Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Ask the Paperboy, Chapter 49: Commas I have known

From the April 19 editions of The Times and News-Star

Dear Ask the Paperboy,
We are going around and around here about whether or not to use the Oxford comma. My grammar text says use it; the Chicago Style Manual and a couple of others say to use it. But now the AP Stylebook says specifically it should not be used. If you were writing for my company and wanted consistency in all our letters, publications and other documents, would YOU, Paperboy, use the Oxford comma or not?

Thank you for your expertise,
Confounded by commas in Calhoun

Dear Confounded,
To comma, or not to comma: That is the query.

I, would, not, use, the, comma.

I did there, but that was to illustrate that commas are taking over America. Not as quickly as political correctness and vampires, but they are certainly doing more than their share. It’s rare I take such a hard stance on punctuation, but commas, well, commas had it coming.

The “Oxford” or “serial” comma is the comma before the word “and” at the end of a list. Like, “Please pick up milk, bread, and toilet paper.”

Fine. Nothing wrong with it – other than it takes up space. You don’t need it. Writing is about leaving out what the reader doesn’t need. Of course, with or without the comma, the sentence is still imperfect because “toilet paper” is redundant. If you’re going to the store, toilet paper is a given; you can never have too much. But nobody asked me about toilet paper, so we will move along.

The only time I use it is if the series has an “and” between specific things in the list. Here are examples.
“The puppy was red, brown and black, and green.” (As opposed to a puppy being red, brown, black and green.)

Or, “The bank gives refunds to boys and girls, to friends, and to family.”

And of course always use it if needed to help prevent misreading. In the sentence following, there is no chance of misreading:

“The flag is red, white and blue.”

If your teacher wants you to use the Oxford comma, do so. It will keep you on your toes as you learn what commas are about and how they can help or hurt you. (There are six ways to use commas, honestly, just as there are six ways a batter can reach base without getting a hit. Look it up.) But since the Oxford comma is optional, why not drop it like you would a bad donut. “America is the land of the red, white and blue.” No comma between “white” and “and.” No need. This is what we shoot for. We live in an over-commaed society; let’s do our part to change that.


Dear Ask the Paperboy:
Why does my local news station place a reporter outside whenever the weather threatens to get below freezing, to see how long it takes the reporter to freeze? I’ve noticed that this year they at least put some water out there and not a reporter, so I guess that’s progress.

With regards,
Viewer in Vivian

Dear Viewer,
In a world where one can depend on few things outside of the love of his dog, the shot you describe is an anchor for us all. View it that way, as a positive and not a negative.

Another one is a live shot from the post office at 10 p.m. on April 15; you might have noticed if you were up late Wednesday. We at the paper are not above writing such a story either.
Notice how a winter storm always “blankets” the countryside? How angry postal workers are described as “disgruntled” in stories? In a world of inconsistency, cliché can sometimes be a good thing. As Ben Franklin/Poor Richard said, “Waste not, won’t not.” That doesn’t fit here, but it’s still good advice. Like "A penny saved is a penny urned."


Dear Ask the Paperboy,
Why do people say “hold the phone” when they want me to wait on them?
Busy in Bunkie

Dear Busy,
Back in the day, newspaper writers would often update stories from phone booths. If news were breaking even as they were updating the copy desk, they would say “Hold the phone!” in a frantic-like state as they rushed to investigate and quickly return. So the copy desk person would sit there working while continuing to hold the phone. When my mother told me to hold the phone -- not because she was newspapering but because she had to turn off the bathwater or stir the macaroni -- I stood in the kitchen by the icebox or in the hall by the bathroom because that’s where the phone was. Few phones in hallways and kitchens today is a testament to our modern world. Now everyone is holding the phone all the time, either in their hand or pocket.


Dear Ask the Paperboy,
Pick up toilet paper on the way home. Exclamation point.

Roger. Hold the phone.