The Oxford, Serial Killer

One thing all of your hosts share here is a love of writing. Except, of course, Mandarin; he prefers shouting at the computer, especially when he reads Drudge. But he’s actually a skilled writer as well.

Our site has the best advice anywhere.

Recently on Twitter—where you had best be following us—we had a delightful exchange about commas. Commas are a tremendous nuisance, frankly, and they cause no end of irritation for the Czar. For example, which of the following two sentences is correct?

I, for one, think the problem is Sleestak’s inability to control his bowels.

I for one think the problem is Sleestak’s inability to control his bowels.

The answer depends; if you are speaking, the first one is more preferable because it puts a parenthetical pause around for one as if you were calling attention to your own opinion. You can hear yourself pause at each comma.

In writing, an astute editor would likely strike out those commas and go with the second one. The commas and their verbal pauses are unnecessary for a reader.

So the rules are often iffy. But, as a rule, people tend to put too many commas, into their writing, as the Czar is showing here. One can usually take out most of the commas and the writing becomes more compact.

If you don’t write as a profession or follow this stuff, you may not know that there is even a long-standing feud about commas, and writers will bicker about the Oxford comma and the serial comma.

Which of the following sentences do you prefer?

Serial—The company has offices in New York, London, Houston, and Toronto.

Oxford—The company has offices in New York, London, Houston and Toronto.

Do you see the difference even? In the Oxford version the comma has been removed after Houston. This preference is the official style of Oxford University although you will find it enforced in many locations, especially here in the States. Many corporations and law firms require the Oxford construction.

Like many rules of style that originate in England, they are based on nonsense. Split infinitives come to mind: there is nothing wrong with them, and the chief objection to their use originated in the late 19th Century when Latin was the craze. In Latin, one does not split infinitives (because one cannot: amāre, “to love,” cannot be split because it’s one word); hence, one does not split “to love” in English. This is pure tripe; splitting infinitives was previously and always allowable in English. In some cases splitting becomes necessary.

The Oxford comma is another; the thought is that one does not need the comma before a conjunction (and); therefore one should omit it.

Here is the problem with it: which lunch would you rather eat?

Serial—Today’s lunch consists of pizza, fruit cup, broccoli, and chocolate ice cream.

Oxford— Today’s lunch consists of pizza, fruit cup, broccoli and chocolate ice cream.

The Czar eats weird things, but broccoli mixed with chocolate sounds awful to him. The Czar and indeed most of the other Gormogon writers here prefer the serial comma; it is far too easy to trick a reader into misunderstanding the Oxford style, and thus it has no place in writing.

Does this sound stupid? Certainly it is, but writers get into loud yelling matches over the Oxford versus serial comma debate.

However, the Czar will remind his fellow writers that when you refer to a location like Boston, Massachusetts, you always put the comma after the state’s name, as well as the city’s. That’s non-negotiable.

With any luck, Confucius* will write in with some of his copious collection of pet peeves in writing. You think the Czar is tough? Try having him edit something of yours sometime. Which he will do. For a fee.

P.S. The Czar participated in a lengthy and enjoyable exchange with follower Mark Spahn concerning the a sentence construction the Czar used in a post quite a while back and whether it was correct. The Czar maintains he was correct, but Mark provided a lot of good evidence to the contrary just as the Czar provided possibly good evidence in support. Writers do that stuff all the time with each other.

*For those who came in late, Confucius is the Gormogons’ Œcumenical Volgi.

About The Czar of Muscovy

Божію Поспѣшествующею Милостію Мы, Дима Грозный Императоръ и Самодержецъ Всероссiйскiй, цѣсарь Московскiй. The Czar was born in the steppes of Russia in 1267, and was cheated out of total control of all Russia by upon the death of Boris Mikhailovich, who replaced Alexander Yaroslav Nevsky in 1263. However, in 1283, our Czar was passed over due to a clerical error and the rule of all Russia went to his second cousin Daniil (Даниил Александрович), whom Czar still resents. As a half-hearted apology, the Czar was awarded control over Muscovy, inconveniently located 5,000 miles away just outside Chicago. He now spends his time seething about this and writing about other stuff that bothers him.