Back when I, very occasionally, taught fiction writing to grade-school kids (if you’re British, that would be—I think—primary school kids, and if it isn’t, little kids will get close enough to follow the story), some nine- or ten-year-old would always ask, “Do we have to use punctuation?”
“Only if you want me to understand what you write,” I’d say if I had my act together that day. If I didn’t, I’d just say yeah, they probably should, and move on.
But I loved the question. It’s so nine- or ten-year-oldish, and that age group was always the most fun to work with. The enthusiasm hadn’t been squashed out of them yet, and they had to skills to actually write something. Plus they asked questions like that.
Well, if somewhere deep inside you’re still wondering whether you have to use punctuation, and why, here’s a story for you:
First, though, a bit of punctuation lore. There are two ways of using the comma when you’re listing things: 1) I ate eggs, toast, and bacon. 2) I ate eggs, toast and bacon. I’m a vegetarian but I’m not so pure that I won’t eat the imaginary stuff. But in the second sentence, I don’t get to eat the final comma, because it disappears.
In the U.S., we called that third comma the series comma, and it’s optional. In Britain, it’s the Oxford comma, presumably because the University of Oxford style guide recommends it although the dominant style says not to use it.
When I was in third grade, our teacher told us that we could either use it or not, and we should decide which style we liked. The series comma was more formal, she said. (My third-grade teacher was a man, but memory insists a woman taught us that. Maybe we had a student teacher, that day, or a substitute, although if it had been a sub there’d have been too much chaos for me to remember anything except, maybe, flying sandwiches. But let’s pretend memory knows what it’s talking about and call the teacher a she.)
I decided I’d use the informal style, because even then I knew informal suited me. I was very taken with the idea that I had a choice.
Years later, when I worked as an copy editor, I learned that most book publishers use the series comma. I didn’t ask why, I just went with house style, because that’s what you do when you’re a copy editor.
It turns out that lawyers like the series comma too. According to the Guardian (I’d give you an American source–I found several–but they wouldn’t call it the Oxford comma, so we’ll go with a British one), a Maine law says that employers in three forms of work aren’t required to pay overtime:
“The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of…” three kinds of food—don’t worry about which kinds.
Drivers for the Oakhurst Dairy won overtime pay because the lack of a comma means it’s not clear that distribution is a separate kind of work—the law could well be talking about packing for shipment or distribution. And those drivers are distributing.
According to Maine law, an ambiguity in laws covering wages and hours has to be interpreted “liberally in order to accomplish their remedial purpose.” It’s not mentioned in the story, but the list of foods that I said not to worry about uses semicolons instead of commas, but it does use one to separate the final item–a series semicolon–so I’m guessing the intent was exactly what the court ruled.
Why those categories of work shouldn’t be covered by overtime is beyond me, but that’s a different issue.
One of the many odd things about Britain is that people—okay, a small group of people—can actually get worked up about the Oxford comma. I’m not sure what I think about that. It’s heartening that somebody cares. On the other hand, good lord, people, will you look what’s happening in the world? The comma’s the least of our problems.
But–maybe the comma really could save us–before I move on to a story about something else that’s happening in the U.S., here’s my third-grade teacher’s lesson on why we needed to use punctuation. He wrote some words on the board:
“The man ate the waiter watched”
Then he punctuated them two ways:
“The man ate. The waiter watched.”
“The man ate the waiter. Watched.”
We were third-graders, so we giggled hysterically.
I don’t remember anyone asking if we needed to use punctuation after that. And I only remember the words he wrote because in the second version watched was left hanging off the end—not a full sentence and not a satisfying sentence fragment, although I wouldn’t have had the words to explain why it bothered me at the time.
We end up remembering unfinished, bothersome stuff like that.
Okay, a story about the U.S., I don’t live there anymore, but I do follow what’s happening as best I can, and like anyone who’s politically active online, even marginally, I get emails urging me to write one politician or another, or to call about something, or to sign a petition. Lately, those emails seem to come by the thousands. And because I’m a citizen of two countries and a loudmouth in both, I get them from two countries.
So what happens to all those opinions that pour into politicians’ offices? A New Yorker article did a great job of tracing that recently. I won’t try to cover it all—go read it; it’s interesting, and if you wonder whether any of this matters it’ll give you some answers.
Briefly, most communications politicians receive fall into three categories:
Category one is communications about nonpartisan and often technical issues. These can often be effective, calling a politician’s attention to something neutral and fixable. Doing something about these things is safe and makes the politician look and possibly even feel good.
Category two is communications about partisan issues. These are unlikely to change the politician’s basic orientation, although they can call politicians’ attention to parts of their constituencies that they hadn’t been aware of—as in, Oh! I hadn’t realized I had a politically active Iranian-American community in my constituency. Maybe I’d better make some gesture in that direction as long as it doesn’t piss off some other, larger constituency or set of donors. (I do hope I don’t sound cynical here.)
Category three is related to category two in that it consists of opinions about partisan issues but a separate category forms when they arrive in a flood, which indicates that something important is going on out in the real world. That makes politicians worry about their reelection prospects. And that has a way of catching their attention.
Lately, the U.S. Congress has been flooded. Emails have been bouncing back from overstuffed inboxes. Phone lines have been busy and callers haven’t been able to get through. (This is a bit dated but may still be true–I’m not sure.) A Democratic senator reported that his correspondence from constituents went up by 900%. A Colorado Republican got 3,000 calls in a single night and a Washington Democrat got 31,000 in three weeks.
“The thwarted and outraged took to Facebook or Twitter or the streets,” the article says. “The thwarted and determined dug up direct contact information for specific congressional staffers. The thwarted and clever” sent faxes.” One Republican senator received 7,276 faxes in twenty-four hours. “The thwarted and creative phoned up a local pizza joint, ordered a pie, and had it delivered, with a side of political opinion, to the Senate.”
Much of the outpouring has been spontaneous, rather than in response to organizational requests to call or write so-and-so about such-and-such. No one knows if it will continue. But whatever the response turns out to be, it is being heard. Something’s going on out in the real world.
Lately, I’ve been getting a swarm of emails asking me to take a one-click poll about some burning political issue or some politician. Do I like/dislike? Agree/disagree. They need to hear from me. My opinion’s crucial.
I hit delete. Some of the polls reappear. Ellen, the emails say, we haven’t heard from you.
I wrote back to one, asking, “Exactly how stupid do you think we are?”
Oddly enough, no one got back to me on that, although I really did need to hear from them.