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Saturday, February 24, 2018

What’s in a comma? (or everything old is new again) by Kait Carson

If you are a baby boomer, you grew up in a time of change. We had new math—distinguished in ways I no longer recall from old math. A change of schools meant leaving phonetic spelling behind and entering the world of memorization. I envy people who can spell. The switch muddled my mind. Then there was the Oxford comma. That pesky comma that separates the last item in a series of three or more from the word that follows. It was required usage from my grade school days right though high school. Enter college creative writing courses and Dr. Clasby put red x marks though that last trailing comma. Old school, he scrawled across the top of more than one short story. “We don’t use the Oxford comma in this country,” he said more than once in every class.

It was the 1970s. American youth, and universities, were busy inventing sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. Who needed an old-world named comma slowing things down? For years Dr. Clasby’s prolific use of red ink on my papers made me cringe at the sight of the Oxford comma. I worked hard to erase it from my writing life. Those who edit my work suggest I might have gotten too zealous eliminating commas, but hey, what’s a comma among friends? The aversion comes from fear of red ink! When in doubt, leave it out.

The omitted comma, and I got along just fine, thank you, until I started working for law firms. Legalese requires that every word be supported and supportable. Clarity is the rule and the Oxford comma brings clarity. Comma usage became a bone of contention again. This time it was red ink in reverse. My attorney was putting in, not taking out, commas. WHAT WAS UP WITH THAT? Knowing better than to try to beat him, I joined him, but it meant going back over every document searching for the omitted Oxford comma. Each time I hit the comma key at the end of a list, I gritted my teeth and thought, this one’s for you, Richard.

Eventually, the Oxford comma became, dare I say it, rote. I still mess up my other commas, I’m just not good with them, but the Oxford, it shows up even in my creative writing. Danged good thing too. Turns out, there is a price for Oxford commas. $5,000,000. Yep, the lack of an Oxford comma cost a Maine company $5,000,000. I’m glad I wasn’t the paralegal who typed that contract. Proponents of the Oxford comma are vindicated. Use it, or lose big time. As for the rest of my commas, I get by with a lot of help from my friends.

Writers, how do you feel about the Oxford comma?
Readers, does the Oxford comma look out of place or just right to you?

I’m looking forward to your comments, but I gotta go check my last pleadings and agreements. For the want of a comma, the case was lost.


Jim Jackson said...

I had the opposite experience as you, moving from learning to read by rote memory to using phonetics to sound out words. I went from top of the class in reading to bottom of the barrel -- something I talked about in a blog When I Was a Crow -- Crow (black, nasty pest) was the bottom group.

New math, BTW, also moved away from rote memorization to learning match by basic concepts. It had kids learning to solve basic algebraic equations in first grade, but never learning their times table in fourth.

As to the Oxford comma, I was all for the new way when I started writing. Where the meaning was clear, they were an extra finger tap on the keyboard, extra bit of ink wasted, and simply old fashioned. Note, however the caveat: where the meaning was clear.

In the court case the meaning without a comma, the intended last item could be combined with the penultimate item in a manner that could make sense. Therefore, a comma was needed whether you believe in always using the Oxford comma or not.

My first publisher was an Oxford comma fan, and I had to insert hundreds of the little suckers. I finally gave up and now include them in my writing. Even though I am independently published, I keep them for consistency.

Kait said...

Well said, Jim! And welcome back.

Seems I was lucky to move from new math to old math during my school days and I certainly hope no one now is hooked on phonics! Did you have to use phonetic spelling too? I remember the upside down e figuring into those early spelling tests.

Isn't it funny that we've both surrendered to the use of the Oxford comma? I do find I sometimes need to go back and put it in, but I always do.

Jim Jackson said...

Kait -- I did not have to learn phonetic spelling as well (so I have no excuse for my poor spelling). I do have a hazy recollection that one of my sisters had to deal with upside down e's and symbols over other vowels.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

If I don't use Oxford commas, one of my critique partners will correct me.

So many years, so many educational theories tested and eventually tossed. The one I will never forget: the Fulton County Georgia schools eliminated seventh grade math and required all students take Algebra I in eighth grade. Chaos!

Kait said...

Jim - count yourself fortunate! To your sister, my sympathies. It was awful.

Kait said...

Margaret - eliminated seventh grade math! Even from this distance, the thought sends shivers.

KM Rockwood said...

Most of the time I use an Oxford comma, but I don't get all bent out of shape about it. Usually it doesn't matter all that much, but I find it easier to take out than add if an editor or someone decides it needs to be here. (but I realize there are situations, esp. in things like contracts, where the more formal, precise writing should be used)

I find it interesting that educational methods come and go, but virtually none of the changes are based on solid research. We do know that the average child will learn to read using any system, but that fewer will need intervention services if phonics are the primary system used. As one assistant principal told us as he introduced new curriculum, which included new methods of instruction, no student has ever graduated from a big city school system under the same program that was in place when he/she entered in kindergarten.

Warren Bull said...

How commic

M. A. Adler said...

I love the Oxford comma. Of course, I am also a lawyer, so that might help explain it. I did resonate with your comment about needing a lot of help from your friends where commas are concerned. I tend to leave out commas others might think are necessary. For me, if I would pause when speaking, I would put a comma there. I seem to pause more when speaking than others though, it seems. :-)
Enjoyed your post. Thank you.

Kait said...

KM, that is very insightful.

It would be interesting to know who has responsibility and how the changes to the educational methods come about. From what I understand from friends, the thrust until recently was on standardized State testing. Florida has relaxed that focus in the past two years, but it did consume much of the teacher/student contact hours that is now given to, well, teaching for knowledge rather than teaching to pass a test. A study as to the educational and lifelong success of the children under both methods would be interesting.

Kait said...

LOL, Warren - very clever!

Kait said...

Hi M.A. Ah ha, it is a legal thing! I knew it.

I, too, tend to put in commas for verbal pauses. Most times, they work, other times, I am so thankful for my critique partners.

Gloria Alden said...

I'm probably older than most of you here so I use the oommas I was taught to use in school so many years ago. When I started teaching third grade I was upset with the math that had to be taught. We wren't to teach them to memorize multiplication, but we had to teach them math subjects that should have waited until fifth grade at least. The teacher's manual I taught was so thick, and had us introducing math subjects that were to be covered in two days not giving them time to really learn them. Actually, some of them were ones I never learned in school, at least not taught in that way.

Kait said...

I remember learning set theory in the third grade. I enjoyed it, but I wasn't ready to apply it to math in the way it was meant to be applied. Teaching it had to be difficult as you knew your students and their educational background.

Grace Topping said...

Terrific post, Kait. When I was in school, it was called the serial comma. I just can’t understand why folks get so riled up about adding a comma at the end of a series, which could help prevent confusion.