Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Forgot something and Oxford commas

I despair, Ireally do, when I see twenty foot banners inside Tesco with the legend 'Forgot Something' leering over the check out counters. They've also got Jackie Collins and Dean Koontz in the books section under a heading Childrens Fun for the second week running.

Then there's the weather person after the lunch time NE BBC NEWS who tells me "it could be a bit more drizzlier."

I'm tired of the grammatical errors that creep into everything. Does no one under the age of fifty understand the rules of grammar? I console myself with the thought that at least they got the new signs for Hadrian's Wall Country correct. I know it is easy to make mistakes and the paragon who never makes a mistake does not live - but if I was going to pay good money for a banner the size of a double decker bus and plaster it up in public, I'd make very sure I got it right. And perhaps the worst thing of all is that younger people don't see it, don't feel their hackles go up, don't know what the problem is. And who works in advertising agencies? Grrr.

I read of something called an Oxford comma the other day. Do you know what this strange creature is? No, I didn't either, in spite of having a degree in English Language, so I thought I'd better find out. So here goes - in the sentence The flag is red, white, and blue the Oxford comma is the one after the word white.

In Britain, standard usage is to leave it out. In America, standard usage is to leave it in.
Arguments can be made both ways. Some sentences seem to need it, and others do not. So then it becomes a matter of personal style and choice.
My critique group has a lot of fun with commas. Some take them out, some put them in, and some take no notice. Both the sentences below are correct:
It was a dark, stormy night.
It was an endangered white rhino.
The rule is that you use a comma where and would fit, as in a list. ie The night was dark and stormy.
But the second sentence is not a list. In other words, the rhino was not endangered and white.
(Thanks to Lynne Truss (Eats, Shoots & Leaves) for the example)


Linda Banche said...

Maybe standard American usage is to use the Oxford comma, but I've been told many times NOT to use it in a romance novel.

Romance novels apparently frown on the Oxford comma because it seems too high brow.

Too high brow? I went to college and I read romance novels, too. But I don't want to read something that's at the level of a fourth-grader.

Joanna Waugh said...

My philosophy about commas these days is more about cadence and clarity than what is grammatically correct. Among publishing houses, the trend is toward fewer commas to save space/printing costs.

Nixy Valentine said...

Interesting! I've never heard it called that. I also didn't know (thanks Linda) that it was high brow to use it. That's so funny!

I have to confess I get commas wrong quite often. I do try, but it's not really my strong suit. Oh, and I also avoid using lay/lie, because no matter how many times it's explained to me, I just don't get it. Heh

Jen Black said...

And what about may/might? I never seem to get those right either!
Was it called an Oxford comma when you were told not to use it, Linda?
And you are right Joanna, clarity is everything. I might use some examples of poor grammarcchaning the sense in my next post.

Linda Banche said...

I think the Oxford comma here is called the Yale comma or the Harvard comma.

Jen Black said...

The Yale/Harvard comma. That's interesting, if not too surprising!