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Nobody. Understands. Punctuation. (stilldrinking.org)
418 points by hachiya on June 8, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 149 comments

> An Oxford comma is not a flip switch in an author's voice, it's a decision made in the moment to maintain the flow of the idea.

I am more than happy to truly believe this premise (and if you read some of the things I write, and how I use punctuation, I hope the reader will agree ;P), and can come up with situations where the extra comma "breaks the rythm" and cases where it "makes the sentence".

> Momentum, syncopation, rhythm and pattern make a sentence flow, because writers are trying to transfer the voices in their heads into yours.

However, I simply can't bring myself to read this without speaking "rythm, and pattern": the sentence is expertly crafted and frankly sounds amazing; but, if I accept the author's premise that he really and truly carefully decided to not put a comma there because he didnt want me to pause, the sentence sounds horrible: in fact, this sentence sounds pretty un-lyrical to me unless I also add a pause--yes, not one but two added commas--after "pattern", at which point I would say it sounds downright powerful; I could, alternatively, appreciate a smaller pause between "momentum" and "syncopation", which would form a grouping that I think almost sounds even better? (though which I have a difficult time "performing"), but then we have to give up the first comma as well: "momentum/syncopation, rythm and pattern, are"... I really would love to hear the author read this sentence of the article out loud.

Without the commas, it sounds to me like the author is excited and animated about his topic, tumbling forward. I imagine him gesticulating wildly. I guess you were imagining more of a measured pronouncement, with paused emphasis to cause us to carefully consider each element. As he says, the punctuation imparts different styles.

I think the tumbling-forward interpretation works better with the list having four elements. They're meant to be a cumulative item, making his point as much by the number of different elements as by the meaning of each individual one. This style works better when it gives the impression of rushing.

I would argue the premise of this article is invalidated if you think you can "rush" through a comma; that, in fact, argues the opposite: that the punctuation is more of a syntactic guide to the form of the sentence and is often irrelevant to the way it should be interpreted for spacing, pause, meter, and verse (<- "spacing/pause, meter and verse" there sounds great, but "spacing, pause, meter-and-verse" is lopsided; and it would be made all the worse if I had the sentence continue after "verse" in a "rushed" fasion after forcing the pause with the comma after "spacing" and "pause").

I've read that sentence a few times now both imposing and not imposing the imaginary comma in my head and it still sounds like either a mistake or a particularly weird choice of rhythm.

Without an oxford comma, a four letter list sounds like "This...that...c and d do that!" -- which in turn sounds like naming two things, then making a completely different sentence about the final two things. People don't talk that way out loud when they mean to include the first two items in the list.

The pace of the sentence is accelerating, launching into the remainder of the sentence.

Momentum - 3 syllables

Syncopation - 4 syllables

Rhythm and pattern - 5 syllables

That's true, but that's also why it doesn't work. Think about the stress patterns that actually constitute rhythm:

  momENtum, SYNcoPATion, RHYthm and PATtern  
  ___--___  ---__---___  ---___ ___ ---____
Nonomatapoeia, I fear.

I 'hear' only one stress in each.

moMENtum [beat] syncoPATion [beat] rhythm-and-PATtern [no beat so continues straight on]

And all three patterns, including the beat, take the same time, with the remainder of the sentence continuing at the same speed as PATtern.

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/rhythm: /ˈɹɪ.ð(ə)m/

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/pattern: /ˈpat(ə)n/ or /ˈpædəɹn/

I do have an English (UK) accent if that helps. But of course it's not unusual to stress different syllables when reading poetry or prose for effect.

I love the Oxford comma, because it leaves no room for ambiguity. I've heard anecdotes of people omitting the comma in contracts and having it come back to bite them in the butt... but who knows if there's any truth in them or not.

Except that the Oxford comma does leave room for ambiguity, c.f. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oxford_comma#Creating_ambiguity

Frankly, with writing in natural languages, hard-and-fast rules like, "Oxford Comma are always unambiguous," and, "Always avoid passives," tend to make your writing weaker, because there are still some cases in which Oxford Commas are ambiguous and passives are the right tool for the job. What makes great writing, whether it be creative writing or contract writing or what-have-you, is knowing when to apply such rules and when to disregard them.

From Wikipedia: "Without a serial comma, the above dedication would read... a phrase ambiguous only if the reader accepts the interpretation..."

In this case the serial comma isn't creating any ambiguity, the bad writing is (and the serial comma shifts the ambiguity to the second/third item being listed). When they suggest a better way to write the example sentence, it uses the Oxford comma both times (though I'd argue that the second sentence isn't a solution).

I agree that nothing is ever absolute (hah), but the Oxford comma takes care of ambiguities most of the time, and merely shifts the ambiguity around when appositive phrases are thrown into the mix. And reducing ambiguity should be the goal of every writer.

Those two suggestions use the Oxford comma because they are suggestions for how remove ambiguity while keeping the Oxford comma.

The thing about just admitting you can rewrite a sentence to be un/less ambiguous while keeping the comma is that it simultaneously admits that you can rewrite a sentence to be un/less ambiguous without the comma... which puts us back at aesthetic arguments.

There's also the semicolon.

The situations where it does create ambiguity are much fewer than without the comma, and the example given in the link is trivially fixed by altering the sequence of words. It's an unusual example, whereas omitting the Oxford Comma routinely makes the last two items sound like one melded item.

My favourite example of this is "We partied with the strippers, Stalin and Hitler".

That example is horrible.

> Without a serial comma, the above dedication would read: To my mother, Ayn Rand and God, a phrase ambiguous only if the reader accepts the interpretation my mother, who is both Ayn Rand and God.

That's exactly the same grammatical interpretation (i.e. the comma indicates an appositive) that was suggested to be ambiguous with the Oxford comma present.

The point is no one will even consider the interpretation where his mother is god; thus the sentence is unambiguous - he is dedicating to his mother, to Ayn Rand, and to god.

The ambiguity in the example is in whether his mother is Ayn Rand, not whether she's god.

>Without an oxford comma, a four letter list sounds like "This...that...c and d do that!"

It sounds more like: bit, bat, bot and bet do that to my ears. E.g the list flows in a continuous motion, and the "and" just denotes the last item ("and finally"), something like x:xs in Haskell but in reverse! "this, that, c : d do that"

>which in turn sounds like naming two things, then making a completely different sentence about the final two things.

This sounds like a projection, not from the sound of the phrase, but from your a priori idea about what the oxford comma would do there (e.g that it would evenly split the items of the list).

I think the programmers among us are infected by the use of punctuation marks as part of the syntax. Many programming languages just hijack punctuations marks: C's field.selector is plain silly when you think about it and about the fact that the colon was available; and now something less natural than the period must be used to separate statements. As for Haskell, I find that the ML family is IMO quite remarkable for its tradition of terrible syntax choices (again, why x:xs when x,xs was an option? And that convention of putting commas at the beginning of a line!?).

It seems to me that arguing about what a comma means when put in this or that place is symptomatic of this programmer mindset. Natural languages are ambiguous, redundant and sometimes inconsistent by non-design. And so is their punctuation. Nobody understand punctuation, especially programmers.

Just to clarify, in Haskell:

- [x,xs] is the list defined by exactly the element x followed by the element xs;

- x:xs is the list defined by the element x followed by the list xs.

And to add to this, the unspoken Hungarian notation rules have xs typed as a list.

So the 1st instance: [x,xs] looks unprofessional and n00b-ish.

It's the 2nd instance that's idiomatic.

> > Momentum, syncopation, rhythm and pattern make a sentence flow

> However, I simply can't bring myself to read this without speaking "rythm, and pattern": the sentence is expertly crafted and frankly sounds amazing; but, if I accept the author's premise that he really and truly carefully decided to not put a comma there because he didnt want me to pause, the sentence sounds horrible

I think the author's sentence (and intended flow) was very clear.

I've tried to solve the same problem in a different way though, by using '&' where I want a conjuction to join two words instead of parts of a sentence or list.

E.g. "Momentum, syncopation, rhythm & pattern make a sentence flow".

This is arguably much worse, especially if you're not normally having to read ampersands (which would cause a stall reading the sentence), but it also seems to ensure less complaints from the Oxford comma pedants.

To your second point - I wondered about it to - as logically I think like you do here.

Interestingly, though, when I read this the first time, I thought that last comma was there. It was only when I checked again that I realized it was not.

The pause is very natural and normal - but the comma seems unimportant for practical purposes.

I read it as "rhythm AND pattern", e.g a more excited voice. A nice notion

The Right Way (IMHO):

Momentum, syncopation, rhythm-and-pattern: these make a sentence flow, because...

or perhaps:

    explanation-for ((make-sentence-flow) (momentum, syncopation, rhythm-and-pattern)) (...)

I found this in the source of the page.

<!-- So this guy we just interviewed at my current job wrote this little script to see if a product update for some company had come out. Every 10 seconds the script urllib'ed the page, checked the length of the html - literally len(html) - against the length it was last time it checked. He wrote a blog post about this script. A freaking blog post. He also described himself as "something of a child prodigy" despite, in another post, saying he couldn't calculate the area of a slice of pizza because "area of a triangle with a curved edge is beyond my Google-less math skills." Seriously dude? I haven't taken geomtry in 20 years, and pi*r^2/8 seems pretty freaking obvious.

The script also called a ruby script to send him a tweet which another script was probably monitoring to text his phone so he could screenshot the text and post to facebook via instagram.

I think the "millenials" - who should be referred to as generation byte - get undeserved flak, as all generations do, for being younger and prettier and living in a different world.

But this kid calling himself a prodigy is a clear indication of way too many gold stars handed out for adequacy, so to ensure that no such abominable script ever does anything besides bomb somebody's twitter account, this comment shows up exactly 50% of the time, and I encourage others to do the same. -->

Found my new favorite blogger; s'cept for PG.

And further down:


    Yeah, there's some shitty code here. 
    There are some things that shouldn't 
    be done. I did them. Sometimes, I had 
    my reasons. Sometimes, I was just being 
    lazy. But guess what? You're sitting
    there reading the source on some guy's
    blog. So fuck you.


If that's what made him your favorite, you really need to read his earlier post that really blew up in popularity. It's a great read. http://stilldrinking.org/programming-sucks

That just made my Sunday night. Another perk is it seems friendly enough to show non-programmers, but I dont think they will appreciate it as much.

Guess he didn't know about the last-modified header. Reminds me of a few other instances of modern coders ignoring parts of the http spec, like not acknowledging the use of codes outside of 404 and 200, instead putting the information on the page in a way that has to be parsed for the text

That just seems like poking fun at a job applicant for no reason. Assuming last-modified headers weren't accurate on the website (as one would expect with some poorly crafted sites these days), that will indeed get the job done with a minimum of fuss and effort; assuming this is a one-off script, actually parsing the page would be pointless.

Perhaps posting it to his blog was excessive, but it is a way of getting shared code out there.

I understand punctuation fine, and I think the author is wrong. While commas in general are not governed by hard rules, the "Oxford comma" is an extremely specific use of the comma: to separate the listing of 3 or more equal items. There's nothing artistic about it; it's exactly the sort of situation that simply needs to be consistent to be readable.

No offense to the author, who might be reading this, but it's possible to be too proud of your writing history and cleverness. Many people have had English teachers they loved, and any good writer has had a moment where they realized, or were told, to throw out the rules.

It's essential to note that these moments always come in high school or college or later, when kids already have more than a decade of writing instruction under their belts. No one tells a second-grader to throw out all the rules.

Because you're not actually supposed to throw them out. It's just a teaching technique to break through bad writing habits.

There's nothing artistic about it; it's exactly the sort of situation that simply needs to be consistent to be readable.

Is this written in the stars somewhere? This is exactly the kind of prescriptivism the author is arguing against. If you fall more towards that side of the spectrum, that's fine, but don't believe you're somehow more factually correct. Your interpretations of consistency and readability are not universal.

Actually, you're right. If one considers comedy to be a form of art, then being purposefully inconsistent with the Oxford Comma can create comedic ambiguity. Unfortunately the author seems to dismiss those sorts of sentences as contrived.

Aside from that, I would contend that the vast majority of serial commas are incidental to artistic merit. If you're deciding on the Oxford Comma, you've already used at least one comma, and you're just deciding on the last one. That seems to me a pretty marginal decision.

On a tangent about consistency, I find it amusing when journalists slave themselves to the rules and create silly sentences. The one I'm thinking of is the convention that numbers under 10 are spelled out, and numbers 10 or higher are put in numeral form. Some journalists abandon consistency to stick to the 'rules': "the policy is predicted to have payoffs in eight to 12 years". I think I've even seen it in hyphenated form, too.

The real reason for not using numerals is that in most typesets, and even how we learn to write them, they look like capital letters. This causes the reader to draw unnecessary attention to the numbers themselves in the same way which ALL CAPS might. "The five of us went skiing," vs. "the 5 of us went skiing" -- the number of skiers isn't interesting, the activity is the important part of that sentence and the number is secondary information.

The author of the article is right that writing is both a skill and an art form. The skilled writer can alter the way a sentence is understood by their choice of punctuation, but abandoning the rules should only be done when the author understands the consequences of breaking those rules; using explicit choices to guide the user to deeper understanding of the intended meaning.

"The policy is predicted to have payoffs in 8 to 12 years," "the policy is predicted to have payoffs in eight to 12 years," or "the policy is predicted to have payoffs in eight to twelve years." If I were writing that sentence, I would probably go with the first style as I believe it is the best for conveying what is important to the reader. All three say the same thing, but mixing the spelt and numeral forms is the most distracting and least legible.

IMO there's another reason to use alphabetic-vs-numeral amounts: How you expect the audience to use the number.

If the numbers are figurative, poetic, or you want the reading-flow uninterrupted, you probably want letters, meaning that Carl Sagan gets quoted as "billions and billions", rather than "1,000,000,000s and 1,000,000,000s". Similarly, "we tried three times", rather than "we tried 3 times".

On the other extreme, if you expect people to compare or analyze with numbers as they read them, favor numerals. "A fan favorite, bookies give him odds of 10 to 3."

I am guessing that Cormac McCarthy would give you fits.

There are times when you should absolutely throw out the rules.

The purpose of language is to communicate. More often than not, sticking to the rules enables more effective communication. But sometimes, not so much.

Some sentences are down right unreadable without the Oxford comma, and others make perfect sense. I agree with the author that it's not always so cut and dry; we're not communicating with a computer after all ;)

Excellent point about rule breaking though. You really can't start breaking the rules until you've learned them first. To be sure, some will learn them implicitly, but the rules aren't there to suck the soul out of an activity. They're there to give structure for people who would otherwise have no idea what they're doing.

There's a difference between throwing out all the rules, and throwing out merely the useless ones: splitting infinitives, ending sentences with prepositions, and such.

Having said that, I'm on-the-fence about consistent Oxford Commaing. The article's suggestion to decide case-by-case is interesting (and the argument is very well written) but I'd have to read a longer piece that alternated to find out whether it bothers me.

Most of the time, you can use the Oxford comma, the non-Oxford comma or any other kind of comma, and it just doesn't make any difference.

But sometimes you need it. Here's an example:

"There are two hard problems in Computer Science: naming things, cache expiration, and off-by-one errors."

Take out the comma and you ruin the joke - at least to my ears:

"There are two hard problems in Computer Science: naming things, cache expiration and off-by-one errors."

A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to fire it at the other patrons.

"Why?" asks the confused, surviving waiter amidst the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

"Well, I'm a panda," he says. "Look it up."

The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation. "Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves."

This isn't actually a case of the Oxford comma, though--it's just incorrect.

*points to the fourth sentence

The joke.

Still not an Oxford comma.

In my natural parsing, if you are enumerating things, once I hit the "and" then I know you have moved on to the next item. So, for me it is not needed - but that may be "British laxness" [1].

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eats,_Shoots_%26_Leaves#Critici...

But then you have to backtrack quite often.

>We went out for drinks, fish and chips, and some ice cream.

The author addresses this: "contrived sentences that mean different things depending on the placement of commas, because this tactic was so successful in fixing that thing that time."

The author conveniently dismisses sentences that contradict his premise as "contrived." That's not addressing anything, it's just employing the No True Scotsman trick.

Yes but contrived sentences are bad examples. If you have to carefully parse a sentence's punctuation to come to the correct meaning, the sentence should be rewritten. (Analogous to forcing code maintainers to remember obscure precedence rules to understand your code.)

I'm not sure what you're point is, becauae on first read it looks like you're agreeing with me? The whole point of the quote was that contrived sentences aren't good examples.

The point I took from that quote was that many punctuation rules come about to address difficult to parse situations. My point is that, if it's a difficult to parse situation, you should probably rewrite it in some way so that punctuation isn't so critical to understanding.

I will grant that the first form is clearly [0, 1, 2], while the second form could be construed as [0, [1, 2]].

HOWEVER, given that there is no "and" between 0 & 1, and that 1 & 2 are not like things, I believe most readers will naturally interpret the list as [0, 1, 2] and not [0, [1, 2]]. There are enough other cues that risk of misinterpretation is very low. Anyone who does interpret as [0, [1, 2]] is probably being willfully obtuse.

I think it largely depends on if the last two items in the list are a natural combination, either in the same category, or complementary things. The former is why you need the Oxford comma for "the strippers, JFK, and Stalin"; the latter is why you need an Oxford comma in "we brought the tent, bread, and butter".

Off-topic, but I like this version of the joke better:

There are two hard problems in Computer Science: cache invalidation, off-by-one errors, and cache invalidation.

I was never taught about the Oxford Comma (I'm not a native speaker), but trained myself to use it consistently after seeing this http://jaced.com/blogpix/2013/washingtonlincolnoxford.jpg.

This has made me rethink though - he makes a great point that writing is about transferring the voices in my head into the readers', so I'll keep that in mind for any creative writing.

Heck, not just creative writing, I can think of more than one occasion where I put an Oxford Comma in a press release even though it read better to me without.

Thanks for sharing!

Consider though:

    To my mother, Ayn Rand, and God [1]
Is the writer's mother Ayn Rand?

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oxford_comma#Creating_ambiguity

Any use of commas in a list for something other than separating items, regardless of Oxford comma, makes for ambiguous sentences. That one is just written to make the Oxford comma a culprit. Try:

    To my mother, Ayn Rand, Jimmy, Bobbie and Sue.

> Any use of commas in a list for something other than separating items, regardless of Oxford comma, makes for ambiguous sentences.

I've always felt that the use of parentheses for grouping is under-explored:

    To ((my mother (Ayn Rand)) and God).
Of course, this conflicts with the well ingrained tendency to subconsciously delete parentheticals, but, while pipe-dreaming, one could imagine different marks:

    To {{my mother {Ayn Rand}} and God}.
I'm actually serious about my belief that this sort of thing is logically sensible, but recognise its practical drawbacks ((a) everyone likes the visual appearance of Lisp, right? and (b) everyone speaks Esperanto or Lojban because of its logical primacy, right?).

Not so. There, you unambiguously have a list. If you have a list with a comma in an item, you separate list items with semicolons. So if Ayn Rand was the mother, then it would be "To my mother, Ayn Rand; Jimmy; Bobbie and Sue." The original is difficult because, if "Ayn Rand" is actually subordinated and not a list item, then you don't have a place to put a list separator at all.

Well, an argument in favour of the Oxford comma in that sentence is that Ayn Rand didn't have any children, as anyone who would care for the name would know, so it's clearly a list of three items. :)

"To my mother, Ayn Rand and God"

Remove the comma and their mother is both Ayn Rand and God. That's a really terrible example since the Oxford Comma actually works slightly better than the alternative since the problem there is the ambiguity created by the ordering, not the punctuation.

Because that conclusion would be nonsensical, that leaves the alternative that "Ayn Rand and God" are an entirely separate part of the sentence. At least for me, removing the Oxford comma made it much clearer that Ayn Rand was not the mother when reading the sentence. You're mileage may vary, but using nonsense interpretations seems odd for a sentence that is not meant to be read by a computer.

It's odd that you're imagining that the concluding that the person's mother is Ayn Rand and they are dedicating a book to God is a sensible reading. Having known some Randoids the non-Oxford form's interpretation actually seems more plausible to me, but the sentence is nonsensical whatever punctuation you use and neither form seems any less nonsensical to me.

If that's the best case they have against the Oxford comma it seems to be an exception that proves the rule.

For clarity in this case, you would distribute the "to" if the writer's mother is indeed Ayn Rand:

  To my mother, Ayn Rand, and to God
and otherwise assume not (or completely distribute the "to" for no ambiguity).

EDIT: My sibling post has another good alternative.

Of course we only need to add to in writing. When speaking this we'd pause before and after "Ayn Rand", which we'd say in a lower hohum-style intonation.

The writer chose to construct that list in a confusing & ambiguous way.

You could say "To Ayn Rand, God, and my mother" and lose the ambiguity.

  To my mother Ayn Rand, and to God
Not the same wording, but that's how I would write it, given the freedom.

Yep, here's another fun illustration of the same issue with omitting the Oxford Comma:


If we're presenting comics, then: http://explosm.net/comics/2215. (It's not an Oxford comma, of course --but then, the article was about punctuation in general.)

It's true that there is no equivalent of the Oxford comma in many languages (e.g., in French, you should not use it). The comma is a trap for non-native writers! ;)

This reminds me the book: Eats(,) Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss

Yup, great book. Yup, great. Book.

Loved his points about how you can hear punctuation in speech:

"Morgan Freeman is liberal with the commas, and Jon Stewart is a master of parentheses. Lewis Black made a career out of the exclamation point while Dennis Leary barely uses any punctuation at all."

Overall, a great Sunday morning read.

This was also my favorite sentence of the piece. People sometimes criticize my writing as having to many parentheses. From now on I will just tell them to read it in the voice of Jon Stewart. Because that's exactly how I want all my texts to be read.

it's a good point, but isn't that the point of punctuation?

A period is a good point.

> An Oxford comma is not a flip switch in an author's voice, it's a decision made in the moment to maintain the flow of the idea.

This is simply a run-on, not a use of an Oxford comma as I understand it. And these bother me a lot.

"An oxford comma is not a flip switch in an author's voice"

is a grammatically complete sentence. So is

"it's a decision made in the moment to maintain the flow of the idea."

Separate them by a strong punctuation mark. If you want the rhythm of a comma, separate them by a semi-colon in preference to a stop. Semi-colons are made for this.

Several people in this thread are claiming that punctuation is used to convey information about how to pronounce the sentence.

You're saying (and I tend to agree with you) that written punctuation is about meaning, and not about where a speaker would pause to take a breath.

Can these two be kludged into a unified meaning? "Write better so that your written words sound good when spoken"?

I'm saying that punctuation has already solved this problem with the semi-colon. If you have two sentences where the second follows the other so closely that there is barely a breath in between, use a semi-colon rather than a stop. You convey both meaning and flow at the same time, and you keep the grammaticasters happy.

Ah, I love semicolons -- but they're not always as aesthetic as commas (and vice-versa). I find this is mostly a question of overall style and context (the more pretentious the text, the more out of place the semicolon; unless you're aspiring to be a pretentious (post-)modern text -- then the semicolon wins).

The problem is that many people have horrible rhythm when speaking, too. Telling them to just transfer that on the page results in horrible punctuation.

Only tangentially related, but it's the weekend, so what the hell, enjoy:


Even more tangential but amusing https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lF4qii8S3gw (Borge, Phonetic Pronunciation)

Knew it before I even clicked the link. They've gone a bit downhill since their first album, but the first (on which this song appears) is a classic.

Are you kidding me? I can pick 3 songs off of Modern Vamps that are better then the whole first album combined. I would admit Contra is a little bit of a hit and miss album, but not incredibly more so then the first one. I mean, who actually listens to I Stand Corrected? Or M79? And Contra gave us Giving Up The Gun, which is probably the second best VW song ever.

(The three songs by the way, if there was any doubt, would be "Hannah Hunt", "Diane Young" and "Hudson" or "Step" depending on taste)

i need to add some pop here


This is really nice to have footnotes just next to the line there are called from[0].

I rarely stumble upon a web page that actually improves on the paper format but this one does.

[0] There must be a better way to phrase this.

I just finished reading the author's book "And Then I Thought I Was a Fish"[0] where he uses footnotes quite liberally.

I wish Amazon's ebook reader showed the footnotes in margin as his blog does. They weren't even shown on the same page.

Instead you had to follow a hyperlink to the last appendix of the book. You could then read the footnote w/o the original context; then you click a "back button" to get back to the text.

I hope more ebook readers find a use for the gigantic margins on widescreen displays. -- I would've preferred marginalized sidenotes over seeing two pages[1] of content.

[0]: http://www.amazon.com/And-Then-Thought-Was-Fish-ebook/dp/B00... [1]: This is what Amazon's "kindle cloud reader" does when you maximize it on a 1080p display.

Very much agree. Much more natural way to get additional information. I really like how Livefyre is doing something similar with Sidenotes: http://web.livefyre.com/streamhub/#liveSidenotes

Completely agree. I first saw this on the Grantland.com site. I loved it the moment I first came across it there.

Margin notes.

Except they're invisible if you have JS disabled, as I do for normal browsing.

A similar effect can be achieved using just CSS: float the marginal note left or right, set the width and apply (negative) horizontal margins to move it outside the main text block, and if required use relative positioning to shift it up so the baselines of the body text and the marginal note align.

Except margin notes are not a web innovation. They are common in textbooks.

Punctuation is about rhythm. Writing is about communication. And I start sentences with "and" all the time.

I hardly know my grammar rules and I don't care. But I do care about making sure that writing is clear.

That's the basic rule I've applied to the hundreds of books that I've edited. Oxford comma. Huh?

This article makes me think about a question to which I still haven't found an answer:

For me (I'm not a native english speaker by the way), when reading out loud a text, all commas are "translated" by a pause. But there are some sentences for which I don't understand why a comma is used, as I wouldn't pause at the comma when saying these sentences out loud.

For example:

> The problem is that many people have horrible rhythm when speaking, too.


> Thank you, John.

In both these sentences, when reading them out loud, I wouldn't pause where there is a comma. And I actually never heard someone pause at these commas.

So am I mistaken in thinking that commas should always be orally translated by pauses? Or do you pause at the comma when saying these sentences?

It's a safe bet that any rule regarding English grammar that includes the word "always" is either a) mistaken, or b) so obvious that you probably wouldn't be questioning it in the first place.

Commas began life as indicators of pause, but in modern English they are indicators of clause -- that is, they indicate grammatical structure. The places where we don't normally use pauses to indicate structure in spoken English (but still use commas in written English) are where you're noticing the discrepancy. Specifically, it's a common practice that you should use a comma to separate an adverb (like "too") from the rest of the sentence when it's being used to modify the sentence as a whole. This isn't a struct rule, and some people prefer a style of omitting such commas.

Thank you for your explanation, I was not aware of the "comma to separate an adverb" rule in written English.

In your first example, a pause there sounds a little awkward -- but putting a comma there also looks awkward. To my ear it sounds sort of antiquated.

In the second example, adding a pause at that location sounds quite natural. It changes the meaning slightly, adding gravity to the statement, making the thank-you sound more heartfelt.

[I'm a native English speaker, and the commas-as-pauses way of thinking has always worked very well for me...]


About the first example, it seems to be commonly used: just in this HN thread, the ", too." pattern is used in 3 comments. But just like for you, a pause there sounds weird to me too.

When I see a sentence that ends with ", too", I tend to place a bit more emphasis on the second-to-last word ("speaking", in this case), which ends up adding a pause.

So the sentence goes, "The problem is that many people have horrible rhythm while speaking, too."

To my taste, the sentence goes on a bit too long: an emphasis probably belongs somewhere in the middle: but perfection is hard to come by. :P

I pause at those commas. And so do most of the people I know. However, I've noticed that it is much easier to notice the pauses if the speaker is from the South and speaks with a drawl. :-)

Half the time when I hear Barack Obama speak, I imagine his speechwriter typing out ", and this nation cannot afford that<period><tab><tab><tab>So I have been..." For every damn sentence.

If you have an hour and this topic really interests you, I'd recommend David Foster Wallace's essay "Authority and American Usage" - http://wilson.med.harvard.edu/nb204/AuthorityAndAmericanUsag....

He covers (very fairly and entertainingly, IMO) the major divide between linguistic prescriptivists and descriptivists, and why both camps have a point.

Footnote number 2 is absolutely priceless.

Footnote number two made me think this guy is awfully self-righteous and obnoxious, and the weird defense of his beloved English teacher made me kind of uncomfortable.

Is it just me, or does this guy sound a little like James Mickens, the hilarious Microsoft blogger? http://blogs.msdn.com/b/oldnewthing/archive/2013/12/24/10484...

The English teacher beginning his lesson with "So." reminded me of this piece:


(SO this is about the word “so.”)

> Momentum, syncopation, rhythm and pattern make a sentence flow, because writers are trying to transfer the voices in their heads into yours.

Had to read this several times because the horrible punctuation made the sentence unreadable without thinking.

> Punctuation started with periods that told the speaker when to take a breath

A great book that looks at how punctuation characters date back to ancient greek writing and how it was used to show how text should be read is Shady Characters: Ampersands, Interrobangs and other Typographical Curiosities:


Edit: You can read the first chapter in the preview with pictures of the ancient texts

Ouch. Fairly nicely written piece about punctuation, and generally nicely formatted with justification, properly indented paragraphs, use of em dashes, and so on; and then it uses straight quotes everywhere. While I'm generally used to straight quotes everywhere on the web, the additional standard set by the rest of the typesetting and the topic meant that their omission here was that much more glaring.

Seriously? I can think of nothing about this article that bothers me less than that.

In my world, quotes are quotes and the distinction between ways of drawing them is infinitely irrelevant. That this is not true to someone else is actually surprising me.

"use of em dashes"

It's worth pointing out that this is not a universal style choice.


The piece also asserted that "word" and "whirred" are "pronounced exactly the same".

They aren't. The first consonant is different; IPA [w] vs. IPA [hw].

In a good number of English dialects [w] and [hw] have collapsed together.

Yep, to the point of /hw/ being considered comical by many speakers.


Edit: I just want to point out that despite what the map in the linked article says, the merger is complete in most of the urban areas in the Southeast as well. You'll usually only hear /hw/ in rural areas.

For me, it's the same consonant, but the vowel sound is very slightly longer in "whirred".

OTOH, that "wh" is pronounced /hw/ only reinforces his main argument.

In this case, em dashes are doing something similar to a pair of commas, which can also denote side info but they do it more casually, and parentheses.

"and parentheses" what? And they are also like em dashes?

Edit: Thank you for the explanation folks. For whatever reason I found the use of commas to denote the aside very difficult to parse. I think maybe it's because of the first comma after "In this case."

Funny. Not a great sentence. By the time you reach the end, you've forgotten where you were. The aside, consisting of two sentences with a conjunction, is too long. I suspect the conjunction is the problem.

This sentence really clued me into my problem with the essay. As I read it, I found myself tripping over the sentences, especially this one. I had to reread it in order to understand what the author was saying.

Today's punctuation rules may have awkward beginnings, but the rules are standard, familiar, and subconsciously expected. This actually improves the speed at which I can read. The author's style had several places that were difficult for me because I have been mentally trained on one set of road signs and meanings.


> In this case, em dashes are doing something similar to a pair of commas (which can also denote side info but they do it more casually) and parentheses.

The commas after "pair of commas" are the parenthetical commas he is describing

I would have shown the example with em dashes instead of parentheses as that was the point of the sentence.

It's about a 3 way similarity between em dashes, comma pairs and parentheses.

(if they didn't share the similarity I guess 'or' would fit better)

I enjoyed this essay immensely. I'm a bit of a pedant and a language geek (I have a collection of favourite archaisms!) but my favourite saying about our language is:

"English is a juggernaut truck: it goes on regardless"

I find it useful to say that to myself when I encounter some of the net's more egregious assaults on the language. It's not an assault, it's the language doing what it does.

Have you published your list? I, for one, would like to peruse it.

As with most art forms, the key is to learn the rules and then how to break them. Caring about minutiae like Oxford commas matters to people who know the rules including many who don't know when to break them, but pedants who cling to rules beyond their point of uselessness don't make the rules not worth understanding.

Nobody understands typography either. The sin of the article is setting text justified without hyphenation.

> and give the teachers a few things to decorate with smiley faces and Xs

This little snippet made it pretty clear to me that the vast majority of my teachers weren't educating, but ticking check-boxes on whether I had fulfilled X,Y, and Z requirements.

This was a joy to read. I highly recommend reading it out loud to someone. Try the techniques the author mentioned, and laugh out loud when he uses one of the techniques ironically.

A wonderfully written piece of art. And excellently communicated, too.

I support the use of the Oxford comma because I love my parents, Cher and the Pope.

On semicolon, this is a good read :http://theoatmeal.com/comics/semicolon

Sure, the oxford comma is not important unless it is disambiguating. But let's go meta and ask, Why do you care so much that people care? It's not like great or even good writers are getting hung up on whether or not to use the oxford comma. It's not like people loose jobs over the oxford comma.

Everyone with half a brain knows those rules are guidelines. Just like how you shouldn't end a sentence with a preposition at. This post is the long form, literary version of feeding the trolls.

Did I miss a joke right at the end, or was the whole essay demeaned by getting could and couldn't wrong in the final sentence?

I think you did miss a joke, or at least didn't parse the sentence correctly (which probably negates his point in and of itself).

After a bit of clean up, it reads "If Yoda could make his point clear, nobody should give a shit about Oxford commas."

Ah! I was parsing it as something like "If Yoda could give a shit about Oxford commas, you shouldn't either." Which then lead to thinking it should have said 'couldn't' instead.


Punctuation abuse in Apple ad copy, actually the worst ever.

Ahhh English... The odd ghoti language.


Stopped reading after footnote 2.

Your comment would contribute much more to the discussion if you explained why.

I'd suggest to continue on to footnote 3 if you plan to use footnotes in your writing, though :)

I did too. Couldn't figure out why that was even in there. It seemed so ludicrously out of place but so intentional.

I found it very entertaining. And humanizing of the writer - it shouted "hey, look, this isn't your usual rant on punctuation" early on in the piece, before the writing style had had time to otherwise distinguish itself from the hundreds of other articles we've read on stuff like this. Like some weird kind of foreshadowing.

It reinforced the point of the whole essay.

Almost missed being able to read that because I couldn't see them due to having JavaScript off.

In every case where you have to decide between two options and both have advantages and disadvantages you should go with the popular one. In the case of the Oxford comma this means following what most of the world (including the publishing world) does and avoid it. The grammar of many languages forbids the Oxford comma, so there's no reason to keep this controversy going on with no real purpose.

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