To Stop a Serial Comma Killer

To Stop a Serial Comma Killer

Passions Run High

It is no secret that I am a fan of the “Chicago comma.” You may know it as the serial comma or the “Oxford comma.” According to Lexico:

The Oxford comma is an optional comma before the word ‘and’ at the end of a list:

We sell books, videos, and magazines.

It’s known as the Oxford comma because it was traditionally used by printers, readers, and editors at Oxford University Press.  Not all writers and publishers use it, but it can clarify the meaning of a sentence when the items in a list are not single words:

These items are available in black and white, red and yellow, and blue and green.

The Oxford comma is also known as the serial comma.

I’ve been on a campaign to rebrand the generic serial comma as the “Chicago comma,” at least on this side of the pond. The claim may be disputed, but it’s clear from Oxford, Chicago, and the Serial Comma that Chicago is about six pages more passionate about the subject than Oxford, so fight me.

AP Style calls for its omission unless the meaning would be unclear without it. Since the meaning is always clearer with it, I choose to ignore AP and cry, “Fake news!” At least I will never end up on a list of hilarious serial comma omissions.

That Time I Stopped a Serial Comma Killer

Once upon a time, I worked as a fledgling technical writer for a large corporation. The department secretary was my first editor, and I must preface this whole sordid tale by saying that I still rank her among the best editors I’ve worked with throughout my career. I have worked with some who were worth their weight in gold, quite literally; I think Judy L. may have been one of the most underappreciated, but not by me.

Except for this one time. You see, Judy was a “serial comma killer.” I insisted on inserting that final comma before the coordinating conjunction at the end of a series of things, and she’d take it right back out again – every time. She argued that it was not appropriate in “business writing”; I insisted that it was like the “Little Black Dress” of punctuation, and could never be out of place. Finally, I went to the bookstore on my lunch hour to gather evidence that would satisfy any judge and jury. (I was also in law school, at the time, and I have always felt the need to back up my arguments with facts.) I could not afford a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style, back then, but after perusing the many style guides on the bookstore shelves, I settled on two that looked authoritative enough: AP Stylebook and Gregg Reference Manual.

It was here that my venture turned Machiavellian. Gregg was a well-known name in the secretarial profession. Gregg also wrote the most widely accepted textbooks for typing and shorthand. Gregg would be a trusted authority for my “serial comma killer.” The only problem? Gregg agreed with me. AP agreed with her. I took the books to the office and made the “serial comma killer” a deal: Choose your expert (without flipping through the books) and we shall forever keep our peace, following its dictum.”

Of course, she chose Gregg.

I won, I won, I won!! 

I was very young. Years later, I realized that the corporate style guide probably agreed with Judy, and that in corporate writing-for-hire, the in-house style guide is king. She could have thrown the book – a sharp-edged, three-ring binder – at me, but didn’t. Odds are good that only three people had ever read it: the author, Judy, and my boss. Given that I was writing for an internal audience (not for customers), it wasn’t exactly the hill anyone else wanted to die on.

Years later, writing for an external audience, I would do battle over “title case” vs. “all lowercase” or “sentence case” for headings in user guides. But that’s a tale I’ll take to my grave…

Punctuation Check-up: The Doctor Will See You Now!

Punctuation Check-up: The Doctor Will See You Now!

Terminal Punctuation Disease

Fortunately, there’s help for terminal punctuation disease – it needn’t be fatal, after all. You won’t find it in an online pharmacy, but you don’t have to cross the border. Just sit back and pay attention.

Ending, or terminal, punctuation marks always go inside quotation marks. For example:

“John said he’d do that on Tuesday,” said Mary.

The quoted line of dialogue ends in a comma, since the sentence isn’t really finished until the period after Mary. The word said is not capitalized.

“Where are you going?” asked Jane.

Jane is asking a question; therefore, you can’t substitute a comma for the quesiton mark without losing meaning. You still don’t capitalize the word asked.

“I’m going to check up on him.” Mary grabbed her keys. “I want to be sure he’s done it.”

Here, the word Mary starts a new sentence. The periods in the quoted lines of dialogue go inside the quotation marks.

Like every other rule in English, there are exceptions:

Have you ever seen a “jackalope”?
I’ve never seen a “jackalope.”

In American English (because of fairly archaic typographical conventions), a period always goes inside all quotation marks. Cultural norms vary, so don’t be telling the Brits they’re wrong about this, just nod and go along with them. They think they invented the language. But a question mark that is not part of the phrase or sentence inside the quotation marks rightfully belongs on the outside, even if you’re a Yank.

Get Your Annual Semicolon Checkup Here!

I’m not sure why the poor semicolon gets such a bad rap, and is so underused, overused, and generally abused by writers. It’s simple, really.

First, we’ll look at different ways to join two independent clauses. Independent clauses are basically phrases that could stand alone as sentences in their own right, but are so closely joined in thought that they ought to be married, or at least shacking up. For example:

Mary loved her red shoes. They made her feet look dainty.

There is nothing at all wrong with leaving these individual sentences alone, except that one completes the other, and apart, they look choppy.

Next, you decide how you want to join them:

  • with a comma and a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so);
  • with a semicolon by itself;
  • with a semicolon, a conjunctive adverb (however, therefore, nevertheless, finally), and a comma; or,
  • with a semicolon, a transitional phrase (as a result, in other words, for example, in fact), and a comma

Joining them with a comma, by itself, creates the dreaded comma splice.

“And what is so awful about that?” you ask.

A comma splice is awkward, because the reader gets halfway into the second sentence before it dawns on them that the first sentence is completed. A comma, alone, isn’t designed to signal the transition from one completed thought to the next.

So, you could write either of the following:

Mary loved her red shoes, and they made her feet look dainty.
Mary loved her red shoes; they made her feet look dainty.

There are other uses for the semicolon, of course. You can use it to separate complex list items. Perhaps you have the following on your grocery list: a pat of butter; two pounds of chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry ice cream; three pounds of chopped walnuts, lightly glazed; and so on. This is very useful when the list items, themselves, contain commas. Try writing the previous list, using commas instead of the semicolons, and you’ll see what I mean. Do I want two pounds of chocolate? A bottle of vanilla extract? How much strawberry ice cream? Or do I want two pounds of chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry ice cream?

Semicolons do have their detractors. It’s only fair to warn you that some writers could happily live their entire lives without employing the hard-working semicolon.

Better a Colon than a Fleet Enema

Did you notice that I introduced that grocery list, above, with a colon? Slipped that in on you, didn’t I? Might as well cover the colon while we’re at it because it’s even simpler than the semicolon, and it’s quite useful at times. Think of the colon as the ambassador of punctuation, introducing the reader to a word, a phrase, a whole sentence, a quotation, or a list. For example:

Joe said he only wants three things for Christmas: world peace, a healthy baby, and a new MP3 player.

Jayne said it best: “My friends will always come first, for without them, there’s no joy in life.”

He excels in only one thing: procrastination.

Note this carefully: you must never use a colon right after a verb. If you say “My favorite TV shows are ER, C.S.I., and Little House on the Prairie,” the verb are is performing the introduction, so the semicolon would be redundant. Try saying “namely” in place of the colon. If the sentence reads fairly smoothly, then chances are, you’re using it right. If it reads as smoothly as a pig walks on stilts, try eliminating the colon or rephrasing the sentence.

Dieresis

If you read “dieresis” and thought I was going to discuss kidney ailments, just close the browser and back away slowly… If you know what a dieresis is, you’re good to go – you can take off the little paper gown and pay the receptionist on your way out.

The dieresis is a diacritical mark (two dots) placed over the second vowel in a pair of vowels to indicate that it is pronounced as a separate and distinct sound, rather than as a diphthong (two vowels blended together like sour cream and onion) or a silent vowel; for example, coördinate. This isn’t critical knowledge for the modern writer of English, and people will no doubt look at you oddly if you make a habit of using the dieresis, which looks a lot like the umlaut (for you German speakers) but serves a completely different function. It does, however, aid in pronunciation, and I think The New Yorker is right to continue using it.

There now. I’ll bet your writing is feeling better already! Now head on over to the Grammar Mood Doc and let’s deal with that Past Perfect, Perfectly Passive-Aggressive Voice

Past Perfect, Perfectly Passive-Aggressive Voice

Past Perfect, Perfectly Passive-Aggressive Voice

How to Start a Flamewar Between Writers

Once upon a time, I ran an online writing forum on what is now a defunct, pre-Internet, online service no one remembers. I hired a woman to run a beginners’ writing workshop covering the basics: grammar, punctuation, and general style. In exchange for once-weekly lessons, she got a free VIP account that gave her access to the entire service.

The first night, no one but the instructor, two of my professional writer friends, and I showed up. It was just as well — this gave us a good, relaxing opportunity to do a practice run-through without real students. For some reason, the instructor decided to tackle the age old issue of “Active vs. Passive Voice” for the first lesson. Well, bravo. I’d have started with commas. Simple, declarative sentences in present or simple past tense. But sure — let’s dive in with one of the most controversial and hostility-inducing topics you can throw, like a grenade, into a cocktail party full of writers.

The only thing worse would have been: “Semicolons: Pro or Con?”

The instructor launched into an authoritative lecture on how to construct a passive sentence, typing into the chat window: “Any sentence where ‘to be’ or ‘to have’ are used as ‘helper verbs’ is said to be ‘passive voice.’ For example, ‘The detectives had moved to the city — ”

“Hang on a sec,” I typed.

“Am I going too fast?” she typed back.

I have a degree in English — Rhetoric & Writing, if I want to sound snotty about it — but I obsessively fact-check myself before fact-checking others. “No,” I said, stalling while I combed the pages of several grammar books I had sitting on my bookshelf. There. “No, just… are you sure about this? Isn’t that just past perfect tense?”

“No, it’s passive voice.”

“Mmm, I think it’s past perfect tense. The detectives had moved — they moved themselves. If you’d said, ‘The detectives had been moved,’ it would have been past, um, perfect and passive voice.”

“No, you see the ‘had’ there? That’s what makes it passive.”

“No, you need to add ‘been’ — had been moved — by some implied other person or entity.”

“No, you’re wrong.”

“I’m sorry, but you are incorrect. Please double check this before giving a class on it.”
The next thing the instructor typed had us all sitting there open-mouthed. “FUCK YOU!” She disconnected from the network. I pictured her ripping the modem cord from her own wall in a fit of pique.

“Did she just — ”

“Yep.” The three of us who were left all typed ROFL, LOL, and LMAO simultaneously. I quickly composed a note to send her, as I shut down her VIP account: “Your resignation has been accepted.”

Now there’s an example of the past perfect, passive aggressive voice.

Is Passive Voice a Vice?

There’s nothing inherently evil about passive voice. However, when it is used to shirk responsibility for an action, or to absolve a known actor of responsibility, then it is shoddy writing. It can be wordy, too.

  • Active: Margie fed us sandwiches.
  • Passive: We were fed sandwiches [by Margie].
  • Passive: We were given sandwiches and shooed out the door.

That last example may have reasons for being. Who gave us sandwiches and shooed us out the door may be less important than the fact that we were fed and shoved outside.

Active and passive: Mom believed that children should play outside, in the fresh air, so we were given sandwiches and shooed out the door to roam the neighborhood on sunny days.

In this last example, it’s clear who is doing the giving and the shooing. The focus isn’t on Mom, but on us. That said, we could write the same sentence without passive voice at all: Mom believed that children should play outside, in the fresh air, so she gave us sandwiches and shooed us out the door to roam the neighborhood on sunny days.

Either is correct, but there is a subtle shift of focus — in the latter example, Mom gets most of the focus. If the story is about us, then passive voice may work a little bit better. It’s a choice. Either works; neither is spawn of the writing devil.

The real problem with passive voice is in reporting facts:

Active: “Joe Smith raped the woman” vs. Passive: “The woman was raped”

Active: “Mr. Carter stole $30,000 from the bank” vs. Passive: “$30,000 was embezzled”

When it is used to obscure and deflect, passive voice gets a well-deserved bad reputation.

Want to start a flamewar? Go to a writing conference and ask, “But really, what’s wrong with passive voice?” Once the brawl starts, say, “You have been HAD. Peace out!” and leave.