Happy Punctuation Day, comma.

It apears that Jeff Rubin has established his place in history in a manner that few others can claim: he has created a holiday.

It’s today, September 24.

And it is National Punctuation Day, established in 2004.

It is about time somebody recognizes the holiness of punctuation, underscoring once again the profound insight of the great 19th century philologist, Friederich Nietzsche, that “we will not be rid of God until we are rid of grammar.”

Camille Goldston, a graduate of the CiRCE apprenticeship, forwarded the news to the apprentices today and it got me thinking about the purpose of punctuation.

The modernist mind that controls conventional schooling and thought takes an entirely functional approach to grammar and punctuation, and that leads them to basic errors because they lose sight of the logic behind thought, which is rooted in being itself and in the capacity of the human mind to perceive being.

So, being functional and utilitarian, they do things like drop the second comman in a list of three things. This error, which makes reading challenging materials much more difficult, seems to arise from a mistaken understanding of the purpose of a comma.

When I was a child, somebody, probably, I regret to say, a teacher, told me that commas stand in for the word “and.”

So if you say, “John, George, and Sally went running,” you are really saying “John and George and Sally went running.” Therefore, writers should not include the second comma because the “and” is already there. Thus: John, George and Sally went running.

That’s an example of functionalism. We can easily see that there is a list of names and that the word “and” links them together. 

But the instruction goes wrong in two directions, one, the use of the comma and two, the use of the word and.

Consider this sentence from CS Lewis’s The Discarded Image: “This doctrine had a flourishing progeny in the middle ages, and became a popular subject for school debates.”  (What he refers to by “this doctrine” is irrelevant to the discussion at hand, which is strictly formal).

Should there be a comma after “ages”? Generally, in a list of two, you ought not to include a comma. But is this a list of two?

Lewis, a master of punctuation (and one who misuses commas occasionally), would seem not to think so. He seems, on the contrary, to be suggesting that the doctrines status as a school debate is a subordinate idea to its work as a viral parent.

Further evidence that he is trying to subordinate the second clause to the first is his use of metaphor in the first clause, which heightens its poetic quality and therefore impact, and his non-artistic, though perfectly sound, description in the second clause.

So the word and has much too varied a use to be reduced to something that a comma can stand in for.

The more important point I want to mak here is that the logic of the phrase is confused when writers drop the second comma. It is very obvious how the speaker intends the three characters to be related to each other and to their activity in the first option: “John, George, and Sally went running.”

Each of them went running, and each is related to the others on an equal basis in relation to their running.

But what about this: “John, George and Sally went running.” Only the most carefully trained reader can avoid a sub-conscious or conscious inclination to bond George and Sally more closely than John and George.

And the time spent learning to avoid that inclination was wasted because in other sentences the inclination should be honored.

Over at Wikipedia they present a rather famous example of the ambiguity created by the absence of the second (sometimes called Oxford, Yale, or Serial) comma:

To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.

You can probably see the dilemma.

Wikipedia has a really excellent article on this question in which they include the following note on usage:

The Chicago Manual of Style, Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, most authorities on American English and Canadian English, and some authorities on British English (for example, Oxford University Press and Fowler’s Modern English Usage) recommend the use of the serial comma. Newspaper style guides (such as those published by The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press, The Times newspaper in the United Kingdom, and the Canadian Press) recommend against it, possibly for economy of space.[18]

In other words, people who are trying to write in the breezy, popular, windy fashion of the 20th century want to avoid the comma and the real reason might well be to save ink. People who have a little more incentive to see people think intelligently want the comma included.

The Economist, which is I usually agree with on basic matters of style tries to walk that Anglican middle way:

Do not put a comma before and at the end of a sequence of items unless one of the items includes another and. Thus ‘The doctor suggested an aspirin, half a grapefruit and a cup of broth. But he ordered scrambled eggs, whisky and soda, and a selection from the trolley.’

But the second sentence is precisely the reason it should be included in the first. I’ve been accused of always teaching and maybe that’s true. But if you write after the pattern of the first sentence, the habit of mind that makes the reader more receptive to logical communication is undercut.

A writer should never (in general) direct the reader’s attention to his punctuation. The purpose of writing is always communication of an idea. The punctuation should be as hidden as the letters in each word. By creating a controversy over the serial comma, style guides diminish a little bit more the joy of reading and the freedom with which it can be enjoyed.

The logical relations are only clear in a series when the serial comma is used. When it is not, ambiguity easily arises. On those occasions when ambiguity is not solved by the serial comma, another form of punctuation (parentheses, dash, etc.) or a rearranged sentence offer the easiest solution.


11 Responses

  1. In 7th grade our English teacher told us that commas are over-used and to try not to use them. Now I am paranoid about over-using commas and always spend way too much time trying to figure out when to use them.

    In 9th grade a friend of mine and I asked our English teacher if in a list, the last comma would be before the “and” or not. I remember getting a very unsatisfying answer. She gave some example that involved cookies and cream, but she did not really answer our question. I think you have done so, however I will need to re-read your post a few times to make sure I understood everything you said.

    I was also overjoyed to find out that the term “serial comma” exists. I believe I will make use of it.

    • Melia,

      I found it pretty exciting to discover the term too. That post was written too quickly, so I’d better clarify. In a list of three, there should be a comma before the and of the third (or more) item because 1. the logic of the relationships among the items listed is better expressed that way and because 2. not putting the comma there can create ambiguity. This is especially true in more complicated sentences like, “I like ice cream, cookies and cream, sandwiches, peanut butter and jelly, and parts of speech, subjects and verbs. I know that can be framed other ways to clarify, but I’m just trying to illustrated the point. I hope it worked.

      The writer should try to get his reader to think about ideas, not about what he is trying to say.

      • Ambiguity was exactly what I was thinking about, only I couldn’t think of the right word.

        I am reading Climbing Parnassus by Tracey Lee Simmons right now. While I was reading at lunch today I was greatly satisfied to see his use of the Oxford/Yale/Serial comma. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) I read less than 2 pages today because I spent a great deal of time thinking about punctuation and it’s use and non-use, which led to more thought on grammar, vocabulary and just good writing in general. So much to think about, so little time!

    • Melia,

      I like that it can be called the Oxford comma too. That has real snob appeal!

      • The fact that there are multiple terms is fascinating, not to mention fun. I’d be interesting to find out where the different terms came from.

  2. I agree with womanofthehouse unless C.S. Lewis is trying to make the point that the doctrine (subject of both verbs) is divorced from its subject when subjected to debates. Somehow the doctrine no longer parents but becomes the child scolding the parent. Without reading the whole passage I am not sure, but I do like your explanation Andrew also. To comma or not to comma, that is a question.

  3. Your point about Lewis and the use of commas is interesting for two reasons. One point which needs to be considered is the fact that only those who have studied Lewis’s original manuscripts or letters would no for certain how he used punctuation. For example, “The Discarded Image” was edited by others at Cambridge University Press. So we cannot simply say that your example from that book shows us how Lewis used punctuation.

    Secondly, as one who has written extensively about Lewis and led countless book discussions on his works I often hear how frustrated people are with Lewis’s punctuation. This frustration fails to take into account how grammar and punctuation changes over time. Standards have changed even since the time I was in grad school in the late 80’s. How much more rules regarding punctuation must have changed since Lewis’s time!

    • Will

      Some really good points there, especially about how Lewis’s books were edited. The thing about standards changing over time is that that can be good or bad. I believe that language, especially english, is incredibly flexible and adaptable. But I also believe that there has been a great change in the ontology of language in the 20th century, continuing to this day. It’s the shift to radical conventionalism and it’s harmful to community and human relations.

      While I love to watch the life of language reveal itself over time, I find this Tower of Babel approach a matter of concern. Christos Yannaras has some thoughts worth reflecting on in his Postmodern Metaphysics.

      Thanks for your input, Will. Good to have you by.

  4. I am not a grammar expert, but plan to become one beginning next year when my oldest student begins third grade.

    I have always loved the final comma in a list, and sometime in college a professor told me how “outdated” that was. I thought that this was suspect, but when I looked it up I found out it was true! But I have never been comfortable with the New Way of Doing Things, and I have missed my commas dearly.

    I have invited them back to my writing, and they have agreed to join me. Thank you for reuniting us!

  5. I would say that the comma doesn’t belong in the Lewis sentence because it’s not a compound sentence; it’s just a compound verb, and commas aren’t used between compound verbs. Many of my students make this mistake, and I correct them using this logic. I adore grammar, but it’s immensely frustrating to me that sources don’t agree on usage. But I guess that’s part of what make language so interesting.

    • Womanofthehouse

      You are formally correct, if my memory serves, but I think he’s using the comma (or the editor is) in a more rhetorical way. My take is that he is trying to drive the second clause to a greater degree of subordination with the comma.

      I think that’s OK, but I’d have to think about it. My real focus drifted when I got to that quotation, as it is wont to do in a blog. I should have just stayed on the serial comma.


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