Reviews | English is a Living Language – Period

The supreme example, motivating my laissez-faire on quotation marks, is the Oxford comma, also known by its more everyday nickname, the serial comma. You know: “Philadelphia, Berkeley and New York” rather than “Philadelphia, Berkeley and New York”.

Yes, not using it can cause confusion from time to time. Suppose union rules prohibit you, as a delivery driver, from paying overtime for “canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packaging for ‘dispatch or distribution’ of products such as agricultural products. Have you been denied overtime pay for packing things for shipping and distribution, but are you entitled to overtime pay for just distribution? Only a comma after “shipping” could tell us definitively.

There was a Case it was up to that, and the drivers got their demand to be paid just for the distribution. But sometimes the Oxford comma can cause confusion. Chicago Manual of Style Online FAQ addresses the one-sentence script that goes something along the lines of “To my mother, Mother Teresa and to the Pope”. Is Mother Teresa, then, your mother? Most of the time, the context clearly indicates what is meant, which is why the imposition of the Oxford comma varies so randomly. This journal’s style manual does not require it in most cases. A particularly influential guide in favor is Strunk and White’s “Style elementsbut as I recall, this book takes us unnecessarily away from things like using ‘chair’ as a verb and towards things like ‘this is me’.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the Oxford comma is essentially a matter of what you consider ducks in a proper row. Certainly, it could be used where clarity requires, for example, when the word “and” appears more than once in a series – when the dessert choices are “candies, cookies, cakes and ice cream” – but those who seem to insist on using an Oxford comma in the 99% of cases where it’s not necessary are almost asking for the transgression. The quest to get everyone to write “Philadelphia, Berkeley and New York” is as Sisyphean as asking everyone to check their car’s oil level every month.

Are we not a little too easily attached to rules allowing us to look down on others? To be endlessly picky about such things is, in some ways, one of the last openly acceptable prejudices, a kind of classism that is often overlooked. (2019 from BuzzFeed listicle mocking emphatic quotes was almost too predictable.)

Therefore, I treat emphatic quotes as innovation rather than bastardy. If Golden Age people accepted “‘PATTERN MAKERS'”, then “‘Fresh Fish'” should pass for us moderns.

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John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He hosts the podcastlexicon valley» and is the author, more recently, of «Awakening of racism: How a New Religion Betrayed Black America.