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Of Language, Commas, and Paradoxes

 The english language is full of paradoxes and divisive nuances. Something as small as a comma can cost a company millions, and yet, the same may not even be recognised by the consumers. We look into possible causes behind this.

 

“Eats, shoots and leaves.”

“Eats shoots and leaves.”

What differs in the sentences above is not just a comma but also the same words taking on an entirely different paradigm in meaning. Anyone who feels that punctuation is only for grammar nerds is under serious misconceptions, as can be reiterated through the infamous “Let’s eat Grandma” example. Punctuation doesn’t pertain only to grammar enthusiasts; it’s a necessity that demands seriousness to save money and embarrassment. When language was primarily spoken, pauses during speech indicated what the comma signifies in written pieces. Most grammar rules are acknowledged worldwide, sparing one which has been a bone of contention between several linguists: the Oxford comma.

The Oxford or serial comma, is the additional comma that follows after ‘and’ as well as ‘or’ in a list of more than 3 items. Many style guides abhor the use of this punctuation mark: The Economist, The New York Times, and AP (the style guide most newspapers follow). However, others like the Chicago Style Manual recognise its importance. In recent years, the Oxford comma has formed a niché for itself in popular culture and has increasingly found usage in modern day writings. Although it’s considered stylistic and unnecessary by many, the tiny mark carries immense significance in removing ambiguity and establishing fact. Supporters of the serial comma demand it to be made mandatory, especially after a court ruling that penalised the lawmakers who overlooked its applicability. In a hotly debated case from March 2017, a court in Maine, USA, charged a dairy to pay $10 million to five truck drivers. The sentence that resulted in this controversial ruling was:

“The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

  1. Agricultural produce
  2. Meat and fish items
  3. Perishable foods”

The questions that arise from this statement are multiple, including whether or not packing for shipment was distinct from distribution, and if it was indeed overtime pay exempt. Addressing these questions, the judge ruled in favour of the truck drivers, and maintained that without the comma the distinction was not clear. The dairy had to pay an estimated amount of $10 million to the five truck drivers, as they were included in the overtime pay as per the judge’s ruling.

Similar errors have surfaced because of the absence of an oxford comma. But there have also been instances where the Oxford comma doesn’t exactly help in removing ambiguity. The article headline, “Encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector”, has successfully put Nelson Mandela’s reputation at stake. But an Oxford comma may not have solved it either. It’s best if such sentences are rephrased and reordered to avoid miscommunication and unnecessary inconvenience to the reader.

The English language is full of nuances and dichotomies. With the supporters for the comma growing, it’s advisable to recognise it despite its apparent downside. At least this way, next time, a lawmaker would not be held responsible for costing his company millions of dollars for vehemently refusing to add a comma where it was required.

 

Feature Image Credits: CNN

 

Vijeata Balani

vijeatab@dubeat.com



Journalism has been called the “first rough draft of history”. D.U.B may be termed as the first rough draft of DU history. Freedom to Express.


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