“This passage discusses the main ideas of life, death and suicide.

Here’s a very good argument for retaining the use of the “Oxford comma” (also called the Harvard comma, so elites of both major English-speaking cultures are represented!)—the comma preceding “and” in a series.

Whatever the passage my student was referring to, if she meant her sentence to present a series, the themes of the passage are sweeping, to say the least: Life! Death! Suicide! In other words, all of existence, all of the cessation of existence, and at least one means of transition between the two.

But there’s no comma before the “and,” and so she may not be presenting a series at all; she may be offering a parenthetical clarification: The passage discusses the main ideas of life, which are death and suicide. Here’s a very pessimistic outlook, indeed, wherein most of life is spent contemplating its end and the means to the end.

I don’t really care that in many series the reader knows what the writer means with or without the comma. I can contemplate the sun, moon, and stars; I can contemplate the sun, moon and stars. Any confusion?

On the other hand, “and” occurs in a lot of phrases that can be compound or separate entities. If I bring Scotch and sodas to my guests, am I delivering mixed drinks or alternatives? How about if I serve them wine, Perrier, gin and tonic, Scotch and soda? Hah!

I have several friends who have been cherishing weird news since long before “News of the Weird” became a feature in alternative newspapers; I’m sure you also have such friends, or even ARE such a one. A favorite such story of mine is that of a man who had shot (and killed) his wife, and had received a light sentence. Since the setting was Texas, this fact alone is interesting. His explanation was probably what persuaded the judge to go easy on him: His wife had served him a casserole, after he had repeatedly told her he liked his food “separate.”

Well, that’s how I feel about commas.

What’s the quickest, surest way to teach college students to punctuate? Had they been paying attention in grade school, or even high school, they would have had a chance to learn the “rules” of punctuation (if such things are still taught). Better, had they been avid and attentive readers, particularly of fiction and poetry, they would probably have absorbed good punctuation practices without the impediment of rules and exceptions. But both these learning processes require time. Once students have arrived in college they don’t have much leisure for these basic lessons—even in writing classes we have bigger flounders to fry: analysis, argument, evidence, and clarity.

The quickest way I’ve found is singing—well, sort-of singing. I take one class session to demonstrate for them the vocal behavior represented by each punctuation mark. Punctuation, after all, serves the same purpose in representing speech that rests, accent marks, and note-duration indicators serve in representing music. What’s the difference between a simple descending major scale and “Joy to the World, The Lord Is Come”? Phrasing. Emphasis, duration, and silence. What’s the difference between “I’m hungry! Let’s eat Grandma” and “I’m hungry! Let’s eat, Grandma”? Phrasing. Emphasis, duration, and silence. Once we practice the sounds and silences of punctuation for awhile, we read aloud, and then note the relationship between the phrasing of the sentence and the meaning of the sentence. Then I tell them to listen when they write.

I started doing this with a student many many years ago who was sent to me in the English department’s Writing Clinic by his Creative Writing professor, with this note: “HELP! This kid can’t punctuate to save his soul!” Knowing I couldn’t get very far very fast by reviewing rules, I scrounged around in my own experience and thought of the music analogy. He didn’t play an instrument, but he could sing a little. I spent a total of an hour with him. Two weeks later I ran into his professor. “What did you do with Eric?” he asked. “It’s a miracle. He makes NO errors. The rhythm of his writing has even gotten more interesting.” So I keep doing it. The approach seems to have a higher “success” rate than other methods, at least in my hands.

So: if you hear it, mark it. And by this one “rule” of punctuation, just about every series needs the comma before the “and.”

Perhaps my “main ideas of life” student was not writing a series; perhaps she was a hopeless pessimist. On the basis of a single sentence I can’t really tell. But in a world where the Oxford comma was the standard practice, I would know right away.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

10 responses to ““This passage discusses the main ideas of life, death and suicide.

  • Mary Jane Schaefer

    So, that’s what it’s called. I was taught by the nuns to use that comma, and it’s been very useful to me. I also experience a little flicker of irritation when I’m reading and that particular comma has been omitted. I am extremely fond of the semi-colon; in fact, I’ve gone on record as its being my favorite punctuation mark. Nonetheless, the Oxford comma has been the unsung hero of my punctuation life. Indeed, my unnamed hero. You can’t get more unsung than that!
    It seemed to me that your student was attempting to deal with the issues of Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy. That makes calamity of so long life.

  • RAB

    That’s an interesting guess. I don’t think she was, because the Horror was transcribed in the gradebook of a school where I don’t teach Hamlet. Fits, though—actually makes sense of the sentence!

  • Helen Baumgartner

    I love the musical reference. Sorry to have missed my debut as the fly-on-the-wall in your classroom as you demonstrated vocal behavior. How lucky can they be to have you as their teacher. Reading out loud has always worked for me. How’s the foot? Love, me.

  • Julie C.

    Maybe we should call it the Cambridge comma, encompassing the elites of both major English-speaking cultures in one phrase.

  • yearstricken

    This is an excellent reason to use the Oxford comma. I will borrow your idea of how to teach it. Thank you.

  • Stacey

    This is a great argument for supporting music programs in schools. Indeed, music is language. I’m really enjoying your posts!

    • RAB

      I’m so glad you like the posts. Yes, music and language are close sisters, and the study of one (or appreciation of one) enhances the study of (or appreciation of) the other. Educating the ear…

  • THE OXFORD COMMA. | Pater Familias

    […] OXFORD COMMA. Here is a discussion on RAB’s blog, You Knew What I Meant, of this example of student writing: […]

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