GateHouse — There are a lot of incredibly easy ways to anger people who write for a living: plagiarize their work, create a website of links to their stuff and call it “The Huffington Post” or present them a pie chart illustrating their 20-year income projection, then overlay that with a pie chart illustrating same for whoever the shortstop is on the fourth-place Chicago Cubs.
But if you really want to stick it to a writer, if you really want to jab the proverbial pen in his unproverbial eye (it stings more if it’s unproverbial), say something on Twitter about the serial comma. (For those of you who grew up, say, playing sports, that’s the last comma in a series. It is also known as the Oxford comma, and is frequently beaten up by the other, cooler commas.)
This is what I did last week, very offhandedly, almost unhandedly, after receiving a relatively minor but highly accurate correction from a friend in New York City who primarily plays “jazz music” when he’s not finding himself unusually moved by the grammatical misgivings of dimwit quote-fingers humor writers in states that contain very little jazz at all.
Josh, helpfully and correctly, wrote the following: “The sentence at hand is: ‘Jeff Vrabel is a writer, humor columnist, music critic, father of a seven-year-old future Disney World monorail engineer and graying print-media apologist based on the coast of South Carolina.’ The current construction has the possibility of being read in a way that says you are the father of a graying print-media apologist based on the coast of South Carolina. This may be true. But I think a simple ol’ serial comma would do the trick.”
My thoughtful response, having been raised for years on a steady, nutritious diet of AP style, was this: “AND FLAUNT AP STYLE ARE YOU MAD?” which was actually less a response and more a bolt of jagged blue death-lightning rocketing out from my fingers.
This, in essence, was like publicly ordering a Predator drone strike over wherever Strunk and White live.
“AP is for idiots,” Josh replied. “No offense.”
AP IS FOR IDIOTS. The very words cut to the heart of my bones, bones that have been well-coated in the dark, sticky, sarcastic evil you cannot help but absorb working in newspaper copy desks, the landing zones for people who undergo intensive schooling for the privilege of correcting, at 11:30 p.m., the writing abilities of people who have been either in bed or drinking beer for hours. (These days if they’re lucky, copy editors also get to lay out sports agate pages and/or business briefs for papers in unrelated states.)
“There is NO solid defense for not using a serial comma, and MANY good arguments for using it,” Josh continued, his extremely capitalized words slashing again at my weakened soul. “Fowler, Garner, Follett — they all agree,” he continued, sounding definitive enough that I couldn’t bring myself to admit that I had no idea who in the hell those people were.
This went on for a while, and though the play-by-play gets even more deliriously exciting, if you can believe it, it ended with my relenting and including the serial comma in the offending sentence, because when it comes right down to it, I’ll throw out 18 years of education because a Brooklyn sax player tells me to.
Anyway, like everyone, I thought I’d share the raging inanities of my everyday existence on Twitter, where I found quickly that the Oxford comma DRIVES PEOPLE BONKERS on both sides of the aisle. “End the Oxford tyranny!” shouted @timdonnelly. “I find your hatred of serial commas stupid, confusing, and ungrammatical,” snarked @dslifton. “I never knew what it was called, but I refuse to give it up. It’s a comma of honor for me,” argued @kenshane, who continued, “I’m really formal about these things. I spell out Avenue and Street. I’d spell out the entire state name if they’d let me.”
The question remains: Does anyone who wasn’t directly involved in the AP’s shocking “email” revision give a hot toot about this? You could certainly argue that the breakdown of AP style presages the breakdown of writing. Because if there’s no newspaper, why is there a newspaper style? Why not SPONTANEOUSLY CAPITALIZE THINGS when needed, or, sometimes, for no discernible purpose, keep a sentence going beyond all hope of a reasonable conclusion in the pursuit of teasing the reader, should he or she still be inexplicably interested in figuring out where it’s going, that some sort of resolution is coming when in fact it is totally not. Why not take a HACKSAW to the idea of appropriately abbreviated state names! Will my son know only the unimaginable horror of visiting Boulder, Color., or Wilmington, Nor. Carol.? You could also argue that it’s a comma, and that in the time I’ve spent thinking about this I could have listened to a jazz record or two.