Comma police, arrest this man, or, Diary of a Serial Comma

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. 

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[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P_i1xk07o4g]

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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.”

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Respect Sextet – TTT

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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.

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About Jeff Vrabel

My writing has appeared in GQ, Men’s Health, Success, the Washington Post, the official BruceSpringsteen.net, Indianapolis Monthly, Billboard, Modern Bride and more. View all posts by Jeff Vrabel

17 responses to “Comma police, arrest this man, or, Diary of a Serial Comma

  • Mindy

    Color me stupid, I thought you could do it either way. 🙂

    Like

  • Mom

    I’m with AP and my son on this one. It is correct to leave the comma out. The last two items in a series should be connected with an “and”. Now I’m off to write my novel. Oh, wait, I’m not a writer:)

    Like

  • Pandea Smith

    I didn’t realize it was a ‘style’ to leave commas out, so whenever I read a newspaper article with obviously missing commas (per the rules taught me by my high school English teacher)I just assume the journalist and/or editor are either stupid or lazy. Or maybe I cut them a little slack and assume someone is horribly overworked and can’t see the mistake. Nah!

    Like

    • Jeff Vrabel

      Quite the contrary; we’re the sort of people who will literally hold grudges against others for months because of copy-editing kerfuffles. I’ve been involved in like six of those. Ain’t pretty.

      Like

  • J

    I adore that comma, but only because it SOUNDS correct to me. My rule of thumb is that the comma is supposed to suggest a very slight pause in speech. I wouldn’t say I want lettuce, tomato and turkey on my sandwich, I’d say I want lettuce, tomato, and turkey, with a little pause there. I don’t care who tells me otherwise. But I also like to have my period on the outside of the quotation marks, because duh, that just makes more sense as well.

    Like

  • Bradshaw

    Did the AP ever tell you about the difference between “Flaunt” and “Flout”?

    God, I miss copy editing.

    Like

  • CommaPolice

    What’s next, a debate on so-called LOGICAL PUNCTUATION?? AP Stye rules are all about space-conservation and aesthetics. That Oxford comma looks like a sad vestige hanging there unwanted, a last circus car lost and lingering well after the parade of prose has passed.

    Like

  • Brett Hall

    Your article has 63 commas. My mind just blew.

    What about punctuation/parenthesis styles. Totally. Illogical. Especially for a programmer, where the ( and the ) encapsulate a complete idea.

    Like

  • Dave Lifton

    I’m glad you fixed the bio. Now if only you could do something about the awkwardness of “Both how I’m living and my nose is large.”

    Like

  • lee lee

    Loved the article, Jeff. Commas are as commas do, if you ask me. In other words, you DO or DO NOT need a comma depending on your purpose, audience and a whole lot of other bullshit that your English teacher should teach you along with teaching you to put that {serial} comma in. Getting upset over a difference in usage would be like Tiger Woods walking into Fenway Park and start ranting about how they haven’t mowed the grass properly. HOWEVUH…Getting upset about a “lack” of usage (e.g. writer is fat, stupid, lazy, bald, etc.), is a matter of national pride, if you’re an English teacher anyway.

    p.s. The comma just before your “because when” clause really annoys me. Note my restraint in *not* pointing that out!!!

    Like

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