save the drama for your comma

You can find the latest candidate for an #instagrammar update nestled in the “Mugglemarch” article in the October 1, 2012 issue of the New Yorker.  This deserves the attention of a full-length post, though.  Jo Rowling, apparently, “lives here [in a 17th Century Edinburgh house] with her second husband, Neil Murray, a doctor, and their children.”  Although you may know that Neil Murray is both a doctor and Ms. Rowling’s second better half, this sentence begs for an alternate reading: in her infinite kindness (and beyond-royal net worth), the eccentric but lovable Ms. Rowling has, with her second husband’s blessing, opened her home to Neil Murray (whoever that is) and a doctor, along with both of their children from previous marriages.

In an rare instance of syntactical alchemy, a series of appositives has taken on the appearance and properties of a list.  This is literally the only conceivable situation in which a belief in the Oxford comma obscures the intended meaning of a sentence.  I have waxed (and waned) poetic about commas before, but as a perennial advocate of the Oxford comma, I take this sentence as a troubling assault on my personal beliefs, and find myself, yet again, poised atop my soapbox.

First, allow me to consult my two favorite style guides: The Elements of Style and Woe Is I.  Strunk and White include the Oxford comma as an essential element of style, advising in Elementary Usage Rule #2, “In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.”  “Red, white, and blue” is their preferred example.  O’Connor, on the other hand, advocates a writer’s right (write?) to choose: “The final comma […] the one just before and, can be left out.  It’s a matter of taste.”  Nevertheless she admonishes, “But since its [the comma’s] absence can sometimes change your meaning, and since there’s no harm in leaving it in, my advice is to stick with using the final comma.”

Rule #3 for Strunk and White appears thusly: “Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas.”  Our offending sentence, no matter how you read it, conforms beautifully to standard English usage, but still, it makes no sense!  Troubling.

Of course, at this point, some of you are probably screaming, “Context context context!”  This always happens when I complain about misplaced modifiers, and you’re right.  Context can sometimes salvage meaning from the wreckage of poor grammar, but we should never assume our readers will know what we’re talking about.  Even when it comes to Harry Potter.

More urgently: we can’t depend on good punctuation to improve shoddy syntax.  Following the rules won’t always lead to clarity.  Over the past few days, I have had to explain to various people I have been tutoring in French how a grammatically correct sentence can still be wrong… even if all the words line up to say exactly what my student wanted to say.  Natural language sounds natural thanks to the nuances of syntax and diction, and even when we write we still have to keep our audience’s ear in mind.


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