Sunday, 19 March 2017

Coincidences, punctuation, and originality

There is story told by the writer Bill Bryson which has always appealed to me. He recounts how, when working as a journalist, he was commissioned to write an article about strange coincidences. Moments later, he stumbled by chance on a book on the desk of a colleague. Its subject was ‘strange coincidences’.

I recalled this story because last week during a meeting I made a joke about the ‘Oxford comma’ (I know that sounds strange: you had to be there). The joke fell flat because no one else in the room knew what an Oxford comma is. The answer to that is that it is a comma (also known as a ‘serial comma’) inserted in a list of nouns before the final ‘and’ (and/or, sometimes, the final ‘or’). For example: ‘John, Jane, and Jill’. Sometimes, this can make a significant difference to the meaning of a sentence. For example: ‘This shirt is available in blue, black, green and white’ might be taken to mean that a green and white shirt is an option, whereas the insertion of the Oxford comma avoids this ambiguity. Thus: ‘This shirt is available in blue, black, green, and white’. It is called an Oxford comma because it is the house style of Oxford University Press (but by no means all publishers) always to use such a comma even if its exclusion would not create ambiguity or change the meaning.

So now for the coincidence. Immediately after the meeting, I logged on to twitter (my new addiction) and almost the first thing I saw was a link to a news story about how the absence of an Oxford comma had, that very day, proved decisive in a legal dispute about overtime payments between dairy drivers and their employer in the State of Maine in the USA. The State’s law says that the following activities do not count for overtime pay:The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods”. (By the way, unless I am wrong, that last semi-colon is an Oxford semi-colon, if there is such a thing).

The case hinged on the ambiguity created by the lack of a comma between “packing for shipment” and “or”. The drivers distribute but they do not pack and the lack of the Oxford comma means that the law implies that it is “packing for distribution” that is exempt from overtime payments, not distribution itself. The court agreed; the drivers are entitled to overtime payments, and this may cost the company some $10 million. That, by the way, is the tangential and only link between this post and the ostensible organization studies focus of this blog.

This is not the first time a comma has featured in a legal case (in fact, I am sure there are many examples). Famously, Roger Casement was ‘hanged for a comma’ in 1916 having sought unsuccessfully to defend himself from the charge of treason on the basis of an ambiguity created by a missing comma in the 1351 Treason Act. This case is discussed by Lynne Truss in her estimable book on punctuation Eats, Shoots & Leaves (2003: 99-101). It is a bit much to be hanged for a comma - it is not as if he had used the word 'disinterested' as if it meant 'uninterested'. That really is a hanging offence.

In my book (p.14) I refer to the saying ‘words are loaded pistols, we use them at our peril’ (I refer to it is an anonymous saying, but I’ve since learned that the ‘words are loaded pistols’ part, at least, is attributable to Jean-Paul Sartre). If so, punctuation is the firing mechanism. One should be wary, though, about pedantry as all too often it is liable to backfire as other pedants correct one’s own pedantry. So, like Yiannis Gabriel, who recently wrote about the use and misuse of the apostrophe, I see little point in being too fussy about punctuation. On the subject of apostrophes, though, I do like one arcane point which is that adjectival nouns do not take apostrophes. For example, there is no apostrophe after ‘boys’ in ‘boys night out’ (although Word spellcheck does not like it) in those cases when it is used to describe the nature of the night rather than the participants. Thus, pleasingly, one can write: ‘John went to the opera; the boy’s night out was enjoyable. Jim and Bill went to the pub; the boys’ night out was a great success. Meanwhile, the girls had a boys night out’. This knowledge, even if it is correct, has never been the slightest use to me.

However, as the Oxford comma court case shows, you can never tell when knowing about punctuation may come in handy. It may even provide material for an unusual blog post. Or so I thought. But, in a final coincidence, having written this post with the idea that it would relate to an obscure news story that very few would be aware of I discovered that it has featured in numerous articles in all the main national newspapers in the UK, USA and, no doubt, further afield. It was only when I searched for a link to the definition of an Oxford comma that I realised this. Attempts at originality, like linguistic pedantry, are fraught with risk. Perhaps the best way to put the lesson learned is in future to think, google, and write.

No comments:

Post a Comment