Beyond the Oxford Comma

Such  mild-mannered title for a bloggish expression of annoyance… To paraphrase (or at least warp-quote) Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, “Why can’t the English teach their children how to punctuate?”

(Yes, I have seen My Fair Lady; I have not seen Pretty Woman. This is one thing I have in common with the protagonist in Kingsman — which is a really good movie, by the way, with lots of action and explosions and carnage and stuff, and also some excellent satire/social commentary about classism. Plus, I like the soundtrack.)

I have noticed, while reading or attempting to read various novels, that authors from the UK are — shockingly — more likely than American authors to completely disregard certain rules (yes, rules) of punctuation: no commas in compound sentences, no commas to separate a direct address from the rest of the sentence, no commas to separate interrupters, weird things with quotation marks that would at least make a little more sense if they were consistent… And yes, a lot of using semicolons where colons belong and vice versa. Question marks at the ends of sentences that are not questions. Missing hyphens. Using whom in place of who. (Some people recommend using who in all cases; they say whom is pretentious, like semicolons. Whatever. If you do use whom, use it only for the object, not the subject. Also, don’t make stupid “It’s supposed to be whom — haha, your grammar is bad!” memes for instances where who is the correct form. Under what circumstances, children, would Doctor Whom ever be correct? *sigh*)

Yeah, a few of you will no doubt find this entire topic offensive even though it’s just observations I’ve had while reading works of fiction. For you, here’s a fake hashtag: #NotAllBritishAuthors! You’re welcome. 🙂

The sad thing is, I’m not talking about “professionally unedited” (as one indie author proudly described his novel) self-published e-books here. I’m talking about novels by some fairly big-name authors (and yes, also the majority of self-published e-books). Lookin’ at you, China Mieville. (I had no problem whatsoever wrapping my mind around the quirks of the setting in The City & the City, but the wonky punctuation gave me a headache. That novel may have Literary Merit, but it sure as hell doesn’t have its commas in the right places. Tolkien used good punctuation, though, so it may be that Mr. Mieville deliberately chose to do otherwise as a statement of some kind.)

I know that at one time, schools in the UK weren’t teaching anything about grammar and punctuation (something about ‘The children aren’t learning it anyway, so let’s not bother’), but is that still the case? Or is this all because the current batch of teachers went through school themselves back when this stuff wasn’t being taught, so they don’t know it and cannot pass it on to their own students? (If that is what’s happening, let it be a warning to American educators: we’re going to end up with an entire generation of science teachers who don’t have a fucking clue about science. I know we have some English/language arts teachers who don’t know much about how the English language works. Why else would we have all those infographics claiming that alliteration is a form of figurative language? Seriously, what the fuck? Anyone care to explain to me how Calliope, the curious calico cat isn’t, y’know, literal? She’s right here on my desk, calico and curious and all.)

The first “real book” (anything not more pictures than text) I ever read was by an English author. (Maybe you’ve heard of him; his name was J. R. R. Tolkien.) So were the next three or four books I read. (Turned out they were by a friend of that Tolkien guy. Go figure…) And the author of those stories about that boy wizard — she’s English, is she not? None of these authors had a problem with punctuation.

I learned how to write from reading. (Actually, I sort of learned how to speak from reading. When I was a child, I spoke “book English,” which is why I enunciated far more clearly than was/is acceptable in the state of Kentucky, especially for a child from a low-income household. And if you think my syntax is complex now…!) Had The Hobbit or The Horse and His Boy been written without commas in the compound sentences, I’d have picked up the same habit myself. Had any of the Harry Potter novels been written with consistently bad punctuation, I’d have noticed. (There may have been minor issues here and there; I don’t remember. All I recall is that it definitely wasn’t bad enough to make me want to throw the books across the room. The stuff I’ve been seeing lately… Those books, I want to throw across the room. And yes, dammit, the comma in the previous sentence is correct, because it would mean something different — wouldn’t  even be a complete sentence — without it. *shakes head*)

It’s past time for someone reading this post to comment with some variation on “The English invented the language, Americans are stupid, get a life!” Since the English invented this language we (more or less) share, ought they not learn how to follow their own goddamn rules about its use? I’ll say the same thing to the Brits that I say to my fellow American writers: Show me any valid source saying it is no longer correct to use a comma before the conjunction in a compound sentence. Show me where that valid source says commas should not be used for interrupters or direct addresses. Show me where it says a colon is the same thing as a semicolon (or a comma! *shudder*), or that a sentence such as “I wonder why the English don’t teach their kids this stuff” ought to end in a question mark rather than a full-stop. Sure, there are differences between how UK English and US English are written, but these aren’t among them.

Now, about that Oxford comma… I don’t really care. I tend to think they’re a good idea, since they do prevent confusion about what items in a list belong together, but in general, as long as clarity isn’t lost, do whatever the hell you feel like doing. (The so-called Oxford comma, by the way, is used only in lists. Here’s a definition: a comma used after the penultimate [next-to-last] item in a list of three or more items, before and or or. Not believing in the Oxford comma doesn’t mean you don’t use commas elsewhere, either.

(“Ohmigod, he said penultimate! There he goes using big words! Chaos and confusion…!” Yeah, we’re like that, aren’t we? *totally unrepentant grin*)

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If you care, I am still working on The Grumpy, Grouchy Old Man’s Guide to Grammar. Real life (and no small amount of editing academic papers) has caused a delay, but I’m not ignoring this WiP. I’m even thinking of a sequel (or perhaps just a large section in this book, depending on how long the first part turns out to be) titled This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, which will focus on topics not related to grammar and punctuation: fact checking, for example. In it, I will tirade excessively about why it’s fucking stupid to say Earth is literally the only planet in the galaxy. I will also gently explain for those who never got the memo why a suction cup will not work in outer space, why a kilt is not a kirtle, and why “THAC0” is a sorry-ass excuse for never allowing your heavily armored knight character to get struck by his less-armored opponent. I may mention firearms and vicuna wool, too.

Spoiler: In The Grumpy, Grouchy Old Man’s Guide to Grammar, I’m calling the section on homophones “Give the Devil his ‘Do.”

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About Thomas Weaver

I’m a writer and editor who got into professional editing almost by accident years ago when a friend from university needed someone to copyedit his screenplay about giant stompy robots (mecha). Having discovered that I greatly enjoy this kind of work, I’ve been putting my uncanny knack for grammar and punctuation, along with an eclectic mental collection of facts, to good use ever since as a Wielder of the Red Pen of Doom. I'm physically disabled, and for the past several years, I’ve lived with my smugly good-looking twin Paul, who writes military science fiction and refuses to talk about his military service because he can’t. Sometimes Paul and I collaborate on stories, and sometimes I just edit whatever he writes. It's worked out rather well so far. My list of non-writing-related jobs from the past includes librarian, art model, high school teacher, science lab gofer… Although I have no spouse or offspring to tell you about, I do have six cats. (The preferred term is "Insane Cat Gentleman.") I currently spend my time blogging, reading, editing, and fending off cats who like my desk better than my twin’s.
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5 Responses to Beyond the Oxford Comma

  1. I wouldn’t say it’s a British thing, this deterioration of seemingly everyone’s grammar. Nor is it American, or Australian… sadly, I think it’s global. My grammar isn’t perfect, but the errors I see everywhere… *sigh*.

    Oh, and I do happen to use the Oxford comma, and here’s your sentence: “The doctor whom you saw yesterday is busy today.” 😛

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re ignoring context. Please note the capitalizations. Perhaps you have been lucky never to have seen the snarky memes from misinformed grammar police against fans of a certain British sci-fi series… “Traveling through time and space in a blue box, correcting everyone’s grammar — it’s DOCTOR WHOM!” *rolls eyes* Nope. Doesn’t work. It comes across much like a Facebook comment declaring, “Your stupid! And you’re grammer is bad to!”

      I never said Americans don’t write have grammar/punctuation issues, too, only that I’ve seen more of these particular problems (no commas in compound sentences or to separate direct addresses, etc.) from UK authors. Americans are the ones who misuse/overuse “as” and can’t figure out that -ing endings indicate something ongoing. (“Running down the stairs so fast he nearly fell, he stood and waited at the front door for his wife.” Um… No.)

      My grammar is FAR from perfect. That’s deliberate. I’m still working on learning to speak/write like a real human, which means bad grammar whenever possible. (My therapist said so… and I’m not being sarcastic. Wish I were.) So far, about the best I can manage is incomplete sentences and beginning sentences with conjunctions, neither of which is “bad” enough to satisfy the requirements.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Amos, HOW did you manage bold type in a comment? Could it be that italics are also possible…? (I know basic html, but WordPress won’t allow me to use that for comments.*sigh*)

    Like

    • Yeah… I knew I was cheating in my “doctor whom” example, hence the tongue-poke-smiley. (Like it or not, they’re becoming part of most people’s language… they’ll be in the dictionary before too long, I suspect.)

      As for the HTML, yes, you can put italics between “em” (emphasis) tags, bold between “strong” tags, even strikethrough between “del” tags, for instance (hope using HTML entities to make it not treat these as HTML tags works): <em>like this for italics</em>. (I’m a web developer during the day.) As the owner of your wordpress site, you should even be able to edit my comment to see how I did it if you ever forget what the tags are. Only a limited subset of HTML tags are allowed for comments.

      One quick google search later… bookmark this: https://wpbtips.wordpress.com/2010/05/23/html-allowed-in-comments-2/

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Pingback: Commentition Jovial January 2016 | I Read Encyclopedias for Fun

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