pat.

  12. Pat. I have also noticed the increasingly misuse of the reflexive pronoun. Starting sentences with the objective pronoun “me” is one of thsoe things I used to correct my granddaughters on regularly, hoping to break them of it. I was a complete failure and I have given up because all I was doing was alienating them. What is really interesting about this one is that is it only used when there is another person involved. So, while theyr would say “Me and Jane went to the movie,” they would correctly say “I went to the movie.” Go figure.

    You also touch on something else that I must accept under the rubric of “English is a living language.” If the incorrect use of a word or phrase becomes common enough, it becomes acceptable. An example which is running joke around here is my correction of people who refer to a common object in the courtroom as a podium when it is clearly a lectern. I try to explain that you speak or lecture from a lectern and stand on a podium. I have learned a couple of things form this exercise. First, people to not appreciate being corrected nearly as much as you expect them to and, second, my success in this endeavor is approximately the same as that enjoyed by King Canute.

    Bob

  13. Judge Kopf will have to pry the comma from my cold, dead keyboard strokes.

    (Note: I’m on my coffee break during this post.)

  14. I generally eschew dashes or colons where commas can be used–unless I intend the greater emphasis that the dash’s or colon’s longer pause creates.

    Speaking of colons, what’s your position on the word following the colon? Do you agree with the Chicago Style Manual that the next word must be capitalized, even if it’s not a proper noun, implying (foolishly, I say) that the colon is, in fact, a period?

    …the sentence can be easily rescued from ambiguity: “We invited the strippers, who are J.F.K. and Stalin.”

    And yet one of your arguments for dropping the properly series-ending comma is that it reduces the number of characters in the message. This alternative sort of undoes that….

    Eric Hines

  15. I’m quite a bit less concerned about the evolution of American spelling. US-Brit relations (notwithstanding the present administration’s efforts) are rather better today than they were in D Webster’s time.

    And I decline, for a host of reasons, to accept an American equivalent to L’Académie française.

    Eric Hines

  16. Eric, of course everyone can find counter-examples. There are times where an Oxford comma avoids ambiguities, in which case it should be used. Of course, one could also avoid the ambiguity simply by changing the order of the nouns to “JFK, Stalin and strippers.” I am not a fan of mandatory capitalization after a colon. I agree with you that it treats a colon like a period. Best, Pat.

  17. Eric, you are quite correct that the world has larger issues. However, the vast majority of Americans are monolingual. My basic point is that it’s really not too much to ask that we Yanks not do too much violence to the one language we purport to speak. For those Americans who speak only or mostly Spanish, I cannot speak knowledgeably about whether they are doing violence to their language, as Spanish is a distant third for me (though I do hear complaints about Spanglish). My French is pretty good as I have spent a lot of time in Quebec. English has made large inroads into the French spoken in Quebec, and the government responded with absurdities such calling a hot dog “un chien chaud” (literally of course a dog that is hot), but everyone just calls it “un hot dog.” Actually Quebecers sound to me like they speak French with an American accent, which makes it very easy for me to converse with them. With European speakers of French (France and Belgium mostly), I have to listen really hard to make sure I understand. Best, Pat.

  18. Well young lady, back in my day we didn’t get coffee breaks . . . . Actually my clerkship was the coolest job I ever had. If I could go back and replay one year in my life over and over, that would probably be it. My wife was a third year at U.C. Davis Law School (that’s where we met) and our son Ryan was born nine days before I took the California bar (poor planning). We had no money, but we got an FHA loan on a little Cape Cod house in midtown Sacramento. We bought it for $95,000 and sold it for a bit more a few years later. I made the mistake one time of looking it up on the assessor’s site and it’s now valued at something like $580,000, and that’s after the bubble burst. We had no money. It was completely nuts. But my two co-clerks and I became best friends about three days into the clerkship. We hung out; we grilled hamburgers; we went tubing down the Yolo river. The job could be demanding, but we didn’t mind. The Judge was a great boss. It’s not that life hasn’t been great since, because it has. But I hope you’re enjoying your stint as much as did. No need to respond on line. I suspect that you are having a great experience, but saying so will just inflate Rich’s head. Best, Pat.

  19. Professor Borchers,

    Indeed, we’re both simply offering counterexamples. However, as has been mentioned elsewhere in this thread, using that last comma between the last two items of a series is never confusing, whereas omitting it sometimes is. Even your last example is easily (mis)understood as an invitation to the kind of people known as JFK types, two examples of which are Stalin in particular and a general group, strippers.

    But there’s an additional reason that last comma is the better usage: it makes for simpler writing. There’s no need to gerrymander the series to make the intended meaning clear; it can be laid out simply and straightforwardly.

    Simpler writing makes for better writing more often than it makes for poorer writing.

    Eric Hines

  20. Professor Borchers,

    One man’s violence to a language is another man’s…. There are two extremes for this, it seems to me: one is the French Academy. At the other end is Russian, wherein the highest compliment that can be paid is “your pronunciation is very good.” Never mind whether what you just said was insane gibberish or boorishly expressed; if your diction was down pat, you’re культурный–cultured (Russian, by the way, translates the Quebec government’s un chien chaud directly as a hot-dog, using the Russian characters that comprise the pronunciation “hot dog”).

    The butchery we do to the American language is in our lack of vocabulary and inability to string two words together into a complete sentence. Could we fix that, we would alleviate a lot of educational failings.

    The USAF trotted me around the world, and in the process I learned a smattering of a number of languages: Brit, German, Arabic, Korean, Italian. I learned a lot of Brit grammar in Germany from my Luftwaffe counterparts–they all had Brit instructors. I “studied” French in high school and Russian and Attic Greek in college (the Iliad is quite musical when it’s chanted as Homer delivered it). I got two major things out of that: a better understanding of American and of English generally, by getting a better understanding of how language is constructed, and I got an appreciation for how different cultures think: their language is a window into their thinking; how they construct a concept says volumes about their mindsets. I have friends who naturalized from the People’s Republic of China and from the Republic of China. Listening to them speak English (Brit or American) tells me a lot about Chinese grammar and thinking by listening to them construct English sentences–frequently using Chinese grammar rules and going to literal translations as they form the concepts first in Chinese and then try to translate them into English.

    We could do worse than requiring two foreign languages to be studied in K-16 [sic].

    Eric Hines

  21. Eric, continue to use the Oxford comma as you wish, and you won’t be accused of abusing the language. I will use it only if necessary to avoid ambiguity. As I tell my kids, that’s why they make chocolate and vanilla. Best, Pat.

  22. Unbelievable! Last night at dinner I found out that my dad is—- non-Oxfordian! That means we can no longer discuss religion, politics,Pats games, or commas! Just commas, actually. You think you know someone, live, work, and eat with him only to find out he is a serial [comma] killer. What a world.

  23. Poor Jill. Your comment reminds me of things my kids have said about me, but, happily, not related to commas. No, they don’t like it when I turn my eye lids inside out for the grand children.

    All the best.

    RGK

  24. This chain of comments provides an extremely entertaining discussion about commas. Who knew that commas could be so much fun?

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