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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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Here's the Right Way to Pronounce Kitchenware Brand Le Creuset

If you were never quite sure how to pronounce the name of beloved French kitchenware brand Le Creuset, don't fret: For the longest time, southern chef, author, and PBS personality Vivian Howard wasn't sure either.

In this video from Le Creuset, shared by Food & Wine, Howard prepares to sear some meat in her bright orange Le Creuset pot and explains, "For the longest time I had such a crush on them but I could never verbalize it because I didn’t know how to say it and I was so afraid of sounding like a big old redneck." Listen closely as she demonstrates the official, Le Creuset-endorsed pronunciation at 0:51.

Le Creuset is known for its colorful, cast-iron cookware, which is revered by pro chefs and home cooks everywhere. The company first introduced their durable pots to the world in 1925. Especially popular are their Dutch ovens, which are thick cast-iron pots that have been around since the 18th century and are used for slow-cooking dishes like roasts, stews, and casseroles.

[h/t Food & Wine]

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25 Great Insults From 18th Century British Slang
Francis Grose
Francis Grose
Wikimedia Commons// Public Domain

For history buffs with a personal score to settle, "You jerk" just doesn't have the same ring as "You unlicked cub," an insult from Georgian England. And there's more where that came from if you browse through English lexicographer Francis Grose's A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, first published in 1785 and recently spotted by the Public Domain Review. The anthology is filled with slang words and terms of the kind dictionary scribe Samuel Johnson had previously deemed unfit for his influential A Dictionary of the English Language (1755). Below are some of the tome's most hilarious, vivid, and archaic insults, arranged in alphabetical order for your put-down pleasure. (And if you need more inspiration, here's some Victorian slang for good measure.)

1. ADDLE PATE

"An inconsiderate foolish fellow."

2. BEARD SPLITTER

“A man much given to wenching,” or consorting with prostitutes.

3. A BLOWSE, OR BLOWSABELLA

An unkempt woman. "A woman whose hair is dishevelled, and hanging about her face; a slattern."

4. BLUNDERBUSS

“A stupid, blundering fellow.”

5. BOB TAIL

“A lewd woman, or one that plays with her tail; also an impotent man, or an eunich.”

6. BULL CALF

"A great hulkey or clumsy fellow."

7. CORNY-FACED

"A very red pimpled face."

8. DEATH'S HEAD UPON A MOP-STICK

“A poor, miserable, emaciated fellow."

9. DUKE OF LIMBS

“A tall, awkward, ill-made fellow.”

10. FUSSOCK

"A lazy fat woman … a frowzy old woman."

11. GOLLUMPUS

"A large, clumsy fellow."

12. GUNDIGUTS

"A fat, pursy fellow."

13. HANG IN CHAINS

"A vile, desperate fellow.”

14. HEDGE WHORE

An itinerant prostitute, "who bilks the bagnios and bawdy houses, by disposing of her favours on the way side, under a hedge; a low beggarly prostitute.”

15. JACKANAPES

"An ape; a pert, ugly, little fellow."

16. JUST-ASS

"A punning appellation for a justice," or a punny name for a judge.

17. LOBCOCK

“A large relaxed penis, also a dull inanimate fellow.”

18. PUFF GUTS

"A fat man."

19. SCRUB

"A low mean fellow, employed in all sorts of dirty work."

20. SHABBAROON

"An ill-dressed shabby fellow; also a mean-spirited person."

21. SHAG-BAG

"A poor sneaking fellow, a man of no spirit."

22. SQUIRE OF ALSATIA

"A weak profligate spendthrift."

23. TATTERDEMALLION

“A ragged fellow, whose clothes hang all in tatters.”

24. THINGUMBOB

"A vulgar address or nomination to any person whose name is unknown ... Thingum-bobs, testicles."

25. UNLICKED CUB

“A rude uncouth young fellow.”

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