I’m taking a break for Greek linguistics to talk about English punctuation.
I’ve been wanting to writ this for a while and finally got around to it when I saw John E. McIntyre‘s piece about why “not a word” isn’t an argument.
You’ve probably seen this picture at some point:
This one is funny, too:
Peevologists and grammar pedants particularly love little memes like this. They get to make their point and get a laugh at the same time. It’s just too bad that when it comes to making their point, well, the joke is on them.
Despite their entertainment value, sentences like these serve the opposite function if they’re taken as linguistic arguments. They demonstrate that world knowledge, encyclopedic semantics, and linguistic categorization invariably trump punctuation rules. The reality is that the more humorous the list of items, the lower the probability of misinterpretation. In fact, the very fact that these sentences can be used as jokes demonstrates just how unnecessary the Oxford comma is. For the joke to work, the audience needs to be able to properly interpret the list independent of comma usage. The humor only comes when an absurdist reanalysis of the category structure is put forward as a contrast.
The majority of humor is, itself, merely the unexpected juxtaposition of two or more entities.
So if we take the strippers, JFK and Stalin. The natural interpretation assumes that we are dealing with equipollent categories on the basis that each referent in the list belongs to the same higher order category: humans. The natural interpretation also relies on world knowledge of the referents involved: JFK and Stalin are male world leaders and strippers are prototypically assumed to be female unless the preceded by the adjective “male.” The joke interpretation relies on a reanalysis where the first item in the list functions as a higher order category for the following set. But that by itself isn’t enough for it to be funny. It also needs the natural interpretation is so strong that then the proposed reanalysis can be laughed at.
Sometimes world knowledge isn’t even necessary and the previous discourse context constrains the reading to just one:
Highlights of my trip home included hanging out with my brother, a clown and an amazing acrobat.
This sentence, even with the Oxford comma missing, still only has one reading. The interpretation is predicated on the fact that the higher level category is already established in the discourse: highlights and that category includes more than one item. The plural highlights prevents anything else. The comma isn’t necessary, thought it would still be useful here simply because redundancy. And the redundancy exists in normal speech, too. The prosodic structure of three item lists and the prosodic structure of CATEGORY X, Y and Z” are quite different. The comma simply formalizes that distinction in the written language.
All of this isn’t to say that good arguments for the Oxford comma cannot be made. They certainly can–the discussion in the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, for example, is superb. It’s just that a good argument requires example sentences that are significantly less entertaining.
I traveled to France, Caen and Le Havre.
I traveled to France, Luxembourg, and Brussels.
Each of these sentences would benefit from the Oxford comma (or its lack) for an audience whose knowledge of the world was lacking when it came to European geography.
But boring examples are just that: boring.
Suffice to say, even though they are terrible as linguistic arguments for the punctuation, as jokes, Oxford comma memes are still pretty awesome.
So keep them coming.
In the meantime, though, I’ll be back to Greek and cognitive linguistics.
*The typos, by the way, are intentional and subversive.