Given Pause

by on Jun.04, 2010, under philosophy, TV

I was up last night enjoying my double-shot of fake news, and found myself surprised by Stephen Colbert.  Okay, that on its own is not surprising – his brand of humor revolves around being startlingly if mockingly conservative and I for one get and enjoy the joke.  But no, he was in the midst of an interview with the band Vampire Weekend and brought up a reference to one of their lyrics about the Oxford comma.

If you are not familiar with the Oxford comma (I hadn’t been familiar with it by that name until last night myself), it is the final comma before “and” or “or” in a list if 3 or more items (e.g., apples, bananas>,< and cantaloupes).  I’m sure most of you could probably care less about this matter, but its necessity has apparently been refuted and vacillated over the years and I have actually had discussions on this matter with people and happen to share Colbert’s expressed opinion on it.  Apparently the modern American convention is that it is assumed and thus unnecessary.  But traditionalist, Oxford scholars, Stephen Colbert, and myself believe that its inclusion or exclusion change the meaning of the phrase as it is possible to have compound elements within such a list (e.g., ham and cheese, peanut butter and jelly, or tuna fish).

Again, I admit that this is a fairly minor matter and why I have such strong opinions on it I cannot really explain.  But it was interesting to witness such a juxtaposition as this subject matter being discussed between a fake pundit and a young rock group whose music intones nonchalance.  Certainly there are less trivia matters in the world than proper comma use, but I can’t help but be given pause be such matters.  Perhaps it is my affinity to debate any subjects that may have no right or wrong side.  Perhaps in a world where it is easy to feel like the reach and longevity of our impact on it may be minimal, rhetoric can seem as important as anything else.  Or maybe I should just start going to bed earlier.

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2 Comments for this entry

  • Chris

    I’m with you, Ben. I like how the kid from Vampire Weekend tried to defend his position, claiming that the Oxford comma was “just protocol” as if that made it different from the rest of the system of grammar.

    I’m all for simplifying where you can. Like William of Ockham, I believe it is vain to do with more what one can do with less, but the Oxford comma serves a useful purpose in some situations. And if you were to make it the rule only to use the comma in those specific situations where it serves that purpose, I would argue that that was actually a complexification of the grammar code instead of a simplification.

  • SilentBen

    Well stated, Chris. And it surprises me none at all that you both caught this interview and had an opinion on the matter. 😉

    In general, it is important to have rules and standards in language – in a language such as English where it appears there are more exceptions than followers, it is even more crucial. And while I’m strongly in favor of an evolving oral and written linguistic paradigms, the evolution should trend towards fluidity, simplicity, and ease of use – not away from it.

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