Monday, February 05, 2007

Quite The Shirt Tale ...

In Jr. and Sr. High School, English teachers laid down the law regarding comma use in a a series of items. For example:

I went to the store and bought bread, eggs, hot sauce and pickled beets.

The teachers said a comma was not allowed after 'hot sauce'. We're not talking 'not needed', or 'not commonly used', but 'Not Allowed'. We're talking red pen, strike-through, points deducted 'Not Allowed'.

I didn't like this at all. The comma needed to be there. The comma wanted to be there. The teachers were firm. The books they taught from said no.

Later in life, I used the comman inconsistently, sometimes bravely, sometimes omitting it out of guilt. I have to admit to some grammatical laziness which I have been trying to overcome of late (thought it might be a good idea in the writing field and all).

I did find grammar books that said the last comma is a matter of personal style and preference. Of course there are times when it is necessary to clarify the meaning of the sentence. In the book Rules for Writers, Diana Hacker provides this example:

"The activities include a search for lost treasure, dubious financial dealings, much discussion of ancient heresies, and midnight orgies."
- Rules for Writers, p. 192

Without the last comma, it would lead the reader to believe there was only discussion about the midnight orgies.

Recently, the book Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss surfaced to the top of the pile to be read. (I know, almost everyone in the world read it like three years ago. I'm slow, okay?) In that book I read, not only is there a difference of opinion regarding this final comma, it has a name. The Oxford comma! Upon further research, there is even some dispute about this name, with the generic serial comma proposed.

All I know is, I feel a lot better about where I stick my commas.

Just don't get me started about where to put a period when the sentence ends with a quotation mark (or a parenthesis).

9 Comments:

Blogger Alphabeter said...

The Oxford comma is a good thing.

"You are in excellent company", said the daughter of a decades-long English teacher.

Of course if you can differentiate between a comma, a semicolon, and a colon, you are much ahead of the pack.

February 5, 2007 at 3:13 AM  
Blogger Steve Buchheit said...

Just watch where you stick that exclaimation point there, buster. :)

Yeah, that comma usage alwasy through me. It didn't help that during my formative years my English Teacher wore tight sweater dresses (had the same teacher 9, 10, and 12 grades). How I loved my English classes. Didn't learn much, though.

February 5, 2007 at 8:51 AM  
Blogger Steve Buchheit said...

Some typos are meant to be funny, some of mine are just sad. Not enough caffeine, says I.

February 5, 2007 at 8:54 AM  
Blogger Todd Wheeler said...

Alphabeter: My favorite is the broken pipe. Back when I was a programming neophyte I was puzzled as the code required a vertical line: |

I called the support line because my keyboard didn't have a regular pipe, just a broken one and asked what was the keystroke to get the unbroken one.

It was a long time ago.

Steve: I hear ya. I'm no good before at least cup #2 in the morning.

February 5, 2007 at 1:54 PM  
Blogger littlebirdblue said...

Todd,

Do you have the "The Panda Says No" version with the stickers?

February 5, 2007 at 10:29 PM  
Blogger Todd Wheeler said...

LBB, yes I do.

I don't know if I dare go vigilante or, as Ms. Truss advocates, go full-on argy-bargy,
but it's nice to know I have them just in case.

February 6, 2007 at 12:17 AM  
Blogger Southern Writer said...

Oh, maaaan. I was reading somewhere in submission guidelines the other day where they wanted the author to include the Oxford comma in a list of three or more. I tried to find it, and couldn't, so I googled, hoping it would turn up. It didn't, but I looked at a lot of others, and some ask for it to be included, while just as many say to drop it. btw, googling "submission + final comma" seems to be a good way to turn up publishers you've never heard of before.

February 12, 2007 at 2:22 AM  
Blogger Todd Wheeler said...

SW,

I love reading submission guidelines. The best are those that say use standard format, then go on to require only one space after a period, only plain text in the body of the e-mail, etc.

February 12, 2007 at 3:37 PM  
Blogger Southern Writer said...

Here's where I saw it:

http://community.livejournal.com/copy_editors/

On January 5th.

I don't mind that they want what they want as long as they don't contradict themselves.

February 19, 2007 at 6:09 AM  

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