Monday, January 23, 2012

Oxford Comma Crusades

The latest antilife strike on language is the instantly traditional reverence for the Oxford comma, said strike being well exemplified in the picture above.  Oxford comma crusades tend to include the implied message "enough absolute grammatical rules can eliminate all nuances of meaning, thereby perfecting communication."  "Accurate" communication, though, will always require humans sharing understanding, which can be done with or without any given grammatical rule.  It's "Oxford" because it's Humperdinckian; the inheritor of the absolutist expansion of deathlust across the world--as described here before, from Torahtic to Athenian to Roman to British to American.

Burning aside the strawmen of speaking in tongues or misusing their, they're and there, the flow of sensations and wonders between humans is well-facilitated by language.  Language, though, relies on a number of set assumptions: primary among these that an always varying, imperfect set of guttural emissions, paired with cultural understanding, looks and gestures, dress and situation, et cetera, will aid humans in communicating complex things to "one" another.

Humans have abused the notion of language during its development, though, spawning thereby a number of malignant trends that threaten to make language, and everything it aspired toward, a terminal condition for living communication.  Like the fall of the Tower of Babel, chieftains and resettling societies have partitioned off their own intellectual property, turning, over generations, mutating dialects into "new languages," until now, thousands of years later, instead of having a vast language of mankind--filled with innumerable joyous synonyms, all with new meanings waiting to be learned and discovered, and a basic set of assumptions that can get any two people learning about one another--we have humankind separated from itself by the barriers of different languages, with rules that exclude one another's rules and make communication between even two different language groups difficult for anyone except the rarely educated, or the elites who can afford to buy their services.  Multiply that by the number of living languages for some fun.

Like all antilife systems, restrictive linguistic structuring relies heavily on classification, or the propertizing of regulations that limit communication and put up toll barriers between and through different individuals and social groupings.

Grammar is good.  Guidelines are good.  Shared sets of understanding for what things probably mean--i.e., language--are good.

However, they all rely upon context.  The absolute language of warlike Germanic tribes that rose to become English, without the wonderful nuances of meaning and dropped pronouns of many Asiatic tongues, has evolved into a very good, but very restrictive, means of communication.  Many native English speakers find themselves unable to express deep thoughts without resorting to poetry and reveling in a lack of structure.  English itself, like many languages that ascended worldwide under the guidance of their imperial masters during the age of discovery, is centered around absolutes, such as "I" and "you" and "mine" and "yours," and "life," "death," "best," "worst," et cetera.

Even so, context is required for effective, efficient communication.  Without cultural context and many "understood" things, the language in and of itself is only of marginal worth.

Where Oxford comma-worship comes in is the continuing surge of antilife: by saying that, in the pictured example above, humans require a comma after "toast" to understand the sentence, the Oxford comma suggests that in a discussion about breakfast foods, two humans would require the comma's services to realize that one of them wasn't speaking to toast and orange juice.  Which, of course, two humans talking about breakfast foods do not require.

It's a clever pun to admit that something "could" be taken in a different way, but it should be treated no more seriously than the wealthy blatherings of Jerry Seinfeld making the drunk laugh about airline peanuts.

Why, then, the reverence for the Oxford comma to "prevent ambiguity"?  Because believing that grammatical notation, and not the meeting of two ghosts in a moment of shared understanding, is what causes effective communication, sends the message that two discrete points of light cannot meet and empathize without a committee of verbal authorities offering them guidance on how to understand one another.  Most masters of style, manner, diplomacy, law, medicine and financial transactions prefer everyone being required to come to them to be told how they should manage something.  And I have some swampland in Florida I'd like to sell you, while we're on the subject.  Trust me.

An American and an Iraqi could sit down together and work out their grievances much more effectively than sub-delegating the task to George W. Bush and a legion of Senate staffers and Pentagon contractors, as we've all recently seen.

Grammar is a tool--not our master.  The purpose of language is "communication"--not "to have a proper language."  Language itself is a means to an end, and though a wonderful one, should flow as we have it.  Beware the insidious, subtle hints of absolutists whispering that you would be nothing without their rules.

The meal consisted of soup, salad, and macaroni and cheese. 

What's a meal?  Is it a macaroni soup?  Was the first "and" included by a poor speaker, referring to a party where sliced brie was served on separate plates from dried macaroni?  Is a "soup, salad" anything like a "trout, fried"?  How do we know that the macaroni and cheese were combined?

We assume the (likely) right answer to all of these questions because we have a shared cultural understanding that "macaroni" and "cheese" are commonly served together as a single dish known as "macaroni and cheese."  Without this shared cultural understanding, the editors of The Chicago Manual of Style would not have been able to come up with that example to demonstrate why the Oxford comma is necessary--they have, with that example, shot themselves in the foot by exhibiting the very point that destroys their insistence upon the serial comma.  There is no dictionary, encyclopedia set or accompanying style book big enough to include all the shared references in the universe, excepting the universe itself.  Their grand treatises are but tiny suggestions for something we might try, and are not themselves necessary for us to share our lives with one another.

So, while it might be cute or cool or, more importantly, more clear in any given instance to use the royals' trademarked comma, no one is ever actually going to think that you're addressing the toast and the orange juice.

Language points the direction.  It is not itself the end.  We are.  Arise, humans: love and live one another.  Make not false idols of your hammer and chisel.


  1. you've been busy .. . did my salad in the soup dotty waving .. , commas .. . wandering have anything to do with this writing, are you quoting from anything here ,in the midst of your own bits of writing's not clear to me ? / of why i write the way i do part .. . i'm just trying to share something of my voice with those that can not hear it's flutter and odd pauses .. ,and something else

  2. (anne is not the guilty party, here, but rather a feisty kitten who may go by the name of Lizzy.)

  3. LOL. Sorry, Arka, but on this one you miss the mark.

    1) The Oxford comma is not "Humperdinckian" as it is not standard use in British English at all. You may be deceived by the term "Oxford," which probably sets off all your evil-sniffing alarms, but it is actually more often used in American writing than British.

    2) In your quest for happy happy "vast language of mankind--filled with innumerable joyous synonyms, all with new meanings waiting to be learned and discovered," you would be hard-pressed to find a better one than English. And the reason, I'm afraid, is that very despicable colonialism that makes you so despise the island that gives the language its name. English has absorbed not only token words but phonetic and grammatical rules and practices from a wide number of languages. It is that very breadth of vocabulary and flexibility of meaning that requires greater specificity in grammar and syntax for the language to be understood. Compared to other languages, English has very few inflections and therefore relies heavily on grammar and syntax to be intelligible.

    3) Yes, a certain amount of cultural understanding can help, but that does not always coexist between English speakers. "salad and macaroni" is just as validly a dish as "macaroni and cheese," and though macaroni and cheese is more the more widely recognized term, the speaker certainly could be referring to a kind of salad served with macaroni (as many pasta salads are). And sometimes the context is not there: what if, instead, the example were "burritos, rice and beans and cheese"? The beans could be as appropriately grouped with the rice as the cheese. Or they could all be separate dishes. Cultural assumptions are like any other assumptions--we make them, but they can certainly be wrong. There's nothing wrong with a grammatical mark that helps clarify understanding. The meeting of ghosts is all very well and good, but even people who are highly empathic towards each other's minds can be uncertain as to how the beans and cheese are arranged.

    3) English is actually one of the least-regulated languages there is. Unlike French, for example, we don't have an academy out there defining its rules and protecting its integrity as a language. We have various style masters writing manuals that are really nothing more than their opinions, pleading their cases that following their rules will lead to easiest understanding. It is because our language is so flexible that there is so much room for interpreting subtleties of meaning when so much as a comma goes astray. As far as the Oxford comma goes, again, I think its name has fooled you into thinking that it is the Old Standard and a forcible triumph of Rule and Order over natural understanding. Rather, it is the elimination of the last comma in a series that is the forced, schoolmasterish style. People tend to "speak" this comma even if they have learned not to write it. If they'd never been taught otherwise by a bunch of miserable schoolteachers who thought they were following proper (Queen's) English, most people would naturally put a comma after each item in a series, including the last.

    Sorry, Arka. Usually you are spot on. But in this case I think you are deceived, misguided, and wrong. As opposed to deceived, misguided and wrong. :-)

  4. [Oops, change that last 3) to a 4).]

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  6. Take note, seyrah & anne, that English is wonderful, useful tool, and its abundance of direct verbal or written synonyms in relation to other languages is good.

    Which isn't to say that using inflection, bearing, or conjugation to exponentially increase potential meanings, as do other languages, is bad by comparison. Both things are good.

    Take extra note of this one's quote from near the end: "So, while it might be cute or cool or, more importantly, more clear in any given instance to use the royals' trademarked comma, no one is ever actually going to think that you're addressing the toast and the orange juice."

    What is at issue here is the resurgence of love for the Oxford comma as an attempt to impose, upon the evolving language of English, regulations akin to current French insanity.

    Complaining about people misusing "their" and "they're," et cetera, is all well and good, but unwarranted hyperbole extolling the comma makes the point this one discussed--that communication cannot happen well without regulatory commas. It can, and it does.

    In short: English is good. Serial commas are good. Commas for pause or meaning are good. None of these things are bad.

    Excessively restrictive classifications of unnecessary guideposts, justified by strawmen, are not, though, good or necessary.

    Look beyond the cuteness of the example and ask "Why are some driven to regulate comma placement in situations where it obviously does not help, such as in the situation where the toast and orange juice are not mixed?"

    The answer--the ill motivation seeking to restrict communication--is what this one addressed.

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