The Oxford Comma

“The failure of an Arab League mission to stanch violence in Syria, an international community with little leverage and a government as defiant as its opposition is in disarray have left Syria descending into a protracted, chaotic and perhaps unnegotiable conflict.”
Anthony Shadid  “Fear of Civil War Mounts in Syria as Crisis Deepens” The New York Times  14 January 2012  page 1.

The comma is a vital, valued and venerable punctuation mark.  The very word speaks
The comma is a vital, valued and venerable punctuation mark.  The very word speaks to its antiquity: comma, from (what else on my blog?) the ancient Greek κόμμα komma, a typical noun formation, in this instance from the root κοπ- kop- ‘cut, chop’ plus the substantivalizing formant -μα -ma > *κοπ- μα *kop-ma >> κόμμα komma (by the nasalized labial assimilation of π p to μ m).  The fundamental sense of ‘comma’ then is “something that results from a cutting/chopping;  something cut/chopped off”, the idea being that something that has been cut off, set off, is marked by this tiny but potently organizing little linear hook.  While the actual sign itself is relatively recent (sixteenth century), the idea (the ancients did not systematically use punctuation marks as such) behind it goes back much farther to the rhetorical ‘arts’ (artes, τέχναι tekhnai ‘tracts, treatises’) of the classical theorists like Roman Quintilian 1 (~35-~100 CE) and Cicero 2 (106-43 BCE), and, on the Greek side, Dionysius of Halicarnassus 3  (c. 60-7 BCE) and Demetrius of Phaleron (4th-3rd centuries BCE) 4.

Note 1
Quintilian Institutio Oratoria 9.22
At illa conexa series tris habet formas: incisa, quae commata dicuntur, membra, quae kola, periodon quae est vel ambitus vel circumductum
And that linked sequence manifests itself in three ways: cuttings, which are called ‘commata’; limbs, which are called ‘kola’; period, which is either a circuit or revolution …

Note 2
Cicero Orator 211 …
Graeci kommata et kola nominent, nos non recte incisa et membra dicamus
… (what) the Greeks call kommata and kola we incorrectly speak of as ‘cuttings’ and ‘limbs’.

Note 3
Dionysius of Halicarnassus de compositione verborum (‘On the arrangement of words’) 26.8-9
… πολλάκις δὲ καὶ εἰς κόμματα συνάγειν βραχύτερα κώλων·
… and often units shorter than cola are brought together as commata.

Note 4
Demetrius of Phaleron de elocutione (‘On Style’) 9
Ἡ δὲ τοιαύτη βραχύτης κατὰ τὴν σύνθεσιν κόμμα ὀνομάζεται.
That kind of brevity [of phrasing] in composition is named ‘comma’.

Now that we are clear on the etymology and diachronic development of the comma, let us turn to the epigraph.  I had to read it several times before it made sense to me, and the whole thing could so readily have been disambiguated if only the writer had put a comma after ‘ … leverage …’.  Another way of stating this is to ask what the ‘and’ immediately after ‘leverage’ connects.

Let’s parse.  Is it A or B below?

A
The failure of an Arab League mission to stanch violence in Syria,
an international community with little leverage
and a government as defiant as its opposition is in disarray
have left Syria descending into a
protracted, chaotic and perhaps unnegotiable conflict.”

B
The failure of an Arab League mission to stanch violence in Syria,
an international community with little leverage and a government as defiant as
its opposition is in disarray
have left Syria descending into a
protracted, chaotic and perhaps unnegotiable conflict.”

In B, given the semantic proximity of ‘an international community’ and ‘a government’, the reader is initially going to take the ‘and’ between them as connectives of those two subject (of ‘have’) nouns – until, that is, she realizes that the preposition ‘with’ governs only ‘little leverage’ and not also ‘a government’:  it simply does not make sense in this context to speak of ‘an international community … with a government’! Thus, ‘with’ governs only ‘leverage’, and ‘government’ is the third subject of ‘have’, syntactically parallel to ‘failure’ and ‘community’. (And it would certainly not have hurt, furthermore, to have insert something like ‘that is’ between ‘government as’.).  The point is that the reader has to back up to figure out how the sentence works, and this makes for an intolerable – and entirely unnecessary – interruption of the thought flow.

It obfuscates clarity!

This typically triadic structure is, interestingly, reiterated at the very end: “ … protracted … chaotic … unnegotiable …” [NB  I might have preferred ‘non-negotiable’, but …], and some [in my view] clumsy dyadic phrase structure followed by a crisp triadic adjectival structure lacks stylistic concinnity to an unpleasant degree.

No, what was definitely called for here was Oxford commas!

Oxford commas?

It was when I began long ago to use the countless books and commentaries in classical studies published by Oxford University Press that I first noticed this particular use of commas in a series of three, and it made good sense to me, especially (as I hope to have demonstrated here) for the longer individual units.  Hence its name – and, for what it’s worth, that usage has my personal imprimatur!

Bear with me.

We were probably most of us if ancient enough – and if not so ancient perhaps not – taught somewhere along the line that threes are set off by a single comma, thus:

‘She likes apples, oranges and bananas.’ Note the lack of comma after ‘oranges’.  Using Oxford commas one would write, ‘She likes apples, oranges, and bananas.’  Note the presence of comma after ‘oranges’.  Now, in this example of A and B and C, each a single noun, it makes no difference whether you use Oxford commas or not, but you can readily appreciate that if A and B and C is each a longish phrase or even clause it could easily turn into a mess without the guidelines provided by the Oxford commas.

Why, just have another look at the epigraph again!

Now, finally, consider some possible punctuations of the citation data at the head of this perhaps prolix note (carefully observe the presence of or lack of commas) about a seeminglyinconsequential matter:

Anthony Shadid  “Fear of Civil War Mounts in Syria as Crisis Deepens” The New York Times  14 January 2012  page 1.
Or, rather, should it be as follows?
Anthony Shadid,  “Fear of Civil War Mounts in Syria as Crisis Deepens”, The New York Times,  14 January 2012,  page 1.
Or any variation on same, e.g., comma after ‘…Deepens”’ but not after ‘… Shadid’, etc.?

I would argue that here, as in the series A and B and C above, it really does not matter how you do it, because there is no lack of clarity regardless of punctuation.  I would only insist on a consistent usage (by me, that is – but, fallible human that I am, I probably fail to be entirely faithful to the format here adopted!).

In short, as long as clarity and ease of comprehensionare paramount, I’ll go along with whatever!

But that, clearly, is notthe case with that dreadfully constructed sentence (fully salvageable by one single tiny comma) that started me off on this (to me) delightful little exploration about our venerable, valued, and vital comma.

[And if you enjoyed this excursus on the comma, have a look at my take on the helplessly traduced apostrophe – here.]

This entry was posted in LANGUAGE and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Oxford Comma

  1. Pingback: Cartoon – Snooty! | laohutiger

  2. i LOVE commas, very useful. I was taught to use the Oxford comma. Odd?

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