The Oxford comma and political activism

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:

Irrelevant photo: A camellia, on the grounds of Caerhays Castle–which given that most people around here don’t pronounce the R in any way I recognize as an R sounds like Ca’haze to me.

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.

83 thoughts on “The Oxford comma and political activism

    • Isn’t it strange, the things we get taught? (Or aren’t they strange…. Or–well, never mind. It makes a kind of referring-to-life-experience sense. And it sounds better.) And how seriously we take it all, although thinking back, third-grade teachers are experts in teaching third grade, not necessarily in grammar beyond a basic level.

      Liked by 1 person

        • Which is better than teaching everyone something wrong. For the most part, I didn’t really get taught grammar. If I’d been a bit older, I’d have been taught to diagram sentences–an exercise that, I’m told, is as complicated as it is useless. I wouldn’t know, since I never learned to do it. If I’d been a bit younger, I might’ve actually been taught some. Instead, we were left alone to pick most of it up by osmosis–which, oddly enough, I did. If you read a lot, you’ll absorb a lot.

          Liked by 1 person

          • True, but it’s not necessarily 100% effective. I only cottoned on to the subjunctive – which my teachers avoided like the plague, probably due to lack of confidence dealing with it – quite recently, and I wouldn’t class myself as competent with it either.

            Liked by 1 person

            • I’m with you there. I learned the subjunctive–to the extent that I learned it at all–in my Spanish classes. Which aren’t a great guide to English usage. I’ve noticed that when anything of mine is copy edited, if I write, “If I were going,” someone will change it to was. If I write, “If I was going,” someone will change it to were. I’m assuming that those are two different someones, but who knows? And copy editors–most of them, anyway–know their grammar. (I was one; I knew some damn impressive ones.) So I’m guessing that in the U.S., at any rate, the subjunctive isn’t well understood and is in the process of a slow and unnoticed death.

              Liked by 1 person

  1. I used to be against the oxford comma…but now I have the oxford style guide on my desk I can see its use… well I can if I open the book and look it up anyway…
    I use it when it seems necessary to the meaning of the sentence!

    I like your camellia picture…I have one just like it…

    Liked by 2 people

    • Beautiful shot. I like the darkness around the blossom. I’ve given up on trying to do anything approaching art in my own photos. If it’s good enough to add a bit of leavening to the blog, it’ll do. Yours is well beyond that level.

      Liked by 1 person

        • I got interested in it when we were all using film but drifted away when I started writing. And I never really made the transition to digital. I shoot everything in what Wild Thing insists on calling drunk mode, which gives me a better shot than when I make the choices myself. Sad, isn’t it? I say all that as a buildup to saying that I know just enough about photography to admire serious work when I see it. And I did just see it.

          Liked by 1 person

          • That means a lot! It is he one thing I would love to do with my life if I could work out how!

            I do still use film, I love my medium format cameras :) I love that the limits of film make you look for the pictures and compose them in camera rather than taking loads with digital and relying on cropping…
            I think film makes me a better digital photographer too :)

            Liked by 1 person

  2. Ellen, as always you have written a beautiful piece about one thing which may, or may not, matter to the masses. Then boom, you get to the real crux of the blog and voice an opinion many of us have reached recently. Oxford commas are neither relevant or required but as an introduction to the political statement worked quite well. Keep entertaining and the rant doesn’t read like a rant.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m glad to hear I’m not coming off all ranty. I really do want to keep the blog open to people with many shades of political opinion, but without burying my own. It’s not an easy balancing act, and I expect to waver periodically to one side and then the other.


  3. I got sucked into those one-click polls after jumping on the activist bandwagon shortly after D Trump was elected. Somewhere in them was an ‘unsubscribe’ button, which I quickly, and effectively I will add, made them disappear. I like your method better :)

    Liked by 2 people

    • what really pisses me off about them is that they devalue–or seem to, at any rate–what people are doing. They just scream, We’re jumping on the bandwagon here and we’re gonna steer it where we want it to go. My fear is that they could easily make other people jump off, and what’s happening is so damn important.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Two things: First. I assisted in a grade four classroom of 9 & 10-year olds. I love that age.

    And B) I’m heartened by the level of political engagement . Since last fall, I know more about the US political system than every before. (Which isn’t saying much, since up to that point, I still had difficulty sorting out the left from the right, the donkey from the elephant.) For better or worse, I have been glued to the news from south of the border. In regards to the busy phone lines and full inboxes, I read where people with a message for 45 sent their comments to his hotels. No doubt it wasn’t heard by the fellow at the top, but it helped make a point.

    Make that three things: I’m a serial/Oxford comma advocate. For what it’s worth.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s all worth a great deal.

      I’m surprised how difficult it is to sort out another country’s political system–by which I mean, one you didn’t grow up with. I’ve been politically active in the U.K. for a while now and I’m still running into what seem to me like oddities–the kind of thing where you think, You do what?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. My wife and my good friend David (up in Ipswich) both embrace the Oxford comma. I do not, but since my wife is kind enough to edit my blog posts, it shows up. David bought me a copy of: “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation” fr Christmas one year. It’s scary.

    Liked by 2 people

    • When Eats, Shoots & Leaves first came out, I was delighted to find a mistake in it. I can’t remember what it was, but it had to do with American English. She was really asking for that kind of glee by claiming to take a zero-tolerance approach. You can’t claim to be 600% right and not expect people to cheer for your every error.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, that must have made you feel good. David sometimes catches an error in my posts. Inevitably, it’s one that my wife didn’t review, so I get from both sides of the Atlantic. My wife will make me explain that she wasn’t responsible.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I first heard about Oxford commas in a blogpost a few months back and found it so bizarre that something that adds to clarity should be so vilified by the opposing camp :) In the Maine court case you referred to I believe there was a question of huge damages involved, because of the lack of the comma haha!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I generally use the Oxford comma, but when it’s a series of related words, I don’t always, which, as you know, is acceptable here. I speak like that, with all those commas. Seriously.
    Thanks for the giggles :)

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I switch between the different comma approaches. If the items being listed are simple and comprehension of the sentence would not be impaired then I don’t always use the Oxford comma but if the items are complex and there might be a misunderstanding I consciously opt for the Oxford comma.

    As for the increase in communication to members of congress, I am glad that for some politicians it is making them stop and think and consider the view of the people they supposedly represent. For others, including one of my state senators, the will of the people he allegedly serves is completely irrelevant. The man could be buried in emails and faxes and he would still vote with party or purse. Still, I email and fax every single day, sometimes multiple times a day. I could not have it on my conscience not to.

    Liked by 2 people

    • What you do with commas is exactly what you’re supposed to do with the non-Oxford style–which for some reason doesn’t seem to have a name. With 20-20 hindsight, I can see that I should have acknowledged that.

      I’m with you on emailing politicians. We need to do what we can. We can’t know what effect it will have.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. In college, in journalism classes, we were taught to drop that last comma – until I got a prof who said “Newspaper style doesn’t overrule proper English.” So I observed it in teaching as well. As you note, we were never told it was an “Oxford comma.”

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s funny how people take fixed positions on this and then prepare to go to war with the other side. As far as I know, both styles are legitimate. Using the third comma does mean you don’t have to give any thought to whether it would be clearer, in a given sentence, to use it, and that, it seems to me would recommend it to journalists, but the third-grader in me still likes to drop it when I can.


  10. I know people who love the Oxford comma, and people who hate it. I always follow house style, because, as you say, that’s what those of us who write or edit for a living do. But if I’m writing for myself, I use it. I like my prose to be as clear as possible, and the Oxford comma helps.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It does help. I admit that. But having chosen when I was nine or ten not to use the series comma, I have this ridiculous feeling that I made a lifetime commitment. Not that I always follow that style (I wish it had a usable name) when I’m free to choose, but I still feel like I should.


  11. At my age I have trouble remembering half the grammar rules I once thought I knew. I was going to mention eats, shoots and leaves, but I see someone beat me to it. That last comment (re: uncle Jack) took the prize anyway. BTW… I’ve always wondered about the “anyway/anways” rule. It seems I absorbed the version that drops the “s”, but so many folks seem to stick it on. Is there some wonderful rule involved?

    Liked by 2 people

  12. As a software engineer turned technical writer, I like the Oxford/series/serial comma. It’s a logical way to deal with a series, and since I’m used to the logic of programming languages, I found it quite ok to use once I’d learned about it. I recently worked as a technical writer for a UK software company that sells financial software to banks across the world, including North American ones. Accordingly I used US spelling and punctuation, including the serial comma, in my content – and was happy to do so. The great selling point for the serial comma is that using one very rarely alters meaning, but not using one can easily do so. If you don’t put in the extra comma as a matter of course, you have to check whether the meaning is what you intended. So, for me, the choice to include one is pretty much a no-brainer.

    People think that punctuation, like spelling, is set in stone, so they get entrenched in what they were taught as the “correct” way. The reality is that spelling, grammar and punctuation in written English (and any other language for that matter) are evolving conventions. English punctuation evolved slowly into what it is today, and it tries (not always successfully) to do two jobs: indicate where and how long the pauses should be when the text is spoken out loud, and resolve ambiguities in meaning that the grammar can’t. So it’s all at best a bit of a fudge.

    I think that when people get agitated about these things, it’s more a reflection of the rigidity of our education systems than the reality of written English.

    P.S. Did you know that one of the names for this little symbol -> # <- is an "octothorpe"?
    This fact is revealed in Keith Houston's excellent book "Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks." Worth a read.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I never heard of an octothorpe. I’ve only heard the little beast called either a hashtag (in Britain) or a number sign (I think–ack, my American vocabulary is dissolving) in the U.S.

      I agree about the rigidity with which people approach grammar. Just the other day, a friend was talking about a not very good singer that he had all the notes but not the tune. That’s sort of what happens to a lot of people with grammar. They learn all the rules but can’t hear the music of the language.


    • Ouch. What sort of trouble have I unleashed in your life?

      Actually, as a former editor, I’m all for consistency and when a writer had the mechanics right, it helped–the surface didn’t get in the way of reading it. But once that’s said, it was the content that mattered. At least to me. I’m sure I don’t speak for all editors.


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