Monday, January 29, 2007

This gives copy editing a bad name

OK, been meaning to get to this for a couple of weeks. Earlier this month, Andrew Beaujon of Washington's City Paper ranted on about how he hates the serial comma. Really. For several hundred words.

I'm hoping he was doing this tongue in cheek (although the intensity of some of the comments that followed indicates that some failed to get the joke, if he was).

My argument against the comma is simple: It's ungrammatical. Here at the copy desk, we hunt down and fix phrases such as "I ate tuna, and crackers for lunch" or "I came for lunch, but stayed for dinner." In both instances the final clause refers to the same subject as the first; they are properly cast, respectively, "I ate tuna and crackers for lunch" and "I came for lunch but stayed for dinner."

But the serial comma ignores this inconvenient fact. If you have three things for lunch, you magically don't have to obey the rules of grammar! Now you can say, "I ate a can of tuna, some sweet corn, and crackers for lunch," or "I came for lunch, got drunk, and stayed for dinner."
Oh, balderdash. First, let's get something straight. Punctuation ain't grammar. They are related, but grammar is the way words go together. Punctuation aids in that meaning, but punctuation is punctuation with its own esoterica, style and rules. Punctuation is, at its simplest, a system of marks overlaid on a grammar (there are many "grammars") to make the particular grammar (and thus meaning) clearer.

Now under our common system I ate tuna, and crackers for lunch is nonstandard use, but it is not nongrammatical. In fact, an author attempting to establish the halting speech of a character might well use the comma this way (no, we wouldn't normally use it in newspapers or magazines like the City Paper, but I am just trying to show that Beaujon's wandering around in the outfield here). It would not be ungrammatical for the writer to use it that way if that is the effect (sort of a subgrammar) the writer intended and its effect was clear enough from the context so as not to be so jarring. As for his second example, I came for lunch but stayed for dinner, no less than the exalted (or villified, depending on your view) Strunk & White sanction allowing -- not mandating -- the use of the comma with but in all cases (Elements of Style, 4th Ed. - page 5)

Whether to use the serial, or Oxford, comma is simply a style issue (in fact, as the Columbia Guide to Standard American English notes, it's really a British vs. American thing, and not what you might think from the name -- and Mr. Strunk himself prescribed its use). It's this sort of overblown pettiness that truly gives copy editors a bad name. At least the dcist blog had a light sendup of Beaujon's rant.

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