It’s funny how we can get hung up on (seemingly?) small things: I often hear language isn’t logical, and one shouldn’t stand on points, in the sense of punctuation points. And yet, all those school kids getting points, in the sense of marks, off because they forgot one. Point of punctuation, that is. And I do, and I don’t agree with both points (of view); without rules of sorts, it would probably be hard to communicate in writing, but there is a fetishization around orthography and grammar that’s definitely not A Good Thing. When people (a.k.a. Lynn Truss) play grammar police, and get their knickers in a twist over cu l8er. Which is so 2000 anyway. “Proper” writing is not going to go away because we use abbreviations in texting. On the other hand, perhaps it would go away if we stopped teaching it at the same time. As always, we need to play good cop bad cop in order to wriggle through somewhere in the middle. I, for one, punctuate rhetorically. And I, one among millions of others, am an Oxford-comma-rer.
This tiny little hook of an inky smudge keeps style manuals baffled and the world in war over whether to add a comma after the coordinating conjunction before the last item in lists of at least three. That old-story book acknowledgement about thanking your parents, Ayn Rand and God. I wonder why she was chosen of all women. But there you go, through the powers of apposition, the lack of comma creates ambiguity, so it would make hereditary lines clearer if you thanked your parents, Ayn Rand, and God.
Some things I didn’t know about that comma: it’s actually more in use in American than in British English – except for Oxford University Press of course which gave it its name. But only since 1978 when Peter Sutcliffe wrote a biography of the press, attributing the inauguration (though not the name) of the comma to Howard Collins who first mentions it in his guide for authors and printers in 1912. To be fair, maybe someone else invented it (Horace Hart who wrote a style guide for the press in 1905, recommending it. I’m confused, but anyway, its connection to Oxford is not old, though the comma is!).
I like it. I use it. I follow it on Twitter.
I like it, because it clearly accords each item its own space between the before and after, the previous and the last comma. And doesn’t it also look tidier? Well, not everyone thinks so. Apparently, in some journalistic circles, the Oxford comma is frowned upon, because it (supposedly) creates visual clutter. It’s probably just the single character space that it takes up and that, when all these characters taken together, would make another word or so.
What if this very circumstance sparked a revolution? And not just any, the Russian Revolution that would eventually lead to – well, all sorts of thing.
Throughout the nineteenth-century, there were strikes by workers and serfs here and there in feudal Russia. Then, just after the turn of the century, the effect of those accumulated strikes galvanized in the year of 1905 which saw work boycotts from January through to autumn. In October, the typesetters of Ivan Sytin’s printing house in Moscow demanded to be paid not only for words, but for punctuation too. For commas. Which makes a lot of sense: what do they care about words? It’s not like they’re ancient Greeks, writing without any marks or spaces at all. The typesetters’ strike spread throughout all professional fields from bakers to bankers, and throughout the country, most importantly paralysing the relatively new but already key lifeline of the railway. Shortly after, Tsar Nicholas II issues a manifesto which would become Russia’s first constitution, paving the way for the demise of the monarchy. The strike was so effective that Trotsky is known to have said that ‘a strike which started over punctuation marks ended felling absolutism’.
And if that wasn’t enough to convince anyone of the importance of points, there’s more to come: a pioneer of human rights activism, Irish consul to the British Empire Roger Casement was hanged by a comma: while working for the Foreign Office, Casement continually observed and made public the atrocities of colonialism, first in Belgium, then in South America. His 1904 Casement Report went viral (as we say today), and effectively forced the hand of King Leopold to give up the Congo. He also uncovered the enslavement of Putumayo Indians in Peru, working on British rubber plantations, but, funnily, nothing came of that… Casement returned to Ireland and became involved in the struggle for independence. In the first world war, while the United Kingdom was at war with Germany, he went on the continent to agree on weapons deliveries between Germany and Irish independence fighters, and discuss how to recruit Irish prisoners-of-war in Germany for the cause, but before any significant deal happened, he was apprehended by the British intelligence, imprisoned, and hanged for treason (note my Oxford comma!). The accusation was based on the 1351 Treason Act. The defence tried to get him free based on punctuation. The act reads thus:
Treason means ‘if a man do levy war against our Lord the King in his realm, or be adherent to the King’s enemies in his realm, giving to them aid and comfort in the realm, or elsewhere, and thereof be properly attainted of open deed by the people of their condition’.
It took me a few readings to understand, but it basically means that if you incite against the king or rub shoulders with the king’s enemies, or help them, you’re ‘attainted’, you’re a traitor, too. Now, the crux is where you do that, and here punctuation comes in actually to create ambiguity rather than alleviate it (which it mostly is desired to do, though more often than not doesn’t). Casement’s defence argued that the clause or elsewhere only pertains to aid and comfort, not to be adherent to the King’s enemies, because it’s separated with a comma. Hence, Casement did adhere to the King’s enemies but not in the realm, but elsewhere (in Germany). Hence, he’s not attainted. Re-read that a couple of times, it’s a messy business.
I kind of feel that the defence’s arguing was more the case if it had been the opposite, if there had been *no* comma. As it is, the comma before or makes it refer back to all clauses, but not strongly so. – The wording in and of itself is ambiguous.
Perhaps, Casement would have been able to have at least the death sentence turned into long-term imprisonment, but the general mood celebrating him as a hero based on his reports changed when the so-called Black Diaries were brought forth which recorded homosexual activities (in, at times, great detail and explicitness), and this when homosexuality was against the law (witness the Oscar Wilde case). Up to this day it’s unclear if these diaries were indeed Casement’s or if they had been forged to taint his name. In any case, he did lose, and he was hanged. His comment:
“God deliver from such antiquaries as these, to hang a man’s life upon a comma and throttle him with a semi-colon.”
If in doubt, though, choose the latter. Semicolons come with their own brand of love and hate, but they do really close the case concerning what makes an entity with what else. Consider the Oakhurst Dairy Missing Comma Case: In 2014, 75 truck drivers sued their employer, Oakhurst Dairy, for outstanding pay of 10 million dollars, hinging on the lack of serial comma regarding overtime which, according to Maine legislature, is not remunerated for:
‘The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
- Agricultural produce
- Meat and fish products; and
- Perishable foods’
So far, so much unpaid work, squeezing people out in order to make them speed up. There is an interpretative gap, though, in the punctuation and grammar of packing for shipment or distribution: without comma before or, it reads as if packing governs both shipment and distribution, in the sense of packing for distribution. Not distribution itself. Hence, the truck drivers (whose task is to distribute, not necessarily to pack for distribution) should be paid for their overtime happening when they are distributing by driving around in their lorries. The suit was at first dismissed, based on the reasoning that, if one were to understand packing for shipment or distribution as one entity, the list becomes asyndetic, which is unusual for listing (of the legal kind, presumably thinks the poet).
But (praise be to the grammar gods!) the judge of the next instance knew a thing or two about the subtle delights of language, and ruled in the drivers’ favour: since the comma is missing *and* distribution is a noun and hence more on a level with shipment rather than the list of nominalized verbs before (canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing), the Dairy does owe their employees. The case settled for 5 million dollars in 2017, and the law was changed compartmentalizing each activity by semicolons and swapping the confusing noun for a nominalized verb. There’s safety in semicolons!
And what does all of this have to do with Mandela and dildos?!? Well. One perfect The Times TV listing summarizes a documentary in which Peter Ustinov ‘retraces a journey made by Mark Twain a century ago. The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.’
I’m just going to leave it there (adding that I couldn’t verify the story).
Punctuation and our worry over it strikes again, even though some people *pretend* they don’t give a fuck.
Thankfully, front singer of Vampire Weekend Ezra Rose explains: “I think the song is more about not giving a fuck than about Oxford commas.”