Who Gives a !@#$ About an Oxford Comma?

“There are people who embrace the Oxford comma, and people who don’t, and I’ll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken.” —Lynn Truss, author of “Eats, Shoots & Leaves”

Last Sunday, I was at Las Palapas, my favorite Mexican restaurant. (If you live near Livonia, Michigan, and you haven’t been, go now. It’s that good.) I was skimming through the menu when I came upon “Enchiladas Supremas,” described thusly: “Five different enchiladas: ground beef, shredded chicken, shredded beef, bean and cheese.” I was perplexed; the menu claimed five, but I only counted four—until I realized that bean and cheese were separate enchiladas, and whoever wrote the menu had chosen to exclude the Oxford comma.

The Oxford (a.k.a. serial) comma is the comma between a coordinating conjunction (“and,” “but,” “or,” “nor,” “for,” “yet,” and “so”) and the final item in a list. In the example above it would look like this: “The restaurant serves five different enchiladas: ground beef, shredded chicken, shredded beef, bean, and cheese.” It’s called the “Oxford” comma because it was traditionally used by writers and editors at the Oxford University Press. And it’s considered “stylistic,” which means some people use it while others don’t. Both camps are passionate about their positions.

Proponents of the Oxford comma (like me) believe it provides clarity; those opposed to it believe it unnecessarily clutters up a sentence. I thought we’d take a quick look at some examples each camp points to in order to make its case.

Oxford Comma Enthusiasts
The best way to illustrate why I’m such a staunch advocate of the Oxford comma is through sample sentences. So consider this pair:

  • I took a photograph of my parents, John Schneider, and Catherine Bach.
  • I took a photograph of my parents, John Schneider and Catherine Bach.

In the first instance, I’m taking a photo of my parents with ‘80s “legends” John Schneider and Catherine Bach. In the second, I’m taking a photo of my parents, who happen to be Bo and Daisy Duke. Awkward. (By the way, if I were to be associated with anyone from that show, I’d skip the Dukes altogether and adopt Flash.)

Here’s a similar instance:

  • I’d like to dedicate this award to my best friends, Stephen King, and Slash.
  • I’d like to dedicate this award to my best friends, Stephen King and Slash.

See the problem? Stephen King and Slash are not my best friends (although I’d have no objections to adding them to my inner circle).

Bottom line: I adore the Oxford comma because it organizes words into neat little clusters. You don’t have to question whether you’re getting one burrito with beans and cheese or two separate burritos—one containing only beans and one containing only cheese.

Oxford Comma Opponents
For this group, the argument comes down to overuse and pacing. Consider this quote from the New York Times style guide: “…too liberal use of this form of punctuation tends to slow up the pace of the reading matter and to create confusion and hesitancy in the mind of the reader.”

To which I respond, good. People are moving too quickly these days anyway. If having an extra character forces us to pause and maybe even think about what we’re reading (or, more likely, skimming), I’m all for it.

As for overuse, I can’t argue there. But they’re overused because they’re used incorrectly, either arbitrarily placed into sentences where they don’t belong or enablers of run-on sentences. Take this sentence from a book called “Housekeeping” by Marilynne Robinson: “I grew up with my younger sister, Lucille, under the care of my grandmother, Mrs. Sylvia Foster, and when she died, of her sisters-in-law, Misses Lily and Nona Foster, and when they fled, of her daughter, Mrs. Sylvia Fisher.” No wonder people get sick of the comma. (That book was nominated for a Pulitzer, by the way….)

But before I conclude this encomium on the Oxford comma, I do have to admit that it can, occasionally, be problematic. Take this example from an interview with Joe, one of Plante Moran’s retired partners: “The three most important mentors in my life were my father, Frank Moran, and my high school football coach.” Similar to the Bo and Daisy Duke example, readers could incorrectly assume that Joe’s father was Frank Moran. Including the Oxford comma is misleading. But instead of eliminating it, we simply numerated the list: “…(1) my father, (2) Frank Moran, and (3) my high school football coach.” (My frienditor also notes that we could have simply reordered the list: “…my father, coach, and Frank Moran.” As usual, good point.)

So what do you think? Are you a proponent of, opponent of, or simply indifferent to the Oxford comma? And did you know that Vampire Weekend actually wrote a song about it? They did. Check it out below. (But be warned—the first line contains a pretty distinct F-bomb, so you might not want to play it at work/around kids.)

Word of the Week: Encomium
Song of the Week: “Oxford Comma,” by Vampire Weekend

I Don’t Want None Unless You’ve Got Buns, Hun

Just when I finally got over my fear of its creepy royal mascot, Burger King had to go and introduce the Halloween Whopper, perhaps one of the least appetizing things I’ve ever seen. It has a black bun. Why? Because it’s infused with A.1. sauce, which the restaurant chain says turns the bun black. (Seems like the A.1 alone wouldn’t do it; however, it’s been many years since I had chemistry, and you know what I don’t like to think about with my fast food? Science.)

“While the pitch-black bun gives the Halloween Whopper sandwich a look that may make some think ‘hmmmmm?’ the burger’s classic A.1. flavors will have tasters saying ‘mmmmm,'” said Burger King.

Or in my case, “Mmmmm, no.”

I get that it’s Halloween and that Burger King is trying to think outside the box without necessarily thinking outside the bun, but what next? A green bun on St. Patrick’s Day infused with wasabi? And then this quote from the company: “While the green bun on the ‘sandwich’ may make some think, “Mold?” the burger’s cutting-edge wasabi flavors will have tasters saying, “Bold!”

That billion-dollar idea right there? It’s all yours, Burger King. You’re welcome.

But enough about the Halloween Whopper. In honor of tomorrow, I thought we’d talk about “scare quotes.” Also called “shudder quotes” and “sneer quotes,” this lesser-known punctuation technique places quotation marks around a word or phrase to signal that a term is being used in a nonstandard, ironic, or otherwise special sense. See how I put “sandwich” in single quotes two paragraphs ago? Those single quotes are scare quotes.

Here are a few other examples:

  • My “friend” forced me to listen to Toad the Wet Sprocket every day on our commute to Eastern back in 1993. (Yes, they’re a good band, but every day? Torture.)
  • Donald Trump’s “hair” is the subject of much ridicule.
  • These “brownies” contain black beans and apple sauce. (This recipe actually exists. Don’t try it.)

The quotes essentially replace the phrase “so-called.” You could eliminate the quotes and add “so-called” before each of the examples, and it would have the same connotation:

  • My so-called friend forced me to listen to Toad the Wet Sprocket every day on our commute to Eastern back in 1993.
  • Donald Trump’s so-called hair is the subject of much ridicule.
  • These so-called brownies contain black beans and apple sauce.

Because of this, another rule is never to use scare quotes in conjunction with “so-called” because it’s redundant. It would be like saying, “My new keyboard enables me to be able to play songs that use all 88 keys.” “Enables” is more than sufficient.

So how about you? Have you tried Burger King’s Halloween Whopper? Is it toothsome or gruesome? And, in honor of Halloween, what’s your favorite horror movie? I’m looking for something new to watch this weekend

*In case you were wondering, the grammatically incorrect title of this post comes from today’s song of the week. There’s much debate online (okay, not “much,” but some) about the spelling of “hun” vs. “hon.” Some like “hon” because it’s short for “honey,” but I prefer “hun” because of pronunciation. “Hun” is pronounced like “bun,” whereas I read “hon” like “on.”

Word of the Week: Toothsome
Song of the Week: “Baby Got Back,” by Sir Mix-a-Lot

Number 5 Is Alive

I’ve always been a bit of a hypochondriac. Headaches are possible brain tumors. Extreme fatigue could be cancer. And any inkling of chest pain sends me into a tailspin akin to Fred Sanford. (“You hear that Elizabeth? I’m comin’ to join you!”)

So when I learned that I needed to have to have surgery to remove my gallbladder and that surgery was going to be performed using a robot, I knew I was a goner.

Depending upon your perspective, robotic surgery is either cutting edge and exciting (most people’s perspective) or terrifying (my perspective). Basically, the surgeon sits at a special console many feet from (but ostensibly in the same room as) the patient. A very small 3D camera and dime-sized surgical instruments are placed inside the patient (i.e., me) through tiny incisions. Using the console’s hand and foot controls, the surgeon remotely moves robotic arms attached to surgical instruments. It’s less like surgery and more like Grand Theft Auto: The Operation Edition.

So why did I opt for the robot? Because I really like Dr. Robbins. He reminds me of a cross between Ben Stein and Stuart Smalley—he suffers fools lightly, and he’s good enough and smart enough to get the job done. Plus when I asked him if he’d go old-school, he agreed with one caveat: “driving” the robot was like driving an automatic after years of a standard transmission automobile. He can drive the standard, no problem—but he’d rather drive the automatic.

So I agreed to let Dr. Roboto do its thing. I began to refer to it as “Johnny 5” (after the beloved robot in the ‘80s movie, “Short Circuit”) because (1) Johnny 5 was alive—something I aspired to be after the procedure, and (2) I respected its “no disassemble” philosophy. Turns out, I made the right choice:

  1. My surgery was at 7:30 a.m., and I was home by 1:30 p.m.
  2. I have a single, tiny incision versus the multiple incisions inherent in a traditional laparoscopic procedure.
  3. Everything seems to be healing exactly as it should—I’m basically a textbook, best-case robot scenario. (Turns out, the robot comes in peace. Domo arigato, Dr. Roboto.)

Still, I did learn one lesson that I will take with me should I ever have to endure certain death again: knowledge is only power if you can do something with or about it.

I was actually more terrified of the anesthesia than I was of Johnny 5. When I met the anesthesiologist, I mentioned my terror (I used that exact word) and informed him that the last time I was under anesthesia, my blood pressure fell rather dramatically. He said that was normal. In fact, he said, “The initial drug we give you makes your blood pressure plummet. Immediately thereafter, the intubation makes your blood pressure skyrocket.” Then he paused, nodded to himself thoughtfully, and continued: “That’s probably the most dangerous part of the anesthesia.” And with that, I was whisked away to the operating room. Sweet dreams.

Before I sign off, I have to mention that I was struck by the nurses’ overwhelmingly correct use of the term “nauseated” throughout my brief stay. Everyone I encountered asked if I was “nauseated”; no one asked if I was “nauseous.” Although most everyone ignores this rule nowadays, the word “nauseated” means you feel sick whereas the word “nauseous” means “to induce nausea.” For example, you’d say, “The smell of eggs is nauseous” or “The smell of eggs nauseates me.” Outside of a hospital situation, nearly everyone interchanges the two, but not within the confines of Beaumont Hospital.

So what about you? Know anyone who’s had robot surgery? And if you were going to name your robot surgeon, what would you call it?

Word of the Week: Ostensibly
Song of the Week #1: “More Than a Woman,” by The Bee Gees
Song of the Week #2: “Mr. Roboto,” by Styx

Better Made Snake Foods—Vitamin-Fortified for Your Scaly Friends®

What do the following sentences have in common?

  1. You’re Cheetos are expired.
  2. An avid vegetarian, she never eats meet.
  3. Aren’t you curios how Lobstein will do for the Tigers?
  4. “Boris the Spider” is my favorite song from The How. (It was Jimi Hendrix’s favorite, two.)

If you’re thinking, “They all have mistakes,” you’re right. But that’s not what I’m going for here. The common thread is that all of the sentences contain mistakes that won’t be identified by a spell-checker. In fact, the only word that my spell-checker highlighted is “Lobstein,” which happens to be correct.

But My Spell-Checker Is a Lifesaver!
Sure. And by no means am I telling you to swear off your spell-checker. Whenever possible, everything you type should be spell-checked. But you can’t rely on it exclusively to ensure your documents are correct.

For example, last week I was typing up a summary of an interview we did with one of our clients. “For more than 50 years we’ve been fortunate to count Better Made Snake Foods among our clients,” I wrote. Except it’s actually Better Made Snack Foods—you know, the company that makes all of those delicious potato chips? Not a company that manufactures vitamin-fortified foods for reptiles. Kind of a big difference. Thankfully, I caught it later that day when I went back to proofread the document.

Here’s another example from an early draft of Stephen King’s “Salem’s Lot”: “Although deer season doesn’t start until November in Maine, the fields of October are often alive with gunshots; the locals are shooting as many peasants as they think their families will eat.” Although you never know with Stephen King, “peasants” was actually supposed to be “pheasants,” something his copyeditor caught upon review.

These little mistakes happen all the time: “form” when you mean “from”; “manger” when you want “manager”; “compiled” when you mean “complied”; “through” vs. “though”; “identify” vs. “identity”; the list goes on and on. One common mistake at Plante Moran: “manufactures” instead of “manufacturers” (it’s so easy to leave that extra “r” out). And on one horrifying, yet kind of hilarious, occasion, “certified pubic accountants” versus “certified public accountants.” (I personally caught that one years ago in a financial statement. If that were our specialty, we’d be a whole different kind of firm.)

Proofreading Is the Key
The only way to ensure a clean document is to have it proofread, preferably by someone like my awesome editor-friend (frienditor?) Alexis Zayed, who proofreads every blog I write. If you don’t have someone like that in your life, you’re going to have to proofread your documents yourself. Here are a few tips:

  • Try not to proofread a document immediately upon writing it. Odds are, you’ll read what you meant to write, not what’s actually on the page. Give it a day, if possible, or at least an hour or so.
  • Print the document versus proofreading it on your computer screen or—worse yet—your phone.
  • Read the document slowly and silently. Then read it again aloud. This way your ear might catch what your eyes didn’t.
  • Be mindful of version control. Just because a document was correct when you sent it out for review doesn’t mean it will be correct when you get it back. Proofread every version of every document, with extra-special emphasis on the final documents.

So how about you? Are there particular words you type by mistake that a spell-checker doesn’t pick up? And if you had a reptile, wouldn’t Better Made Snake Foods be an excellent place to shop for it?

Word of the Week: Ophidiophobia
Song of the Week: “Boris the Spider,” by The Who