"strippers, JFK and Stalin" or "strippers, JFK, and Stalin"

Today's selection -- from Rebel with a Clause by Ellen Jovin. In her very clever book on grammar Ellen Jovin brings to the page her experience answering questions posed to her at The Grammar Table. An ad hoc table she set up around the country to answer the public's grammar questions. Here she fields questions on the Oxford comma:

"Whether I am sitting out there in the cold, the heat, the morning, the evening, a big city, or a tiny town, there is one thing I am approached about more than any other topic, by far, and that is the Oxford comma.

'''Oxford comma, yes or no?'

"'Oxford comma or bust!'

"A woman in North Dakota told me, 'Oh my god, I had somebody call me a coastal elite because I was talking about the Oxford comma!'

"In case this term is unfamiliar to you, here is a sentence containing an Oxford comma:

A priest, a nun, and a sloth walked slowly into a bar.

"The Oxford comma is the comma you see right before the 'and' toward the end of that list. The term also ap­plies to a comma before 'or' in a list, though those are less common.

For her seventh birthday, my daughter is hoping for a stuffed brontosaurus, a Venus fiytrap, or slime-eating monsters.

"For something that could be mistaken for a speck of dirt on a page, the Oxford comma -- known less snootily, but also less broadly, as a serial comma, and sometimes also as a series comma -- inspires strong attachments. It is one of the emotional hot-button issues of our time.

"'Tell us what the Oxford comma is,' said a thirty­something man named Dan in Red Cloud, a dot of a Ne­braska town best known for having been home to O Pioneers! and My Antonia author Willa Cather. 'I really want know.'

"He was with his wife, Cori, whose straight brown hair hung far down her back, for a busy summer week­end of Willa Cather tourism. I was sitting in front of the National Willa Cather Center in the Main Street His­toric District, next to a pickup truck from whose bed a friendly woman was selling fresh corn.

"'It appears in a list,' I said, and began writing a sam­ple sentence for them on a notepad. 'I ordered books,' I read aloud as I wrote, 'from Willa Cather,' Theodore Dreiser, and ... Who should be my third?'

"'Who's our favorite?' Cori asked her husband. 'Oh, James Joyce!'

"'James Joyce,' I said, adding it to the end of my list. 'You are hard-core!'

"'We read Finnegans Wake,' Cori told me. 'Together, out loud, and it started the second day we knew each other. Our first date!'

"'When I was in high school,' said Dan, 'there was an upperclassman I looked up to. He would brag about how he had read Finnegans Wake, and that was always a life goal for me. And so --'

'-- we made it happen,' Cori finished his sentence. 'We read it together out loud over three years,' said Dan. 'And it was hilarious -- laughs on every page. And then I ran into this same guy, he was working in a grocery store, and I'm like, "I did it! Remember when you told me you read Finnegans Wake? My girlfriend and I read it to­gether!" And he said, "Aw, man, I was just BS-ing, I never read that." So now we're the only ones we know who have ever read it.'

"I was impressed. I showed Dan and Cori the finished sentence.

I ordered books by Willa Cather, Theodore Dreiser, and James Joyce.

"'The comma after Dreiser is the one they call the Oxford comma,' I said.

"'I do it,' Cori said. 'I do it all the time!' 'Is that good?' asked Dan.

"'You can do it either way,' I said. 'It's highly encour­aged by The Chicago Manual of Style.' I held up Chicago as a visual aid. 'This book is used by a lot of people in the publishing industry. But The Associated Press Style-book, which governs a lot of what you see in newspa­pers, doesn't advocate using it unless it's necessary for clarity.'

"'I'd be in the hard-core camp,' said Cori.

"While we were talking, an education specialist from the Willa Cather Foundation arrived, and the Willa Cather tourists caught her up on the critical details of our conversation.

"'I heart the Oxford comma,' said the specialist, Rebecca, forming a heart shape with her hands.

"'Why?' asked Dan. 'Why is it important to you?'

"'Because there are contextual things that will poten­tially be misconstrued if you don't have that last comma,' Rebecca explained.

"'So you feel like it's lazy to leave it off,' Dan said. 'These people lack character.'

"'No, now you're putting words in my mouth,' she replied.

"To clarify Rebecca's point, I offer you these two sentences from what may be the most shared punctuation meme in meme history:

We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin.

We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.

"In the meme, the first sentence is applauded for its upstanding use of an Oxford comma, while the second is illustrated with JFK and Stalin dressed as strippers. I am unimpressed. I do not feel concerned that anyone reading the second sentence will mistakenly think John F. Kennedy and Joseph Stalin were the invited strippers. Meme accuracy is not a prerequisite for meme popular­ity, however, and the American Oxford comma obsession rages on, even as plenty of people in other languages and countries keep right on functioning without one. That comma may be a national obsession, but it is surely not a global one.

"'I think it's about the cadence,' said Cori. 'I've started a brawl,' Dan said.

"'A grammar brawl!' said Cori.

"'If you could have a brawl,' I said excitedly, 'that'd be great for the Grammar Table documentary!'"

 | www.delanceyplace.com


Ellen Jovin


Rebel with a Clause: Tales and Timps from a Roving Grammarian


Mariner Books


Copyright 2022 by Ellen Jovin


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