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The Best Shots Fired in the Oxford Comma Wars

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The Oxford comma, so-called because the Oxford University Press style guidelines require it, is the comma before the conjunction at the end of a list. If your preferred style is to omit the second comma in "red, white, and blue," you are aligned with the anti-Oxford comma faction. The pro-Oxford comma faction is more vocal and numerous in the US, while in the UK, anti-Oxford comma reigns. (Oxford University is an outsider, style-wise, in its own land.) In the US, book and magazine publishers are generally pro, while newspapers are anti, but both styles can be found in both media.

The two main rationales for choosing one style over the other are clarity and economy. Each side has invoked both rationales in its favor. Here are some quotes that have served as shots exchanged in the Oxford comma wars.

Pro: "She took a photograph of her parents, the president, and the vice president."

This example from the Chicago Manual of Style shows how the comma is necessary for clarity. Without it, she is taking a picture of two people, her mother and father, who are the president and vice president. With it, she is taking a picture of four people.

Con: "Those at the ceremony were the commodore, the fleet captain, the donor of the cup, Mr. Smith, and Mr. Jones."

This example from the 1934 style book of the New York Herald Tribune shows how a comma before "and" can result in a lack of clarity. With the comma, it reads as if Mr. Smith was the donor of the cup, which he was not.

Pro: "Zinovieff shot over five hundred of the bourgeoisie at a stroke—nobles, professors, officers, journalists, men and women."

George Ives, the author of a 1921 guide to the usage style of the Atlantic Monthly Press, gives this example to show how making the comma before "and" standard practice is more economical. This way, the reader will know for sure that if it's missing, there's a good reason. Here the reading is that there were both men and women among the nobles, professors, officers, and journalists. Without the expectation of the Oxford comma, the reader has to work harder to figure out that men and women aren't two additional groups on the list.

Con: "There are certain places where for the sake of clarity and good form the presence of a comma is obligatory, but on the other hand a too liberal use of this form of punctuation tends to slow up the pace of the reading matter and to create confusion and hesitancy in the mind of the reader."

The 1937 New York Times style guide put economy on the side of the no comma rule. Use when necessary—otherwise, it's just clutter to slow you down.

Pro: "...use the comma between all members of a series, including the last two, on the commonsense ground that to do so will preclude ambiguities and annoyances at negligible cost."

Wilson Follett, in his 1966 Modern American Usage, advocates for the comma on the grounds that it can't really hurt.

Con: "All those commas make the flag seem rained on. They give it a furled look. Leave them out, and Old Glory is flung to the breeze, as it should be."

This complaint was addressed to Harold Ross, the founding editor of the New Yorker, by James Thurber, who preferred "the red white and blue" to "the red, white, and blue." Ross, a notorious defender of the serial comma, was impressed by Thurber's argument and responded, "write a piece about it, and I'll punctuate the flag any way you want it—in that one piece."

Pro: "This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God"

A probably apocryphal book dedication, this example has been a favorite of pro-Oxford comma language blogs for a while. Without the comma before "and," you get a rather intriguing set of parents.

Con: "The English are rather more careful than we are, and commonly put a comma after the next-to-last member of a series, but otherwise are not too precise to offend a red-blooded American."

H.L. Mencken, who did not use the serial comma himself, implies, in this quote tucked into a supplement to The American Language, that there is something prissy, pedantic, and altogether un-American about the extra comma.

?: "By train, plane and sedan chair, Peter Ustinov retraces a journey made by Mark Twain a century ago. The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector."

Languagehat dug this gem out of a comment thread on the serial comma. It's from a TV listing in The Times. It supports the use of the Oxford comma, but only because it keeps Mandela from being a dildo collector. However, even the Oxford comma can't keep him from being an 800-year-old demigod. There's only so much a comma can do.

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10 Facts About Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary
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October 16 is World Dictionary Day, which each year celebrates the birthday of the American lexicographer Noah Webster, who was born in Connecticut in 1758. Last year, Mental Floss marked the occasion with a list of facts about Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language—the enormous two-volume dictionary, published in 1828 when Webster was 70 years old, that established many of the differences that still divide American and British English to this day. But while Webster was America’s foremost lexicographer, on the other side of the Atlantic, Great Britain had Dr. Samuel Johnson.

Johnson—whose 308th birthday was marked with a Google Doodle in September—published the equally groundbreaking Dictionary of the English Language in 1755, three years before Webster was even born. Its influence was arguably just as great as that of Webster’s, and it remained the foremost dictionary of British English until the early 1900s when the very first installments of the Oxford English Dictionary began to appear.

So to mark this year’s Dictionary Day, here are 10 facts about Johnson’s monumental dictionary.

1. IT WASN’T THE FIRST DICTIONARY.

With more than 40,000 entries, Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was certainly the largest dictionary in the history of the English language at the time but, despite popular opinion, it wasn’t the first. Early vocabularies and glossaries were being compiled as far back as the Old English period, when lists of words and their equivalents in languages like Latin and French first began to be used by scribes and translators. These were followed by educational word lists and then early bilingual dictionaries that began to emerge in the 16th century, which all paved the way for what is now considered the very first English dictionary: Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall—in 1604.

2. SAMUEL JOHNSON BORROWED FROM THE DICTIONARIES THAT CAME BEFORE HIS.

In compiling his dictionary, Johnson drew on Nathan Bailey’s Dictionarium Britanicum, which had been published in 1730. (Ironically, a sequel to Bailey’s dictionary, A New Universal Etymological English Dictionary, was published in the same year as Johnson’s, and borrowed heavily from his work; its author, Joseph Nicoll Scott, even gave Johnson some credit for its publication.)

But just as Johnson had borrowed from Bailey and Scott had borrowed from Johnson, Bailey, too had borrowed from an earlier work—namely John Kersey’s Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum (1708)—which was based in part on a technical vocabulary, John Harris’s Universal English Dictionary of Arts and Sciences. Lexicographic plagiarism was nothing new.

3. THE DICTIONARY WASN’T THE ONLY THING JOHNSON WROTE.

Although he’s best remembered as a lexicographer today, Johnson was actually something of a literary multitasker. As a journalist, he wrote for an early periodical called The Gentlemen’s Magazine. As a biographer, he wrote the Life of Mr Richard Savage (1744), a memoir of a friend and fellow writer who had died the previous year. Johnson also wrote numerous poems (London, published anonymously in 1738, was his first major published work), a novel (Rasselas, 1759), a stage play (Irene, 1749), and countless essays and critiques. He also co-edited an edition of Shakespeare’s plays. And in between all of that, he even found time to investigate a supposed haunted house in central London.

4. IT WAS THE FIRST DICTIONARY TO USE QUOTATIONS.

Johnson’s dictionary defined some 42,773 words, each of which was given a uniquely scholarly definition, complete with a suggested etymology and an armory of literary quotations—no fewer than 114,000 of them, in fact.

Johnson lifted quotations from books dating back to the 16th century for the citations in his dictionary, and relied heavily on the works of authors he admired and who were popular at the time—Shakespeare, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Edmund Spenser included. In doing so, he established a lexicographic trend that still survives in dictionaries to this day.

5. IT TOOK MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS TO WRITE.

Defining 42,000 words and finding 114,000 quotes to help you do so takes time: Working from his home off Fleet Street in central London, Johnson and six assistants worked solidly for over eight years to bring his dictionary to print. (Webster, on the other hand, worked all but single-handedly, and used the 22 years it took him to compile his American Dictionary to learn 26 different languages.)

6. JOHNSON WAS WELL PAID FOR HIS TROUBLES.

Johnson was commissioned to write his dictionary by a group of London publishers, who paid him a princely 1,500 guineas—equivalent to roughly $300,000 (£225,000) today.

7. HE LEFT OUT A LOT OF WORDS.

The dictionary’s 42,000-word vocabulary might sound impressive, but it’s believed that the English language probably had as many as five times that many words around the time the dictionary was published in 1755. A lot of that shortfall was simply due to oversight: Johnson included the word irritable in four of his definitions, for instance, but didn’t list it as a headword in his own dictionary. He also failed to include a great many words found in the works of the authors he so admired, and in several of the source dictionaries he utilized, and in some cases he even failed to include the root forms of words whose derivatives were listed elsewhere in the dictionary. Athlete, for instance, didn’t make the final cut, whereas athletic did.

Johnson’s imposition of his own tastes and interests on his dictionary didn't help matters either. His dislike of French, for example, led to familiar words like unique, champagne, and bourgeois being omitted, while those he did include were given a thorough dressing down: ruse is defined as “a French word neither elegant nor necessary,” while finesse is dismissed as “an unnecessary word that is creeping into the language."

8. HE LEFT OUT THE LETTER X.

    At the foot of page 2308 of Johnson’s Dictionary is a note merely reading, “X is a letter which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language."

    9. HIS DEFINITIONS WEREN’T ALWAYS SO SCHOLARLY.

      As well as imposing his own taste on his dictionary, Johnson also famously employed his own sense of humor on his work. Among the most memorable of all his definitions is his explanation of oats as “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” But he also defined monsieur as “a term of reproach for a Frenchman,” excise as “a hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property but wretches hired by those to whom excise is paid,” and luggage as “anything of more weight than value.” As an example of how to use the word dull, he explained that “to make dictionaries is dull work.”

      10. HE POKED LOTS OF FUN AT HIS OWN OCCUPATION.

      Listed on page 1195 of his dictionary, Johnson’s definition of lexicographer was “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge.”

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      This Game About Soup Highlights How Tricky Language Is
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      Something Something Soup Something

      Soup, defined by Merriam-Webster as "a liquid food especially with a meat, fish, or vegetable stock as a base and often containing pieces of solid food," is the ultimate simple comfort food. But if you look closer at the definition, you'll notice it's surprisingly vague. Is ramen soup? What about gumbo? Is a soy vanilla latte actually a type of three-bean soup? The subjectivity of language makes this simple food category a lot more complicated than it seems.

      That’s the inspiration behind Something Something Soup Something, a new video game that has players label dishes as either soup or not soup. According to Waypoint, Italian philosopher, architect, and game designer Stefano Gualeni created the game after traveling the world asking people what constitutes soup. After interviewing candidates of 23 different nationalities, he concluded that the definition of soup "depends on the region, historical period, and the person with whom you're speaking."

      Gualeni took this real-life confusion and applied it to a sci-fi setting. In Something Something Soup Something, you play as a low-wage extra-terrestrial worker in the year 2078 preparing meals for human clientele. Your job is to determine which dishes pass as "soup" and can be served to the hungry guests while avoiding any items that may end up poisoning them. Options might include "rocks with celery and batteries in a cup served with chopsticks" or a "foamy liquid with a candy cane and a cooked egg served in a bowl with a fork."

      The five-minute game is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but Gualeni also hopes to get people thinking about real philosophical questions. According to its description page, the game is meant to reveal "that even a familiar, ordinary concept like 'soup' is vague, shifting, and impossible to define exhaustively."

      You can try out Something Something Soup Something for free on your browser.

      [h/t Waypoint]

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