- In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.
OVER THE years there have been a number of typographic conventions that have acquired for me more meaning than their rational application.
They might be thought of as tribal markings. Their semantic meaning is tied up more in identifying the user of the mark as someone who belongs to my tribe (and correspondingly my membership to that tribe). The lack of the mark indicates someone who does not belong, an outsider, a pretender, a faux user of punctuation.
For example, if I find myself in the presence of someone who insists that two spaces must follow a terminal punctuation mark, typically phrased as “two spaces after a period,” I say carefully when I first notice this, unsure how they will take it, that this is not really the convention. “A computer is not a typewriter.”
You are free to never invite me to any dinner parties, ever.
On this first statement, I struggle to keep the tone of the holier-than-thou pedant out of my voice. I’m aware that if I am aware I must struggle to keep the holier-than-thou tone out of my voice has doomed my voice to a holier-than-thou tone in my voice and it is moments like this that I become very sick of myself and wish I could be someone else. I wish I could mainly someone else because I am tired of myself.
About the single space after a period I am righteous. This is indistinguishable from being sanctimonious.
“You do know, don’t you, you should know, you should know like you know how to breathe and how to urinate that there is only a single space after a period, don’t you? If you don’t, I don’t trust you to operate various basic biological systems. You should probably be on life support right now.”
When in fact this matter of canonical, typographic law is relatively new. The idea that just because a document is written in a proportional typeface capable of being typeset, that such document is, in fact, typeset, is wrong. Typesetting requires some degree of skill.
A quality typefaces may include values stored in the typeface to make it look better when a machine lays it out, but a beautifully typeset page is like a beautifully set wall of bricks. Only an experienced artisan, trained, apprenticed, and seasoned by work and failure can produce such as a wall, such a page of type. For the rest of us, what does it matter if there is a single space or two spaces or even three spaces? It doesn’t matter a lick.
Even so, the machines lay bricks well enough. Algorithms do a consistently okay job. It only takes a few glances at the standard job work of a typesetter from the era before computerized typesetting, back in the 1950s or earlier to see that things typesetters will call out: rivers, unseemly gapes after terminal punctuation, even oddly hyphenated words, are the rule rather than the exception. Manual typesetting from the good old days is not really all that is cracked up to be.
This work was like all work, was good enough. The people doing it were at their job doing their work day after day and were not creating art. They were putting metal in slots on a page and it was a skilled enough job that you couldn’t just replace them, and the pages of type were not perfect. They were just good enough that the typesetter wasn’t fired. A reader of newspapers and mass market books wasn’t going to be not read the news or page-turner because of rivers in his typeset pages.
It appears that the rule was a gap of at least an em after terminal punctuation. This new standard of a single en after a period is new. The convention has changed.
That this convention is malleable speaks to one of the fundamental problems of the grammar pedant. Such a person — and I have been such a person and sometimes am such a person — is basing their moral position on a tissue of half-truths, half-stories, rapidly changing conventions, and mostly “I say so”s.
Language shifts. Technology alters language since in fact, language itself is a technology, and recursively, written language is a technology of that technology, and a digital file using UTF-8 is a technology of a technology, and so on.
Which brings us back to the moral superiority of the Oxford comma vs the AP Style comma. Newspapers avoided the terminal comma in a list of items. Presumably, this is so to save on commas in the typecase of typesetter or maybe the ink. Or maybe this wasn’t the case. Maybe they did this just because. No one really knows. A comma separating each item in the list seems rational to me, yet it is still just a convention, and therefore it is just a decision on which some people agree. The person who does this inconsistently is not a poor communicator, much less a typographical deviant. They are merely inconsistent.
I know a woman who adores the Oxford comma rule. She identifies with it like her hair. She is a brunette with curly hair. She will only date men, and of these men, they must pass the first test: they must use the Oxford comma. If they send her a text message without an Oxford comma, they are out. Her romantic interests are hemmed in by her adherence to a particulate set of typographic conventions.
We need rules, don’t we? To not have language rules, like spelling, for instance, would lead to confusion and chaos…. and yet central texts of modern English such as the King James Bible, everything Shakespeare wrote, Paradise Lost came from an era in which there was not standardized spelling, much less rule as precise as the Oxford comma.
A sentence is a complete thought, we say, and written language is thought made tangible. If our thoughts are the manifestation of the ineffable substance of what we are, then our own writing is as close to a snapshot of this as possible. Our prose style reveals more than a selfie.
Written language is an expression of our humanity.
For some reason, we set this against technology, as if technology is inhuman. Technology is in fact of a kind of superset of humanity. It is a limited and pared down reflection of how we sometimes think we ought to be. We ought to be precise. We ought to be consistent. We should, therefore, express our thoughts in our technology of written language in terms of completely grammatical sentences using consistent spelling.
The committee that wrote the King James Bible, however, or William Shakespeare or John Milton didn’t strive to be consistent. They strove to express their humanity in written language. Yet, they did not strive to be machines.
A good speller is admirable because they are closer to machines. I, on the other hand, admire what is human and that is to error, to babble, to not make sense, to struggle with the act of expression. I prefer the Oxford comma, but if I was dating I would be more concerned with a person’s humanity than to their adherence to Strunk and White.
Strunk and White in this context is a tribal text. It carries with it the code of how to belong to the tribe. It is a turn of the last century Preppy Handbook. Through E.B. White it became the underlying style guide to The New Yorker, a tribe whose membership included James Thurber, John Updike, Dorothy Parker, the Algonkian Round Table, and continued through Donald Barthelme, John Cheever, Adam Gopnik.
But really I think you can think what you want and put a comma anywhere you like. Someone somewhere will probably understand you.