Put on your Oxfords and dance

Jacqueline hopes to make the world a better, or at least more grammatical, place:

If you’ve ever read scientists’ unedited writing then you can probably imagine my pain. The passive verb tenses, the nominalizations, the convoluted run-on sentences so stuffed full of technical terms that I can’t tell where the compound adjectives end and the compound nouns begin … they make my brain melt.

It could be worse. They could be writing in Spanish, which, according to a wise Latina, has no adjectives at all.

A journey of a thousand miles, of course, begins with a single step, so here is hers:

When I first began working here, only one of the four writers in my department consistently used the serial comma. The other three would accept my edits when I imposed it onto their writing, but they kept sending me drafts in which it was omitted.

So I decided to make evangelizing the serial comma my personal mission. I explained to them why the serial comma was the superior choice for clarity. I wrote the classic “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God” example on their whiteboards to demonstrate why omitting it was confusing. I complained about how I can’t tell how many items are in a list if I’m unfamiliar with the terms and they don’t use the serial comma.

If you’re not familiar with the term, listen up:

[T]he comma separates items (including the last from the next-to-last) in a list of more than two — e.g.: “The Joneses, the Smiths, and the Nelsons.” In this position, it’s called, variously, the serial comma, the Oxford comma, or the Harvard comma. Whether to include the serial comma has sparked many arguments. But it’s easily answered in favor of inclusion because omitting the final comma may cause ambiguities, whereas including it never will — e.g.: “A and B, C and D, E and F[,] and G and H.” When the members are compound, calling for and within themselves, clarity demands the final comma.

Unless you thought God and Ayn Rand actually had a child together, of course, in which case you’ll be forgiven if you exhibit indifference, as is common in popular music: the Monkees released two consecutive albums that could have used this extra bit of punctuation, but didn’t. (Then again, to quote Neil Sedaka, “Down doo-bee doo down down,,”.)


  1. fillyjonk »

    18 June 2009 · 7:13 am

    Except now some of the mavens are telling us we are supposed to omit that last comma. Which irks me, as I was taught the other way and also because I can see cases where omitting that last comma in the series could possibly lead to misunderstanding.

    Not all scientists are bad writers, but I will say I’ve learned not to say “Wow, I must really be tired/having a low-brain day” when I can’t understand an article: in a lot of cases, it’s the writer and not me.

    Do you think we could get Jacqueline to take on the tax code next? Because if she thinks scientific writing is bad and opaque…

  2. CGHill »

    18 June 2009 · 7:20 am

    Well, you know what they say about generalizations. I would certainly never believe that Sya, who frequents this corner, writes bad scientific papers; I’ve seen her NaNoWriMo stuff, and it’s always well-crafted.

    Given Jacqueline’s political bent, I’d expect that she’d prefer to burn the entire structure to the ground and start over.

  3. Violins and Starships »

    18 June 2009 · 2:48 pm

    The Final Comma…

    Okay, I’m convinced. I vaguely remember learning in school that you do not need to put a comma before “and” in a sentence like, “My favorite composers are Mozart, Bach, Dvorak and Beethoven.” In that sentence you could do it either way and there w…

  4. sya »

    18 June 2009 · 3:23 pm

    I am currently reading a writing how-to book where the author advocates using opaque-sounding jargon if your audience is expecting opaque-sounding jargon. It made me want to throw the book down and run over it with a tractor, but I’m sure the library wouldn’t appreciate me doing that.

    I’d like to think I’m more on the side of clarity rather than grammatical and stylistic snobbishness, but I’ll have to say that the serial comma is one of those things for which I do not compromise.

  5. Jacqueline »

    18 June 2009 · 4:13 pm

    “Do you think we could get Jacqueline to take on the tax code next?”

    I am actually in grad school studying to become a tax accountant. But I plan to work against the IRS, not for them, so I don’t know how much influence I’ll have over the code. :)

  6. Musings from Brian J. Noggle »

    18 June 2009 · 7:17 pm

    Sharing A Ministry…

    I beat that into enough designers that they do it correctly, years later and in different positions. And if only one of them passes the lesson on, I’m totally reaping the Amway benefits of knowledge-spreading….

  7. McGehee »

    18 June 2009 · 10:20 pm

    I have no idea where I picked up the habit of using that serial comma the way Jacqueline demands but I do remember quite distinctly being told to omit it, much later in my learning life.

    I probably leave it out by habit these days but I think I’ll make a point of including it from now on — especially since I have been known to insert commas where they may not necessarily be needed but help to set off different clauses in some of the convoluted compound sentences I sometimes write. Such as in the one instance in this entire comment where I do actually use a comma.

    Left to my own devices I could easily become a commaholic.

  8. Mark Alger »

    18 June 2009 · 10:37 pm

    Just tell the scientists and engineers it’s a delimiter. They’ll get the concept then.


  9. Dan »

    20 June 2009 · 1:28 am

    Well, actually – the passive construction is a voice, not a tense. And yes, scientists tend to abuse it mercilessly.

    This unsolicited pedantic quibble brought to you by the letters P and Q, and the number 4.

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