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HD: The Oxford Comma and the Law
Posted: 21 March 2017 01:54 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 16 ]
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By “hard rule” I meant that one either always uses it or one never uses it. The reason it’s not a hard rule is precisely because of the ambiguity. You use it when you need to and avoid it when it’s confusing.

Commas, in general, resist hard rules.

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Posted: 23 March 2017 08:32 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 17 ]
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Commas in general resist hard rules.

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Posted: 23 March 2017 04:24 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 18 ]
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It might be perilous should we resist all hard rules.

Consult a doctor should these symptoms occur:  Nausea, excessive vomiting, severe headaches, unable to eat diarrhea, and fever.

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Posted: 23 March 2017 11:23 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 19 ]
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I’m not sure I see the relevance of that. It has nothing to do with the Oxford comma, and also requires the copywriter to be illiterate enough to substitute the adjective ‘unable’ for the expected noun ‘inability’.

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Posted: 24 March 2017 01:08 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 20 ]
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kurwamac - 23 March 2017 11:23 PM

I’m not sure I see the relevance of that. It has nothing to do with the Oxford comma, and also requires the copywriter to be illiterate enough to substitute the adjective ‘unable’ for the expected noun ‘inability’.

Um, in its current form it suggest that inability to eat diarrhea is one of the problems.

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Posted: 24 March 2017 03:32 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 21 ]
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Like many bad analyses of grammar (technically in this case, punctuation), it ignores context. Like let’s eat grandma, no one is going to misinterpret this. You cannot remove a particular linguistic construction from its context.

Now, if you argued that the comma was required here because without it the reader takes longer to properly analyze the sentence or that the silly alternative is distracting, then you have a point. But the sentence most definitely does not say that the inability to eat feces is a side effect of the drug.

And when it comes to punctuation, remember that there is no punctuation in speech, and we get along just fine. I study the medieval period, when writing had no punctuation as we know it today. People got along just fine. Punctuation helps, sometimes it helps a great deal, but rarely is it a necessity.

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Posted: 24 March 2017 07:23 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 22 ]
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Consult a doctor should these symptoms occur:  Nausea, excessive vomiting, severe headaches, unable to eat diarrhea, and fever.

This is an example of a comma missing from a list, not of the Oxford comma. Apart from changing “unable to” to “inability” and inserting a comma after “eat”, both sentences, with and without the Oxford comma, are acceptable:

Consult a doctor should these symptoms occur:  Nausea, excessive vomiting, severe headaches, inability to eat, diarrhea and fever.
Consult a doctor should these symptoms occur:  Nausea, excessive vomiting, severe headaches, inability to eat, diarrhea, and fever.

I study the medieval period, when writing had no punctuation as we know it today. People got along just fine. Punctuation helps, sometimes it helps a great deal, but rarely is it a necessity.


Though people in the medieval period weren’t as conscious of litigation as we are today.

Why is it called the Oxford comma?

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Posted: 24 March 2017 10:52 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 23 ]
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Why is it called the Oxford comma?

British usage tends to disfavor it, with a notable exception of Oxford University Press which requires it in its publications. Hence the name. The more generic name is serial comma.

American usage tends to favor it. Canadian usage, as usual, is pretty evenly split.

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Posted: 24 March 2017 11:42 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 24 ]
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Though people in the medieval period weren’t as conscious of litigation as we are today.

Ahem...biblical exegesis.

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Posted: 24 March 2017 11:21 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 25 ]
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I’m not sure I see the relevance of that. It has nothing to do with the Oxford comma,

The relevance has to do with: “Commas in general resist hard rules.” My post was in response to that comment.

and also requires the copywriter to be illiterate enough to substitute the adjective ‘unable’ for the expected noun ‘inability’.

I would appreciate an explanation for that statement; I’m obviously missing something.

Like many bad analyses of grammar (technically in this case, punctuation), it ignores context.

It is not about context; it is about clarity. Commas are not always essential for clear communication, but sometimes they are. They also express a variety of tones, which can be useful in writing.

And when it comes to punctuation, remember that there is no punctuation in speech, and we get along just fine.

That’s a false equivalence; punctuation was devised for the written word precisely to clarify meaning. 

I study the medieval period, when writing had no punctuation as we know it today. People got along just fine.

Again, I don’t think that is a very good comparison.  They did not get along just fine for the reason that the majority of the population could not read at all and many who could read could not write. 
In ancient Greece the lack of punctuation made it very difficult for an individual to understand a text for the first time. If an individual had to read out loud to a group, he would have to read it extensively beforehand in order to fully comprehend the meaning. 

Punctuation helps, sometimes it helps a great deal, but rarely is it a necessity.

Please explain. When would it not be a necessity? I would think it would rarely not be a necessity?

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Posted: 25 March 2017 12:22 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 26 ]
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Logophile - 24 March 2017 11:21 PM

I would appreciate an explanation for that statement; I’m obviously missing something.

The list of symptoms is a list of nouns. ‘Unable’ is not a noun; ‘inability’ is. However, given that substituting the correct latter for the incorrect former would give the same meaning, take it as a symptom of my crankiness rather than as a genuine objection.

Please explain. When would it not be a necessity? I would think it would rarely not be a necessity?

The quote that this is a response to was not my comment, but I should have thought the answer was obvious. In your example, for instance: if this were in fact the text that people were confronted with on their bottle of medication, how many of them, do you think, would have returned to their doctor and reported that they were now unable to eat diarrhoea, no matter how they cooked it, and were terribly worried about whether they should continue with the drug?

[ Edited: 25 March 2017 12:25 AM by kurwamac ]
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Posted: 25 March 2017 04:13 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 27 ]
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The relevance has to do with: “Commas in general resist hard rules.” My post was in response to that comment.

I phrased that very carefully. Most types of punctuation have hard rules. There are clear instances where style demands that you use them and when it demands you should not. Commas are not like that. They are slippery beasts. For example, you separate an introductory phrase from the main clause of a sentence with a comma. Only you don’t when the introductory phrase is short. How do you define short? Well, it’s a judgment call. You use a comma if you think you need to. Many “rules” of punctuation, the Oxford comma being perhaps the most famous example, are different depending on what style guide you consult. If the “rule” changes depending on which book you look at, then it’s not a hard rule.

Here’s a paragraph from today’s New York Times with the punctuation and capitalization removed:

a major reason for the bill’s demise was the opposition of members of the conservative house freedom caucus which wanted more aggressive steps to lower insurance costs and to dismantle federal regulation of insurance products in a day of high drama mr ryan rushed to the white house shortly after noon on friday to tell mr trump he did not have the votes for a repeal bill that had been promised for seven years since Mr. Obama signed the landmark health care law during a 3 pm phone call the two men decided to withdraw the bill rather than watch its defeat on the House floor

Here’s it again with simple punctuation and capitalization, to mark the end of sentences, retained:

A major reason for the bill’s demise was the opposition of members of the conservative house freedom caucus which wanted more aggressive steps to lower insurance costs and to dismantle federal regulation of insurance products. In a day of high drama mr ryan rushed to the white house shortly after noon on friday to tell mr trump he did not have the votes for a repeal bill that had been promised for seven years since Mr. Obama signed the landmark health care law. During a 3 pm phone call the two men decided to withdraw the bill rather than watch its defeat on the House floor

It does not lack clarity. It can be read and understood, not easily, but it can be. As your own words indicate—one has to read it “extensively [...] to fully comprehend the meaning.” Punctuation makes it easier, sometimes a lot easier—mainly because we’re trained to read with its aid—but it isn’t necessary. And if you add very simple punctuation, just a period at the end of sentences, the reading becomes almost effortless. The commas don’t contribute all that much.

I’m not saying we should abolish punctuation. It does help a lot. But my point is that punctuation, especially the comma, doesn’t impact meaning much, if at all. And the cardinal sin of any linguistic analysis is to remove a sentence from its context and then make an argument about its meaning. Language must be understood in context.

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Posted: 25 March 2017 10:16 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 28 ]
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The list of symptoms is a list of nouns. ‘Unable’ is not a noun; ‘inability’ is. However, given that substituting the correct latter for the incorrect former would give the same meaning, take it as a symptom of my crankiness rather than as a genuine objection.

Thank you for the explanation, because now I understand my confusion.

Actually, excessive and vomiting, are not nouns. Also, I thought you were referring to the faulty parallelism in the list. When I read these warning labels I find that the lists are infrequently paired constructions.

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Posted: 25 March 2017 11:43 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 29 ]
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’Excessive’ is not a noun, but it modifies ‘vomiting’, so I’m not sure what the point is here. ‘Vomiting’ is a noun in this context.

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Posted: 26 March 2017 08:52 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 30 ]
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kurwamac - 25 March 2017 11:43 PM

‘Excessive’ is not a noun, but it modifies ‘vomiting’, so I’m not sure what the point is here. ‘Vomiting’ is a noun in this context.

The point is, it’s just a warning label, and the list is a nonparallel structure. Actually, I admire your punctiliousness in detecting the grammatical foible. It was for this reason that I asked you for an explanation; no argument, I’m in agreement.

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