Confessions of an Editor + Words of the Day

It’s time for some word- and punctuation-related fun!

(Yep this is toootally what I meant about the blog getting more interesting. This, right here.)

I’m completely tormented in spirit at this moment about the Oxford comma (or Harvard comma, or serial comma, depending on your alma mater, nationality, or breakfast modus operandi).

In other words, the comma that comes before the “and” (or or, but, for, or so) in a list:

Eggs, milk and pancakes.  

or, if you like the serial comma:

Fruit Loops, Rice Krispies, and Chex Mix. 

Here’s what my two go-to grammar sources have to say on the matter: 

“This is probably the first thing you ever learn about commas, that they divide items in lists, but are not required before the and on the end…the rule here is that the comma is correct if it can be replaced by the word and or or. For example: ‘I had a marvellous time eating in tavernas and swimming in the turquoise water and getting sloshed on retsina and not sending postcards.’ This would be the grammatical sequence of omitting the comma: a sentence that is clumsy (and sounds a lot more sloshed), but still counts as grammatical…. However, if you feel you are safe paddling in these sparklingly clear shallows of comma usage, think again. See that comma-shaped shark fin ominously slicing through the waves in this direction? Hear that staccato cello? Well, start waving and yelling, because it is the so-called Oxford comma (also known as the serial comma) and it is a lot more dangerous than its exclusive, ivory-tower moniker might suggest. There are people who embrace the Oxford comma and people who don’t, and I’ll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken.”

and later,

“My own feeling is that one shouldn’t be too rigid about the Oxford comma. Sometimes the sentence is improved by including it; sometimes it isn’t.” (Lynn Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves).
Then, there’s E.B. White’s Elements of Style, so kindly contradicting:

“In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last. Thus write, 

red, white, and blue
gold, silver, or copper
He opened the letter, read it, and made a note of its contents.

This comma is often referred to as the ‘serial’ comma. 
In the names of business firms the last comma is usually omitted. Follow the usage of the individual firm.
Little, Brown and Company
Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette”
 (pg 3 of my priceless illustrated edition of this punctuational masterpiece)

Oh, boy. What are we do to with this? 

For now, my rule of thumb is whichever we choose, make it stick throughout the entirety of the text at hand. For now, I’m pro-serial – and cereal, for that matter.

Now for the moment you’ve been waiting for: fun words of the week! Here in the order that they came upon my eyes (with special thanks to Merriam and Webster for their never-failing help).
  • escarpment: a steep slope in front of a fortification; a long cliff or steep slope separating two comparatively level or more gently sloping surfaces and resulting from erosion or faulting

  • escheat: the reversion of lands in English feudal law to the lord of the fee when there are no heirs capable of inheriting under the original grant; the reversion of property to the crown in England or to the state in the United States when there are no legal heirs

  • pettifog (texted from my fellow word-loving cousin and kindred spirit): to bicker or quibble over trifles or unimportant matters; to carry on a petty, shifty, or unethical law business; to practice chicanery of any sort

  • chicanery (for obvious reasons)trickery or deception by quibbling or sophistry

  • sophistry (really, dictionary, could you help us out here?): a subtle, tricky, superficially plausible, but generally fallacious method of reasoning

  • terminus: a final goal; a finishing point (from the Latin for boundary marker/limit – i.e. right now in this blog post).

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