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Thursday, December 3, 2009

I is speaking goodly, or, "our friend, the noble comma".

So I have no illusions of being good at grammar, spelling, coherent communication, etc.

However, there is one formal point of grammar about which I think:

1) I'm right with a rightness that is like unto a moral absolute.
2) anyone who disagrees with me is dead wrong. And potentially a communist.

The point in question is the use of commas in a list.

I was always taught in school that when constructing a list separated by commas, that no comma was needed between the second to last item and the "and" that connects it to the last item.

For example, "Justin is awesome, strikingly handsome, erudite and humble without equal."

now there are a LOT of things wrong with that sentence, but I believe the comma use is NOT among their number.

Now before you English majors rise up in revolt, I understand that what seems to be the rest of the civilized world was taught something different. I won't speculate on ythe dastardly purposes for which your instructors felt they needed to pervert logic and have at the English language with the grammatical equivalent of a rakishly wielded cudgel. But for whatever their nefarious purposes, you were taught that the proper end of the example sentence should be as follows:

"...erudite, and humble without equal."

Note the presence of a comma after erudite. In seeming defiance of the "and" that follows it. Now I have never been one to defend any action or idea simply because it was what I was taught to think of as right. An action or idea is right or wrong (or in this case, a challenge to the fundamental liberties we hold dear..) on its own merits.

Toward that point, I offer the following rationale towards the case of omitting the final comma.

1) The commas serve as placeholders for the word "and". So instead of saying "Joe will eat carrots and lettuce and meat and cake", we place commas in the position of the first three "and"s. Therefore:

-"Joe will eat carrots, lettuce, meat and cake." translates to:
-"Joe will eat carrots (and) lettuce (and) meat and cake."
Notice that the last "and" is kept without comma.


2) using a comma before the last "and" is therefore redundant. In the example above, if we were to replace all the commas with "and", including a comma placed before the final "and", we would have redundant "and"s.

-"Joe will eat carrots, lettuce, meat, and cake" translates to
-"Joe will eat carrots (and) lettuce (and) meat (and) and cake."
(notice that the last comma duplicates the purpose of the "and" atthe end of the sentence)

Does this really matter? Well probably not. However, given the righteous indignation I get any time I broach this subject with any of you of the opposing camp, I thought I should make the case:)

As shown, the use of the final comma is redundant. I might also suggest it speaks to a wide-spread international plot against the english language, but that's somewhat harder to support.

All I can say is, "love your country, love freedom and love the proper use of commas in a list."

Anyone who disagrees is obviously on the payroll of the comma industry.

4 comments:

stanford said...

It is almost like we got our grammar education in the same place. It seems like everyone out here who edits my work inserts commas before my ands. I had to go through my entire 450 page dissertation and insert commas before the ands. You logic is impeccable, but I have a further argument...parsimony.

Adding a comma before the and is simply cluttered. My sentences are usually cluttered enough without spurious punctuation (apart form the semi-colons, parentheses and ellipses that I use with reckless abandon and without regard for their intended purposes). I have been so beaten down on this that I almost put a comma after parentheses in the previous parenthetical comment. I am whole heartedly with you on this...but I suspect that I am the only one I know who is.

JMBower said...

I like the parsimony angle. I may have to issue a corollary to my original rant.

I am often guilty of excess comma use in my sentences. So I don't have a really steady moral high ground on which to perch and cast epithets at the heathen end-of-list-comma folk.

I had someone call me out on this item for a 200 page report. They also indicated that I should use it's (or its', it wasn't clear) in place of its for the possessive version of the word (i.e. belonging to it, rather than "it is".)

I let them get away with the comma/and thing because I felt so bad about having to explain the proper use of its/it's to them.

Part of me regrets that decision. The other part enjoys continued employment.

Joel said...

That it's/its thing is burned into my memory from a horrible exchange I heard between Mademoiselle Bissette and Miss Little (the librarian) where they were reading a student paper out loud to each other and saying things like, "Then it went to IT IS home and it at IT IS dinner" and laughing. Every time I start to use the wrong version of it's/its I remember that horrible, cackling laughter and correct myself.

I also put a comma before the "and" in a list, and I refuse to correct myself. We are either both right, or you are wrong. :)

JMBower said...

enjoy your double "and", heathen.