You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘oxford comma’ tag.

Ambiguity and fear of ambiguity are common arguments for a variety of grammatical as well as editorial choices. For example, some people insist that since shouldn’t be used like because (as in “since you’re here so early, let’s build the trebuchet we’ve been planning”), because since could also mean “from that time forward”. The fear is that readers or listeners will commit to that latter reading and find it confusing — if not impossible — to switch tracks to the former reading.

Now, in the case of since, it’s actually rare that both meanings are reasonable for long enough to cause confusion; differences in the type of constituent or verb tense following the since tend to quickly disambiguate the sentence. But in other cases, ambiguity can be real and persistent:

(1) Since I was young, I went to church with my Mom […]

In rare cases, the ambiguity can even be such that a reader can’t confidently determine which is intended, and in even rarer cases, the difference is meaningful. To insure against this confusion, some writers eschew the “because” meaning of since completely.

And that sounds like a good idea, except for one thing: there’s a flip side to the problem. So long as a substantial fraction of the linguistic community continues to permit the ambiguous form, it doesn’t matter whether you personally avoid the ambiguity; the ambiguous situation arises from unambiguous usage as well. In this case, it’s that ambiguity can arise even in the time-based usage of since:

(2) Since I was young, I have understood how right Benito Juárez, the outstanding Mexican patriot, was when he said: “Respecting others’ rights is the way to peace.”

Even if you never use the “because” meaning, your reader (probably) doesn’t know that. When they get to “Since I was young…”, they still might think that you’re using the “because” form. Again, this is probably only a temporary ambiguity. But it’s as much an ambiguous setting as the one that everyone complains about, so to avoid ambiguity, it also needs eschewed.

Here’s another example, from the cover of a book I’m reading:

The book is on Walter O’Malley, a former owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and the one who moved them to Los Angeles back in the 1950s. The front cover of the book, pictured above, reads “The True Story of Walter O’Malley, Baseball’s Most Controversial Owner, and the Dodgers of Brooklyn and Los Angeles”.

Now, if there were no such thing as the Oxford comma in this world, this subtitle would be unambiguous — baseball’s most controversial owner would clearly be an apposition referring to Walter O’Malley. (This is, by the way, the intended reading.) But because the Oxford comma exists, this could be a list. That’s the case even if neither the writer nor the reader ever uses the Oxford comma. The possibility of the Oxford comma will still color the interpretations.

I see two lessons here for usage in general. The first is that your writing and speaking do not exist in a vacuum. The principles of usage on which you make your usage decisions ought to take account of how other people use the language. It’s nice*, perhaps, if a writer insists that nauseous can only mean “inducing nausea”, but if no one else adheres to this rule, their readers probably won’t be able to recognize or use that principle in interpreting the writing. Common usage has an unavoidable influence on one’s readers and listeners.

The second is that ambiguity is not limited to contested usages. We tend to think of these debates about ambiguity as each influencing a particular choice or construction, but there’s almost always an overlooked construction that’s affected as well. If the fear of ambiguity is sufficient for a writer to avoid the ambiguous choice (e.g., the Oxford comma or because-since), then the fear of ambiguity also ought to cause the writer to avoid the ambiguity inducer (e.g., appositives in lists, time-since).

There are cases where that second avoidance is reasonable — I think I try to avoid appositives in lists, for instance — but in many situations, this would be tantamount to cutting the word out of the language. If both those senses of since are out, when could it be used? In cases like this, we really have to think hard about the intensity and importance of the ambiguity in the usage before deciding whether or not it’s tolerable. A blanket dictum against ambiguity is too broad a brush.

*: I’m, of course, using nice here in a sense somewhere between the rare “precise or particular in matters of reputation or conduct” and the obsolete “displaying foolishness or silliness” meanings.

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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.

Okay, it’s National Punctuation Day again, everyone’s favorite registered trademark of a holiday. (Its inventor really trademarked it, and carefully repeats the ® symbol after each mention of the day.) These manufactured holidays are rubbish, and this one’s just an excuse for people to get up in arms about misplaced apostrophes or commas, or to start a pointless argument about whether periods go inside of quotation marks and whether the Oxford comma is a boon or a bane. I guess it’s also a chance for people to trot out the old pair “Let’s eat, Grandpa!” and “Let’s eat Grandpa!” and make a borderline joke about how punctuation saves lives.

I can’t say exactly why, but National Punctuation Day fills me with a profound lethargy that kills my interest in even writing a post about it. I hope you won’t think it lazy, but I’m just going to repost what I said about it last year. I hope to make up for this repetitious post by updating it with links to the much better posts I’m sure you’ve all done for today.

Punctuation is great.  I use it all the time, like rechargeable batteries.  But, like rechargeable batteries, I just can’t get too excited about punctuation.  I’ve tried to, I really have.  I had a copy of Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West shipped down to UCSD via Inter-Library Loan, which was supposed to be the definitive academic history of punctuation in English and related languages. I hoped it would reveal to me the history of punctuation, the evolution of its different forms and purposes. It very well might have, if it weren’t so incredibly dense and disorganized. I tried to read it in bed one night. I fell asleep around page 3. So I took it on vacation, the only book I’d packed in my carry-on at the airport.  I ended up sitting at the gate for an hour and a half, staring out the window at a unchanging hillside for an hour, because after reading a chapter of the book on my lap, I just couldn’t take anymore.  I’d put together one quarter-page of notes on the book by the time that the library asked for it back. I obliged them immediately.

I did get one point out of the book, though: punctuation arose as a means of marking where an orator would pause in delivering a speech.  Different marks could be used to indicate differing pause lengths, which generally corresponded to differing logical divisions.  Short pauses, like those indicated by the modern comma, usually divided segments that were still closely related to a core idea.  Longer pauses, like those of the modern semi-colon, indicated somewhat more independent segments, and still longer pauses, now periods, indicated still more independent segments.

This is the trouble with punctuation: it started out as an indicator of pauses, but due to the correlation with syntax, it has become common for punctuation to mark syntactic divisions instead.  Now we have hybrid punctuation that can mark either timing or syntax, and this has created a somewhat imprecise punctuation system in English.  Furthermore, punctuation is mostly silent.  Is there a difference in pronunciation between high definition and high-definition?  If there is, it’s very slight.  So too with you’re and your, or even:

(1a) It seems we’ve failed, all is lost.
(1b) It seems we’ve failed; all is lost.

Yes, there are certainly rules about punctuation, but they’re mostly boring and uncontroversial.  “Put a comma after an interjection.” Okay, fine. The rules that are controversial, like whether to put periods inside or outside of quotation marks, or the Oxford comma, aren’t interestingly controversial.  One person says “I put the period inside the quotes.”  Another says, “Oh, I put it outside”.  The former is more standard American style, the latter more standard British.  What is there to argue?  I like to wear shorts, and my friend likes to wear long pants.  Who’s wrong?

All the interesting punctuation debates I have are internal, as I debate whether or not a comma is necessary in a given spot, or whether two clauses are sufficiently related to be separated by a mere semi-colon.  Punctuating your writing is, I think, intensely personal, and you have to practice it to get your voice down.  Whenever I edit a friend’s work, I always find instances where I’d change their punctuation (usually by adding a comma), but then it wouldn’t sound like them anymore.  I always found this especially difficult when I’d look at my mom’s writing; she writes more directly than I do, and is much more frugal with her commas than I am, so my inner editor would be distracted noticing all the perfect nesting spots for commas in her sentences.  Arguing about how to best punctuate is often like trying to convince someone that liking chocolate milkshakes is bad because strawberry milkshakes are good.  The trick lies in realizing that there’s more than one good way to do it.

The orbit of the Earth being what it is, September 24th has come around again.  September 24th, for those of you who don’t have a copy of Chase’s Calendar of Events lying around, is National Punctuation Day.  But can I be honest with you?  I just can’t bring myself to care.

Don’t get me wrong, punctuation is great.  I use it all the time, I think it’s a great invention.  Like rechargeable batteries.  But, like rechargeable batteries, I just can’t get too excited about punctuation.  I’ve tried to, I really have.  I had a copy of Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West shipped down to UCSD via Inter-Library Loan, which was supposed to be the definitive academic history of punctuation in English and related languages. I hoped it would reveal to me the history of punctuation, the evolution of its different forms and purposes. It very well might have, if it weren’t so incredibly dense and disorganized. I tried to read it in bed one night. I fell asleep around page 3. So I took it on vacation, the only book I’d packed in my carry-on at the airport.  I ended up sitting at the gate for an hour and a half, staring out the window at a unchanging hillside for an hour, because after reading a chapter of the book on my lap, I just couldn’t take anymore.  I put together one quarter-page of notes on the book by the time that the library asked for it back. I obliged them immediately.

I did get one point out of the book, though: punctuation arose as a means of marking where an orator would pause in delivering a speech.  Different marks could be used to indicate differing pause lengths, which generally corresponded to differing logical divisions.  Short pauses, like those indicated by the modern comma, usually divided segments that were still closely related to a core idea.  Longer pauses, like those of the modern semi-colon, indicated somewhat more independent segments, and still longer pauses, now periods, indicated still more independent segments.

This is the trouble with punctuation: it started out as an indicator of pauses, but due to the correlation with syntax, it has become common for punctuation to mark syntactic divisions instead.  Now we have hybrid punctuation that can either mark timing or serve as syntactic separators, and this has created a somewhat imprecise punctuation system in English.  Furthermore, punctuation is mostly silent.  Is there a difference in pronunciation between high definition and high-definition?  If there is, it’s very slight.  So too with you’re and your. or even

(1a) It seems we’ve failed, all is lost.
(1b) It seems we’ve failed; all is lost.

Yes, there are certainly rules about punctuation, but they’re mostly boring and uncontroversial.  “Put a comma after an interjection.” Okay, fine.   The ones that are controversial, like whether to put periods inside or outside of quotation marks, or the Oxford comma, aren’t interestingly controversial.  One person says “I put the period inside the quotes.”  Another says, “Oh, I put it outside”.  The former is more standard American style, the latter more standard British.  What is there to argue?  I like to wear shorts, and my friend likes to wear long pants.  Who’s wrong?

All the interesting punctuation debates I have are internal, as I debate whether or not a comma is necessary in a given spot, or whether two clauses are sufficiently related to be separated by a mere semi-colon.  Punctuating your writing is, I think, intensely personal, and you have to practice it to get your voice down.  Whenever I edit a friend’s work, I always find instances where I’d change their punctuation (usually by adding a comma), but then it wouldn’t sound like them anymore.  I always found this especially difficult when I’d look at my mom’s writing; she writes more directly than I do, and is much more frugal with her commas than I am, so my inner editor would be distracted noticing all the perfect nesting spots for commas in her sentences.  Arguing about how to best punctuate is often like trying to convince someone that liking chocolate milkshakes is bad because strawberry milkshakes are good.  The trick lies in realizing that there’s more than one good way to do it.

So to return to my original point, the 600-odd words above notwithstanding, a day for punctuation just doesn’t excite me much.  As Vampire Weekend so deftly put it, “Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?”

[By the way, goofy over at bradshaw of the future always brings out his A-game for National Punctuation Day, and this year is no exception.  Go read it.  Now.]

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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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