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I hope you’ll excuse a little anecdote here. I’ve been meaning to tell this story, but I haven’t encountered anyone who I could tell it to*, so I’ll inflict it upon you. The anecdote presupposes that you know about the Oxford comma, the comma that goes between the next-to-last item in a list and the list’s conjunction. If you are unfamiliar with it, a quick overview of it, and whether or not it’s appropriate, can be had here.

Last week, I was in a meeting where my co-workers and I were editing the first draft of a engineering journal paper about multimedia modelling. Here’s the key sentence, a punctuation party taken from the midst of a stirring discussion of correlation matching methods:

These techniques have been used in similar cross-modal retrieval tasks: CFA [21]; CCA [21], [40], [46]; and KCCA [12], [13].

The bracketed numbers are references to previous work, and to conform to the style of the journal, we have to separate each reference with commas. Because the list items contain commas, we want to use semicolons as “second-order commas”, a pretty standard but somewhat rare usage. Now, when the guy who was writing this section of the paper wrote it, he only used one semicolon, separating CFA and CCA. CCA and KCCA had neither semicolon nor comma between them. Because the second-order comma use of the semicolon is uncommon, I felt we ought to make it clear that it was indeed a list separator by adding a second one. So I presented an argument that we use an “Oxford semicolon”, at which point my colleagues stared at me confusedly, because 1) they are engineers, not linguists, 2) two of three are not native English speakers, and 3) they have grown accustomed to my saying very strange things and have learned to silently tolerate it. Meanwhile, being unjustifiedly proud of my turn of phrase, I sat there grinning like a simpering idiot.

After a few moments, my mouth finally uncontorted itself out of a smile enough for me to offer an explanation of what the hell I meant by “Oxford semicolon”. In response, the writer, a Portuguese speaker, replied that the Oxford semicolon made sense to him there, but that he had learned that the Oxford comma was erroneous in English, and thus omitted its semicolonic equivalent.

So I, ever helpful person that I am, saw fit to ramble about the Oxford comma and semicolon for everyone’s edification. For some reason, the editing meeting took three hours.

*: Not true. I have already told it to many people. It’s just that for some reason, they didn’t seem to find it interesting. At all.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.

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