Arrant Pedantry


Is the Oxford Comma Ungrammatical?

Few language issues inspire as much fervent debate as the question of whether you need a comma before the last item in a series, also known as the Oxford, Harvard, or serial comma. This is the comma that you sometimes see before and in lists, such as “I need you to go to the store and get bread, milk, and butter.” The Chicago Manual of Style, which is used by many book publishers and some academic journals, requires the comma. The AP Stylebook, which is used by newspapers and many magazines, omits the comma unless it’s necessary to avoid ambiguity.

It seems like such a trifling thing, yet it inspires impassioned debate among editors and writers on both sides of the issue. Last year the satirical news site the Onion joked about violence between the AP and Chicago gangs and wrote that “an innocent 35-year-old passerby who found himself caught up in a long-winded dispute over use of the serial, or Oxford, comma had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.”

But more recently, Walt Hickey at the FiveThirtyEight blog decided to approach the argument in a more scientific fashion, by polling readers on their preference. What he found was that readers are fairly split: 57 percent prefer the serial comma, while 43 percent dislike it. So while there’s a preference for the serial comma, at least among FiveThirtyEight readers, it’s not an overwhelming one.

Roy Peter Clark at the Poynter Institute followed up by arguing that journalists should adopt the serial comma, after which Sam Kirkland posted a poll on Poynter asking if the Associated Press should make the switch. Surprisingly, a whopping 71 percent of respondents said yes.

But none of this was good enough for Poynter blogger Andrew Beaujon. He took to Twitter to lay out his arguments against the serial comma. The first argument—that the serial comma is simply ungrammatical—is actually the easiest to refute. He says that since you can’t write “My wife, and I drove to work” (note the comma before the “and”), you can’t write “Bob, my wife, and I drove to work.” But he’s simply presupposing that there’s a rule that you can never have a comma before a conjunction in a list, which is obviously not true.

He’s also presupposing that lists of two items behave exactly like lists of three or more items, but this is also untrue. I can’t write “Bob, my wife drove to work” (at least not with the intended meaning), but I can certainly write “Bob, my wife and I drove to work.” By Beaujon’s logic, the fact that you add a third item doesn’t magically obviate the rule that you can’t use a comma to join two things together. (Of course, this is done all the time in headline style, but it’s not allowed in normal prose.) It’s clear that the structure of lists changes a bit when you have three items or more, but it is not clear that there is any grammatical rule forbidding commas.

His next point, that “the sentences people employ to show the need for a serial comma are usually ridiculous”, is weak at best. Yes, it’s true that most contrived example sentences are a little ridiculous, but that’s just a problem with contrived example sentences, not with the argument for the serial comma. And consider this example: “The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.” It may be a ridiculous sentence, but it’s real.

Beaujon’s final argument is that the serial comma arises from an urge to overpunctuate because we believe readers are too stupid to figure things out on their own. He says that “prescriptivism is not for [the readers’] benefit; its purpose is to make those of us in the publishing game to feel important and necessary”, but how is his own prescriptivism any different? He’s instructing writers and editors in comma rules and telling them that following his rule means they’re good writers. In other words, my writing is so clear that I don’t need a crutch like the serial comma; if you disagree, it’s only because you don’t trust readers and want to make yourself feel important.

But consider this: most people in both the FiveThirtyEight and Poynter polls prefer the serial comma. That means most readers prefer it. If they find it helpful, who are we to argue that it’s some sort of crutch of bad writers or source of job security for copy editors? And AP style does in fact use the serial comma to prevent ambiguity (though apparently not in the above example regarding the late Mr. Mandela), so what’s the harm in using it all the time?

Because the fact is that I often stumble over sentences that lack the serial comma. Even though I’m well aware that AP and other styles omit the comma before the “and”, I still tend to read “bacon and eggs” in “He made muffins, bacon and eggs” as a single item, not the final two items in a list. The sudden end of the list after “eggs” throws me because I was expecting something to follow it.

I suppose you could conclude that I’m an idiot that can’t work out writing on his own, but you could just as easily (and much more charitably) conclude that the serial comma really is helpful because it signals something about the structure of the sentence. In speech, we can rely on a speaker’s prosody—the rise and fall of pitch—to tell us where the syntactic units begin and end. In writing, we have to rely on punctuation marks to serve as signposts.

You can claim all you want that your writing is so clear that it can do without these signposts, but if you leave out too many, your readers may feel lost, wandering through meandering sentences without knowing where they’re going. Did your reader immediately understand what you wrote, or did they stumble, backtrack, and read it again before they got your message?

This isn’t to say there’s one right way to punctuate, and it’s to use the serial comma. As we saw from the polls above, opinion on its use is still fairly divided. But rather than accusing your opponents of distrusting readers or being self-aggrandizing, you could take them at their word. Maybe there really are legitimate reasons to prefer the serial comma, just as there are legitimate reasons to prefer omitting it.

I find the arguments in favor of including the serial comma stronger than the arguments in favoring of leaving it out, but I don’t pretend that my preference is an ironclad grammatical law or proof of my superiority. It’s just that—a preference. You are free to choose for yourself.


Names, Spelling, and Style

A couple of weeks ago, I had a conversation with Mededitor on Twitter about name spelling and style. It started with a tweet from Grammar Girl linking to an old post of hers on whether you need a comma before “Jr.” She notes that most style guides now leave out the commas. Mededitor opined that the owners of the names, not editors, should get to decide whether or not to use commas. In this follow-up post, Grammar Girl seems to come to the same conclusion:

However, Chicago also states that writers should make a reasonable effort to spell a name the way a person spells it himself or herself, and I presume that also applies to punctuation. In other words, you’re free to insist on the comma before “Jr.” in your own name.

I can see the appeal in this argument, but I have to disagree. As I argued on Twitter and in a comment on that second post, catering to authors’ preferences for commas around “Jr.” creates inconsistency in the text. And it wouldn’t just be authors themselves that we’d have to cater to; what about people mentioned or cited in the text? Should editors spend time tracking down every Jr. or III whose names appear in writing to ask whether they prefer to have their suffixes set off with commas?

Doing so could take enormous amounts of time, and in the end there’s no benefit to the reader (and possibly a detriment in the form of distracting inconsistency), only to some authors’ egos. Further, we’d have to create a style anyway and apply it to all those who had no preference or whose preferences could not be identified. Why pick an arbitrary style for some names and not others? Either the preference matters or it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t matter, that’s what a style choice is for: to save us from wasting our time making countless minor decisions.

But I have a further reason for not wishing to defer to authors’ preferences. As I argued in that same comment, punctuation is not the same thing as spelling. There’s one right way to spell my name: Jonathon Owen. If you write my name Jonathan Owens, you’ve spelled it wrong. There’s no principled reason for spelling it one way or another; that’s just the way it is. But punctuation marks aren’t really part of someone’s name; they’re merely stylistic elements between or around the parts of people’s names to separate them, abbreviate them, or join them.

Punctuation around or in names, however, is often principled, though the principles of punctuation are prone to change over time. “Jr.” was traditionally set off by commas not because the commas were officially part of anyone’s name, but because it was considered parenthetic. As punctuation has become more streamlined, the requirement to set off this particular parenthetic with commas has been dropped by most style guides. And to be blunt, I think the desire of some authors to hang on to the commas is driven mostly by a desire to stick with whatever style they grew up with. It’s not much different from some people’s resistance to switching to one space between sentences.

In the course of the conversation with Mededitor, another point came up: periods after middle initials that don’t stand for anything. Some people insist that you shouldn’t use a period in those cases, because the period signals that the letter is an abbreviation, but The Chicago Manual of Style recommends using a period in all cases regardless. Again, it’s difficult for editors and proofreaders to check and enforce proper punctuation after an initial, and the result is a style that looks inconsistent to the readers. And again, individuals’ preferences are not always clear. Even one of the most famous individuals with only a middle initial, Harry S. Truman, wrote his name inconsistently, as the Harry S. Truman Library points out.

Yes, it’s true that editors can add a list of names to their style sheets to save some time, but checking every single name with an initial against a style sheet—and then looking them up if they’re not on the sheet—still takes time. And what’s the result? Names that occasionally look like they’re simply missing a period after the initial, because the reader will generally have no idea that there’s a reason behind the omission. The result is an error in most readers’ eyes, except for those few in the know.

The fundamental problem with making exceptions to general rules is that readers often has no idea that there are principled reasons behind the exceptions. If they see an apparent inconsistency and can’t quickly figure out a reason for it, then they’ve been needlessly distracted. Does the supposed good done by catering to some individuals’ preference for commas or periods around their names outweigh the harm done by presenting readers the appearance of sloppiness?

I don’t think it does, and this is why I agree with Chicago. I think it’s best—both for editors and for readers—to pick a rule and stick with it.

Update: Mededitor posted a response here, and I want to respond and clarify some points I made here. In that post he says, “I argue for the traditional rule, namely: ‘Make a reasonable attempt to accommodate the conventions by which people spell their own names.'” I want to make it clear that I’m also arguing for the traditional rule. I’m not saying that editors should not worry about the spelling of names. I simply disagree that commas and periods should be considered spelling.

With the exception of apostrophes and hyphens, punctuation is a matter of style, not spelling. The comma in Salt Lake City, Utah is not part of the spelling of the place name; it simply separates the two elements of the name, just as the now-deprecated comma before “Jr.” separates it from the given and family names. Note that the commas disappear if you use one element by itself, and other commas can appear in other contexts, such as when a name is inverted: “Jonathon Owen” becomes “Owen, Jonathon” in an index. This comma is also not part of the spelling of my name; it’s just a piece of punctuation. It’s a style choice.

And those style choices vary and change over time. In the UK, it’s standard practice to omit periods from abbreviations. Thus I’d be Jonathon R Owen in British style. The period in American style is not an element of my middle name that appears when it’s shortened—it’s a style choice that communicates something about my name. But the important thing is that it’s a choice. You can’t choose how to spell my name (though plenty of people have told me that I spell it wrong). But you can choose how to punctuate it to fit a given style.


Attributives, Possessives, and Veterans Day

As you’re probably aware, today is Veterans Day, but there’s a lot of confusion about whether it’s actually Veteran’s, Veterans’, or Veterans Day. The Department of Veterans Affairs obviously gets asked about this a lot, because it’s the top question in their FAQs:

Q. Which is the correct spelling of Veterans Day?

  1. Veterans Day
  2. Veteran’s Day
  3. Veterans’ Day

A. Veterans Day (choice a, above). Veterans Day does not include an apostrophe but does include an “s” at the end of “veterans” because it is not a day that “belongs” to veterans, it is a day for honoring all veterans.

Interesting reasoning, but I think it’s flawed for two main reasons. First, there’s the fact that the apostrophe-s ending in English does not merely denote possession or ownership, despite the fact that it is commonly called the possessive case or ending. As Arnold Zwicky is fond of saying, labels are not definitions. Historically, the possessive ending, or genitive case, as it is more formally known, has covered a much wider range of relationships than simply possession, such as composition, description, purpose, and origin. In Old English the genitive was even used to form adverbs, producing forms like our modern-day towards, nowadays, since, and once (the -ce ending is a respelling of an original -s from the genitive case marker). So obviously the possessive or genitive ending is not just used to show ownership, despite the insistence that if something doesn’t belong to someone, you can’t use the apostrophe-s ending.

Second, they would have us believe that “veterans” is an attributive noun, making “Veterans Day” a simple noun-noun compound, but such compounds usually don’t work when the first noun is plural. In fact, some linguists have argued that noun-noun compounds where the first element is plural are generally disallowed in English (see, for example, this piece), though there are exceptions like fireworks display. Sometimes compounds with irregular plurals can work, like mice trap, but few if any English speakers find rats trap acceptable. The Chicago Manual of Style has this to say:

The line between a possessive or genitive form and a noun used attributively—to modify another noun—is sometimes fuzzy, especially in the plural. Although terms such as employees’ cafeteria sometimes appear without an apostrophe, Chicago dispenses with the apostrophe only in proper names (often corporate names) that do not use one or where there is clearly no possessive meaning. (7.25)

Again they fall prey to the idea that in order to use a genitive, there must be possession. But they do make an important point—the line does seem to be fuzzy, but I don’t think it’s nearly as fuzzy as they think. If it weren’t for the fact that the genitive ending and the regular plural ending sound the same, I don’t think there’d be any confusion. After all, even if people argue that it should be veterans hospital rather than veterans’ hospital, I don’t think anyone would argue that it should be children hospital rather than children’s hospital. But because they do sound the same, and because some people have gotten it into their heads that the so-called possessive ending can only be used to show that something belongs to someone, people argue that veterans must be a plural in a noun-noun compound, even though such compounds are generally not possible in English.

Of course, the question of whether or not there should be an apostrophe in Veterans Day is ultimately an incredibly trivial one. Like so many others, I’m grateful for the service given and sacrifices made by those in the armed forces, particularly my two grandfathers. As far as I’m concerned, this day does belong to them.


The Passive Voice Is Corrected by Buzzword

I was just reading this article about Adobe’s new online word processor, and something caught my eye. In the screenshot, there’s a sentence that’s highlighted, and a bubble in the margin says, “Passive wording fixed.” First of all, it makes me groan to think that so many people still think that the passive voice is simply something that should be fixed, but that’s a topic that’s been covered in a lot of depth elsewhere, notably Language Log, so I won’t get into that right now.

The real head-scratcher is that the sentence “It has some very nice features” is not one that can easily be made into a passive. Yes, it is transitive, so it meets the basic requirements, but I can’t imagine that any native English speaker would produce the sentence “Some very nice features are had [by it]” unless they were intentionally trying to create an example of when the passive voice is a poor choice.

More likely, I think, is that Buzzword misidentified some other type of construction—perhaps there is/are—as the passive voice and then corrected it. There’s a lot of grammatical advice out there right now that makes the same sort of mistakes. Heck, even Bryan Garner and staff members of the Chicago Manual of Style get it wrong.

Unfortunately, I don’t have access to the trial of Buzzword, so I can’t test out its grammar checker to see if this is the case. If anyone knows more about it, please let me know.


Editing Chicago

Those who have worked with me before may remember that I was once nicknamed “The Index to The Chicago Manual of Style” (or just “The Index” for short) because I always knew where to find everything that anyone needed to look up. I’ve always been a fan of the big orange book. It is so painstakingly thorough, so comprehensive, so detailed—what’s not to like? But I must admit that I was rather disappointed with the new chapter on grammar and usage in the fifteenth edition.

In theory it sounded like a great addition. However, when I recieved my copy and started flipping through it, I quickly realized that the new chapter was marginally helpful at best and outright incorrect at worst, though most of it settled comfortably on the middle ground of merely useless.

One passage in particular caught my attention and just about made my eyes bug out when I read it. For those of you who would like to follow along at home, it’s section 5.113:

Progressive conjugation and voice. If an inflected form of to be is joined with the verb’s present participle, a progressive conjugation is produced {the ox is pulling the cart}. The progressive conjugation is in active voice because the subject is performing the action, not being acted on.

Anyone who knows their grammar should know that a construction can be both progressive and passive; the two are not mutually exclusive. And anyone who knows how to spot a passive construction should realize that the section illustrates how wrong it is with the last three words, “being acted on.”

You see, while it is not technically a passive, but rather a pseudo-passive,* it shows that you can take an inflected form of be, in this case “is,” followed by a present participle, “being,” followed by a past participle, “acted.” Voilà! You have a passive progressive. I wrote the Chicago staff a nice e-mail saying that maybe I had misunderstood, but it seemed to me that there was a contradiction here. Here’s what they wrote back:

Yes, I think perhaps you are misunderstanding the point here. Section 5.113 seeks to prevent an inaccurate extension of 5.112, which states that “the passive voice is always formed by joining an inflected form of to be (or, in colloquial usage, to get) with the verb’s past participle.” In 5.113, CMS points out that phrases like “the subject is not being acted on,” which might look passive, are actually constructed with a present participle, rather than a past participle, and are active in voice. (Note that the subject—the word “subject”—is performing the action of not being; this is active, not passive.)

Thank you for writing


I wrote back to try to explain myself in more detail and to note that the staff member wasn’t analyzing the verb phrase as a whole. I even cited a web page from Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab. Notice the second example. Here’s their response:

Well, I’ve done my best to defend Mr. Garner’s take on the subject, but I’ll be happy to add your letter to our file of suggested corrections and additions to CMS. If you wish to explore this question further, you might take the matter up with experts at grammar Web sites and help pages. Meanwhile, please write us again if you have a question about Chicago style. –Staff

Apparently the creators of the Purdue University Online Writing Lab don’t count as experts at a grammar Web site. Well, I did my best to explain why Mr. Garner’s take on the subject was wrong. I just hope that someday the section gets fixed.

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