Monthly Archives: June 2015

On Grammar, Punctuation, and Serial Commas


Dear Editor

Yes, you personally! Stop messing with my Serial commas, or my Oxford commas, or my Harvard commas, or my Series commas or however else you wish to refer to that punctuation mark I placed before the “and” at the end of a series. I do know quite well that you are philosophically opposed to them, but there are good reasons why I keep putting them in anyway – I mean apart from my sadistic compulsion to make your job miserable or to cleverly distract you from focusing on actual flaws in my manuscript.

Believe me I do sympathize with the visceral pain of abandoning a proofreading rule that was drilled into you back in Editing 101. After all, the AP Stylebook banned it for all eternity. But that journalism convention is now an archaic remnant of the olden days when every character had to be manually typeset on the printed page and every “excess” character that could be eliminated meant less typesetting effort, faster time to print, and greater profits. But that is no longer a concern today, and there is no longer any need to continue to sacrifice clarity and precision in order to avoid the manual placement of another comma.

And make no mistake; any writing that abandons the correct use of the serial comma is far less precise. For example, if I craft the following sentence…

We received shipments of produce, livestock, tea, and spice.

I intend this to clearly communicate that four separate shipments were received. If you automatically remove my serial comma as follows…

We received shipments of produce, livestock, tea and spice.

You have materially undermined my intent. Does this sentence now communicate clearly that four shipments were received or might it have been only three? The reader can no longer be sure. By automatically removing all of my serial commas, you have reduced the richness of information, lowered precision, created ambiguity, and even introduced an error.

And depending on the context and purpose of the statement, it might really, really matter whether four shipments were received instead of only three. You would not willy-nilly delete “unnecessary” parentheses from a mathematics equation, so why would you effectively do the same with my precisely punctuated prose?

Deletion of the serial comma is especially egregious to anyone with a math, science, legal, or computer programming background. We are trained to be as clear and unambiguous in our writing as possible. But when you are editing any work, let alone a scientific paper or technical manual, you probably do not have the subject matter expertise to determine if and how you might be changing the precise meaning that the author has communicated by including or omitting a serial comma.

Even in fiction and non-technical writing, a smart author uses the serial comma in a smart manner. Not only to indicate non-grouping of the final items in the series, but to establish style. I read all my writing out loud, especially dialog, to get just the right, natural-sounding cadence from the character’s unique voice. Sometimes that calls for a comma to make it sound or read the way I intend. When you remove that carefully crafted comma, you undermine not only the meaning, but also the artistic voice of the author. That frankly violates what should be your most sacred prime directive as an editor – do no harm.

Editors: Get over what you were taught about serial commas. Even the AP Stylebook endorses its use when it enhances clarity. But more importantly, trust the author to appropriately express subtleties of meaning and style through their careful use of the serial comma. Unless they obviously misuse it, like if they include it when they really intended the final two items to be grouped, or vice versa, don’t presume that you fully understand how the comma might alter the intent and meaning of the text.

Authors: Don’t be bullied into following some archaic rule of grammar here, but do be consistent. Use the serial comma if the final two items are ungrouped; exclude it if they are grouped. And if it makes no difference, use it artistically to express nuances of cadence or style.

And to both of you, take heart. You are not out on a limb here. If your literary competency is questioned, you can simply refer your critic to the Chicago Manual of Style, MLA Style Guide, and many other institutions who all endorse consistent use of the serial comma. Proof by authority is all some people will accept.

But if that isn’t enough to sufficiently pacify the stubborn stickler regarding the serial commas included by you, cite starting conjunctions, split infinitives, passive verbs, and ending prepositions as other outmoded grammatical proscriptions that should no longer be mindlessly adhered to.

Sincerely, Author

P.S. Further reading can be found in this post on Tin House.

Comic Book Kid

As a kid I had a super power. It was reading comics. And I read lots. I mean lots. I mean like every one ever printed up until that time. And that was a lot. Moreover I read each one many, many times. Not online, but actual ink imprinted upon actual paper. They were best savored at 2 a.m. on a school night under the covers with a flashlight.

During grade school in the 60’s, my friend Mike and I were mentored in superhero comportment by George Reeves in Superman reruns from the 50’s. From our super-secret base in Mike’s garage, we protected South-side Milwaukee from super-villains who were only detectable by means of our super-vision. Equipped with dramatically flowing capes fabricated from advanced bed sheet technology, we tracked them using our super-computer cleverly disguised as an old hub cap and leapt into action to foil their diabolical plans that always seemed to unfold in Mike’s back yard.

Other than George Reeves, superheroes pretty much only lived in comics and in our imaginations. At that time, new comics only appeared on drug store racks every Thursday. I’d make the rounds every week before the new stock even made it to the rack, ready with my 12 cents per copy that I mostly earned by collecting newspapers door-to-door for recycling; old boring paper out, new exciting paper in. I was hit hard by the big financial disaster of ’69 when comic prices jumped to 15 cents.

There was no real “comic collecting” back then. In fact, comics were almost universally seen as even less valuable than old newspapers. Not even suitable for parakeet cage liners. There were no dedicated stores, no conventions, no fan magazines, no web sites, no price guides, no Comic Book Men TV show, nothing. The entire industry around comic collection is a relatively recent invention.

Back then I procured my old comics from Mary’s second-hand store. It was a tiny hole-in-the-wall with all kinds of useless junk and even in that setting Mary didn’t feel that comics deserved to be placed out in public view. She acquired them when she could buy them dirt cheap and tossed them into a box under her cluttered desk that she dragged out for me each Saturday.

Gradually, week by week, my collection expanded organically. I rescued many of the virtually discarded comics from Mary’s box under the desk like they were abandoned kittens, sheltering them in my bedroom where their number grew steadily. To be clear, I never had any intent to collect. My only goal was to discover these precious comics so I could read them over and over and fill in the gaps as I read episodes of mostly forgotten old story lines in random order.

When I started my paper delivery route (again my fortunes were tied to the newspaper industry), I became flush with actual dollar bills every week. I quickly exhausted Mary’s relatively meager supply and discovered the “Old Town” vintage store in downtown Milwaukee. Although ostensibly a “collectable” store, it was really pretty much just an upgraded version of Mary’s second-hand junk store. But they did value comics and had a whole section in back with boxes bulging with them. It was the mother-load of those flat, rectangular gems!

So my Saturdays throughout the 60’s and 70’s routinely entailed trekking west out to Mary’s and then east back across the viaduct to Old Town to spend my paper route money or earnings from subsequent jobs. My collection gradually grew into many thousands of issues. Let’s be clear, my mother was not enthusiastic about this. Every time she ventured into my bedroom she would direct me to “get rid of all this crap.” Somehow I never got around to it. Each one was too valuable to part with. Not because of their monetary value but because they were innately precious. They told long lost stories that needed to be protected. Parting with even one issue in a series would be to leave a hole in a puzzle; a missing page in a larger book.

In 7th grade I augmented my paper route money with a second job as a bus boy at a Vera’s restaurant. That same 7th grade summer Mike and I took a roadtrip to central Manhattan where we visited DC comics where we appeared unannounced and talked ourselves into a personal tour from Carmine Infantino. A waitress at the restaurant introduced me to her son Greg, twice my age, who had also amassed a large comic empire. I became friends with him and he introduced me to a larger world of collecting, buying, and even selling. At that time there was not yet any formal comic market. It was just enthusiasts who mostly knew each other and communicated by letters or phone calls. There were new “fanzines” that were very crudely “published” advertisements from individuals to buy and sell comics between each other.

Comic AdSo, in order to satisfy my comic appetite quicker, I started to buy and sell too. I would sell duplicate issues for comics I needed to fill out my series. That entailed road trips to get together with other collectors to swap directly or typing out ads to publish in a fanzine, describing each item’s individual condition in meticulous detail. As a kid with no adult supervision whatsoever I was engaged in mail-order commerce, fulfilling daily orders for comics, carefully packaging them, and hauling them down to the post office. One had to be scrupulous in all these regards as in this small community one misrepresentation could destroy ones credibility.

Eventually my mom started to realize that these comics were actually worth real money. Suddenly the attitudes about my now barely tolerated collection, then well over 10,000, changed dramatically. Now suddenly it was respectable, even valued. My family quickly subsidized my passion with bookcases and wall-shelving for my bedroom to store all these suddenly precious comics. But I always found this distasteful. To me their worth was purely in their stories, never in their monetary value. I felt scorn for those who only started caring about comics after they became it became popular and lucrative and geeky-sheek to do so.

In fact, as the entire nation woke up to the “value” of comics, as more and more people started to buy them mostly because of their rapidly inflating monetary value, I inverse-proportionately lost interest. After I left home and it became logistically unfeasible to haul around my collection, I finally sold it all off. Collecting is best suited to sedentary types, not college students barely living in one dorm room very long, let alone in any one country.

When Greg bought up the remainder of my collection in one big bulk purchase, my puzzle was virtually complete with every issue, from #1 onwards, of every series printed up to that time. My DC collection went way back to a 1938 issue of Adventure comics and included series that went back as far as Action #10 and Batman #5. At one point I held in my very own hands a “good” copy of Action #1, agonizing over buying it, but I decided to put the $500 that was being asked into other issues. In the relatively recent Marvel world I had every single issue – right back to multiple copies of Spiderman #1, Fantastic Four #1 and the rest.

When I sold off my collection it was just at the start of the skyrocketing price curve. So I didn’t make a fortune my any stretch. But I did make enough profit to help see me through college. Do I regret selling off what would today be an immensely valuable collection? A bit but not really. The thing about collecting is that there is never a good time to sell. If you hold on it will always eventually get more valuable, if not for you for your children.

But making or losing money didn’t matter anyway. What mattered was not the short-term profit my efforts yielded, but the priceless and undying experiences those comics gave me. They instilled me with a “comic book” sensibility and a heroic world-view that I proudly retain to this day.

Back when Mike and I ran around zapping villains in his yard, we dreamed of an impossible future when we might see our heroes portrayed in the movies. We specifically speculated about the possibility of a day when Green Lantern might come to life in a live-action movie, showing off the full capability of his amazing Power Ring. What amazes me is that we lived to see that impossible dream come to life pushing 50 years later. I have to think that comics were instrumental in giving us the imagination to dream that crazy dream and the enduring spirit to remain “true believers” until it became reality.

Religion and Torture

Recently we Americans have been forced to confront real questions arising from our use of torture. Do we rationalize its use in certain circumstances but not others? Even ignoring the question of whether it actually works, does the end ever really justify the means? Is torture acceptable when our government is responsible but unacceptable when conducted by some foreign entity? Do we outright deny the validity of the Geneva Conventions or do we merely deny that what we do is technically torture? Do we view it as a necessary evil to protect our lives and freedoms?

Or do we condemn torture categorically regardless of any rationale? Do we support the prosecution of those who engage in torture regardless of their position in our government or even within our own party?

It turns out that our views on religion are a strong indicator of how we are likely to answer these important questions.

Religion has long walked hand in hand with violence, war, and torture; neither leading, neither following, but each symbiotically sustaining the other. Most of us are quick to draw an unholy relationship between radical Islam and a culture of war and torture. But we are extremely reluctant to acknowledge that a majority of Christians are also willing to embrace violence and even torture. The marriage of guns and Bible has been a long and horrific union, but the Christian embrace of torture goes back to the Inquisitions and far beyond that to the Old Testament.


And this tendency still persists. That is not merely a biased, anecdotal assessment based on long-abandoned barbarisms of the distant past, or even more recent cultural memories of racial atrocities perpetrated by Christian zealots during the last century. Religious rationalizations of and even engagement in violence and torture is still alive and well today. Certainly, many Christians and Muslims alike denounce violence and torture in word and deed, but amongst Christians at least, those who take a stand against torture are a statistical minority.

The Christian willingness, and even eagerness, to embrace the inhumanity of man towards man is exposed and quantified by the findings of current and credible polling studies. According to a recent Pew survey, people who attend church at least once a week are more likely to say that torture is often or sometimes justifiable. Christians in fact are often measurably ahead of the rest of the country when it comes to waging war or condoning brutality and violence. Indeed, Evangelicals supported President Bush and his fabricated Iraq war more strongly than most any other demographic.

And the Pew poll is hardly the only one confirming that this Christian embrace of violence extends to torture. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that while 59% of Americans believe that the CIA treatment of suspected terrorists while held in detention was justified, the level of approval was much higher among Christians. That poll found that while 72% of non-religious people believe that the CIA treatment of detainees amounted to torture, only 39% of Evangelicals agree with that assessment. By all measures, Christians are more likely to condone torture than non-religious folk.

When the same poll asked whether the CIA “treatment” was justified, approval for this activity (whether or not you call it torture) was dramatically higher amongst all religious demographics than non-religious ones. Conversely, disapproval was far higher amongst non-religious respondents than it was for any religious demographic.


As is evident in these results, non-religious Americans are far more likely to view this treatment as torture and likewise to disapprove of its use than any Christian demographic. These findings directly dispute the raison d’être of religion, which is the claim that it imparts superior moral and ethical principles and that a lack of a religious foundation results in less developed moral reasoning.

We atheists and other non-religious groups clearly hold the moral high-ground on torture as well as on a wide range of critical moral and ethical issues. But we need to do far better in translating our deeply held humanist convictions into tangible actions that make the world a more humane place in which to live, starting with abolishing torture in our own country – even with regard to enemy combatants. We need to not only hold the high ground here, but build a great beacon of light upon it and shine it upon the world. We need to speak out and even march at every opportunity against violence, war, and torture and draw clear and unmistakable lines between where we stand on these issues, and the culture of violence and torture that many in the religious community would like perpetuate and even expand.

You can explore this topic further by starting with this post by Sarah Posner.