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HD: The Oxford Comma and the Law
Posted: 17 March 2017 09:16 AM   [ Ignore ]
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My take here.

This was originally brought up in this thread, but I’m starting this one in order to let the old thread die a natural death.

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Posted: 17 March 2017 12:10 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Thanks for this; I wasn’t going to post about it, but since everybody I know has been sending me a link, I guess I have to, and now I can just point at your thorough and sensible discussion.

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Posted: 17 March 2017 04:34 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Great piece, very thorough.

Ordinary written English has the potential to be ambiguous in several ways. It is hard to escape the ambiguity in the relationship between various clauses and phrases implied by conjunctions and punctuation, and I suppose that is why legal documentation often uses numbered lists, bullet points etc.

It’s inelegant and can even be tiresome, but sometimes it is the best way to overcome ambiguity.

The overtime will not apply to any of the following activities:
a) canning
b) processing
c) preserving
d) freezing
e) drying
f) marketing
g) storing
h) packing for shipment
i) distribution

of:any of the following materials:

(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.

Something like that.  Lawyers get paid enough, they should be alert to these things…

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Posted: 17 March 2017 11:57 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Good to have a reference point on this, and it confirms what I said in the older thread: That, in my opinion, is the nub of the matter - the clarity and fluency of each sentence, not the rigorous application of grammatical rules. If in doubt, rephrase, in order to avoid ambiguity, particularly in contentious legal citations.

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Posted: 18 March 2017 03:53 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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...the sentence should be rephrased if ambiguity results from its omission.

The problem with this is that ambiguity is easy to miss if the writer doesn’t pass the text to an independent editor.  The writer knows what they meant and can easily miss the fact that it is ambiguous.

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Posted: 18 March 2017 07:05 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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And just for fun, belts and braces, milky ambiguity, god, mother and country-

The New Yorker has a light-hearted reading of the kerfuffle

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Posted: 19 March 2017 12:41 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Thanks for that, chuchuflete.  Milk rules okay.

Faldage, I think we agree that careful editing, whether critical self-analysis or copy editing, will avoid confusion.  I don’t see the point of bringing this up again.

Who would have thought that one little punctuation mark could cause such reaction?

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Posted: 19 March 2017 02:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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ElizaD - 19 March 2017 12:41 AM

Faldage, I think we agree that careful editing, whether critical self-analysis or copy editing, will avoid confusion.  I don’t see the point of bringing this up again.

My point was that it’s pointless to dictate some style point and say that it can be ignored if ambiguity results without stressing that it sometimes takes another eye to spot ambiguity.  I’ll track down the Maine law style guide and see if they mention that.

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Posted: 19 March 2017 04:00 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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My point was that it’s pointless to dictate some style point and say that it can be ignored if ambiguity results without stressing that it sometimes takes another eye to spot ambiguity.  I’ll track down the Maine law style guide and see if they mention that.

That’s true for editing and proofreading generally; it’s not specific to the Oxford comma.

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Posted: 20 March 2017 04:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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John McWhorter weighs in.

While I agree with his general conclusion, he is, as usual, sloppy. For one thing, the language at issue in the court case isn’t in a union contract, it’s in a statute. That doesn’t change the linguistic analysis, but it shows that McWhorter didn’t bother to examine the original.

And he uses the tired “my parents, Mother Teresa and the Pope” example. While amusing, the example is problematic because it ignores context. No one is going to misunderstand what is being meant there because of a missing comma. (In the same way, “Let’s eat Grandma” isn’t going to be interpreted as a call for cannibalism by anyone.) A linguist like McWhorter should know better than to separate a usage from its context. And putting aside the fact that it is a chestnut, going for the cheap laughs runs roughshod over his main point that the comma just isn’t as important as people make it out to be.

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Posted: 20 March 2017 07:19 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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The issue isn’t just one of misunderstanding, but also of being unintentionally funny and therefore distracting. It’s true that nobody would actually think that the writer was claiming Mother Theresa and the Pope as her parents, but the fact that it initially reads that way is distracting.  And structurally identical phrases could be genuinely ambiguous if the appositive interpretation could not be so easily dismissed. 

I’m neither in favor of nor against Oxford commas, but I think either “rule” should be violated rather than create confusion.

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Posted: 20 March 2017 10:38 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Faldage - 19 March 2017 02:55 AM


My point was that it’s pointless to dictate some style point and say that it can be ignored if ambiguity results without stressing that it sometimes takes another eye to spot ambiguity.  I’ll track down the Maine law style guide and see if they mention that.

Instead of watching the snow melt, I had a quick look at our gubmint at work:

Maine Legislative Drafting Manual - A guide for drafting legislative instruments, the manual is periodically updated by the Revisor’s Office. The most recent version, as revised through October 2016, is available both on-line and in hard copy.  Hard copies are available to the public for a nominal fee.  In addition, a version of the drafting manual that may be downloaded in its entirety is available here: Drafting Manual, PDF Format (requires the Adobe Acrobat Reader which may be obtained here).

The online version is here: http://legislature.maine.gov/uploads/originals/draftman2016-1.pdf

Some of my neighbors, when not catching lobsters or doing carpentry—broadly defined—have served in the Maine State Legislature.  I have cause to doubt they have ever read this enormous style guide.

For comic relief, “C. Editing and proofreading. Following technical processing, proofreaders in the Office of the Revisor of Statutes edit the draft by checking for errors of grammar, punctuation, spelling, structure and arrangement and by helping ensure the draft’s consistency, coherence, clarity and conformity with this drafting manual. Proofreaders often offer suggestions or pose questions to address substantive ambiguities or inconsistencies in the draft.”

Page 125 is of special interest.

[ Edited: 20 March 2017 10:54 AM by cuchuflete ]
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Posted: 21 March 2017 02:34 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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cuchuflete - 20 March 2017 10:38 AM

Instead of watching the snow melt, I had a quick look at our gubmint at work:

Aside from defending the joys of watching snow melt at this time of year, I apologize for my laxness.  I did eventually track down the document in question but by then I had forgotten my promise to post it here.  Gracias, cuchflete.

cuchuflete - 20 March 2017 10:38 AM

Some of my neighbors, when not catching lobsters or doing carpentry—broadly defined—have served in the Maine State Legislature.  I have cause to doubt they have ever read this enormous style guide.

How many of them actually write any of the bills they sponsor or introduce?  I would think they would have people to do that for them, people who actually have read the over 100 page document in question.

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Posted: 21 March 2017 03:53 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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How many of them actually write any of the bills they sponsor or introduce?  I would think they would have people to do that for them, people who actually have read the over 100 page document in question.

Relatively few. Most bills are written by staffers and lobbyists, or are the result of “model legislation,” bills written by outside groups, sometimes for-profit special interests, sometimes more benign public institutions, that write a bill that can be introduced into any state legislature.

BTW, there was a link to the Maine legislative style guide in my article on the subject.

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Posted: 21 March 2017 01:06 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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First, let’s get this out of the way: the Oxford comma is a style choice.

That is a generalization, because there are many instances where any manner of punctuation can be a style choice. However, when there is ambiguity without the Oxford comma, then it is no longer a style choice; it becomes a choice for clarity rather than style.
For example, “Lisa found herself on the same bus with her ex-boyfriend, a musician and a pet detective.” (No Oxford comma)

“Lisa found herself on the same bus with her ex-boyfriend, a musician, and a pet detective.” (Oxford comma)

The difference is that the former denotes two people (Lisa and her ex-boyfriend); while the latter denotes four (Lisa, her ex-boyfriend, a musician, and a pet detective). Admittedly, the sentence with the Oxford comma is less confusing.

It’s not a hard rule of punctuation. Whether or not one chooses to use it is optional.

I agree, but do the rules apply to clarity/ After all, one doesn’t need to punctuate, “ Can you please pass the salt” with a question mark; nevertheless, it is a question and requires a question mark if one wants to adhere to punctuation rules. The lack of proper punctuation does not change the meaning of the sentence. Therefore, is it a hard rule of punctuation or is it optional ?

Those in favor of using it often argue that its use removes ambiguity, but that’s not necessarily the case.

That is true, but when it is the case, then I would think it would be wise to use it to avoid ambiguity.

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Posted: 21 March 2017 01:20 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Logophile - 21 March 2017 01:06 PM


“Lisa found herself on the same bus with her ex-boyfriend, a musician and a pet detective.” (no Oxford comma)

“Lisa found herself on the same bus with her ex-boyfriend, a musician, and a pet detective.” (Oxford comma)

The difference is that the former denotes two people (Lisa and her ex-boyfriend); while the latter denotes four (Lisa, her ex-boyfriend, a musician, and a pet detective). Admittedly, the sentence with the Oxford comma is less confusing.

Or three people, her ex boyfriend being a musician.

Those in favor of using it often argue that its use removes ambiguity, but that’s not necessarily the case.

Logophile - 21 March 2017 01:06 PM

That is true, but when it is the case, then I would think it would be wise to use it to avoid ambiguity.

Or one can recast the sentence:

“Lisa found herself on the same bus with a musician, a pet detective, and her ex-boyfriend.” (Oxford comma)

or

“Lisa found herself on the same bus with a musician, a pet detective and her ex-boyfriend.” ( no Oxford comma)

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