Unemployment remains above 8 percent. Foreclosures continue to devastate cities. There’s persistent talk of a double dip recession. And all President Obama and Mitt Romney do is whack at each other.
It’s time to get serious.
So what about the Oxford comma? I have had an ongoing argument with an editor of my acquaintance over this issue. Wars have been fought over less.
Josh Landy has some good and certainly witty points on these and other subjects in his Arcade essay entitled, “Who is this Mr. Chicago, and what does he have against the English language?”
He is, of course, railing against the tyrannical Chicago Manual of Style. I think of myself as somewhat of a style agnostic, having been brought up on the AP Stylebook since I was knee-high to a pica rule. I’ve even adhered to the esoteric MLA Stylebook, on occasion.
But I applaud the Mr. Chicago on most of his choices, with the most powerful exception being the prohibition against starting sentences with numerals. “Nine hundred and ninety-eight people responded to the survey” seems a bit cumbersome to me. So does writing out numbers up to 100. Like Mr. Chicago, I still prefer the old-fashioned abbreviations for states over the ugly postal codes that have become ubiquitous (I favor Mich. instead of MI, Wisc. instead of WI).
Josh takes exception to Mr. Chicago’s avoidance of hyphenated words, rolling them into one: “I sometimes think he has a secret desire to turn English into German. An Englishintogermanconvertingdesire.” I side with Mr. Chicago. I think the excessive use of hyphens is aesthetically squalid.
Josh deplores Mr. Chicago’s putative habit of wrenching hyphenated terms apart, but he blows his argument when he uses “finely tuned” as an example. Surely he knows adverbs ending in “ly” are never hyphenated? Wait a minute, that’s the AP Stylebook…
It is time for me to out Mr. Landy. He is an Englishman. And, as someone once wrote, an Englishman lecturing Americans on punctuation is akin to an American lecturing the French on sauces. I am irritated by English texts that seem to be on a unending comma diet. The elimination of commas after clauses like these: “In May Churchill gave his address to the…” Who is May Churchill?
No, Mr. Chicago won’t let us say “consider for example the prologue to Shakespeare’s Henry V,” or “thus for instance I may acknowledge,” or “fiction too is a requirement.” Instead he insists on commas around “for example” and “for instance” and “too,” and also after “namely” and “now.” In fact, Mr. Chicago would not have allowed my first sentence in this paragraph; he would have insisted on a comma after “say.” But all these commas slow things down.
As they say in Chicago, “What’s the hurry, Bub?”
To show how desperate things can get, Helen DeWitt, who can only be described as a punctuation libertarian (she hyphenates copy editor, for example), rants in a 2007 post over at Paperpools about her trauma in publishing a book involving a number of texts with different kinds of punctuation. She cites an Oprah Winfrey interview with author Cormac McCarthy: “He doesn’t like semi-colons, never uses them. He uses periods, commas, capitalisation. Occasionally a colon, before a list of things.”
Now, I like 18th-century punctuation; I like 17th-century punctuation; I like 16th-century punctuation; one of the things I love about Peter Ackroyd is the way he gets the punctuation right when he writes a text that is from another century. The punctuation is part of the texture of the text, and when I read that a text has been repunctuated for modern readers I go away and find another edition of the text. I like McCarthy’s punctuation in McCarthy’s texts, but I would rather not have it imported into the work of Jonathan Swift. The assumption that one has the right to repunctuate a writer’s texts is in fact a very dangerous one, since it leaves modern writers open to all kinds of abuse.
Hence she was at odds with her publisher when a manic copy editor decided to have a go at her text, making thousands and thousands of punctuation corrections. DeWitt describes one of the opening rounds:
The editor came back to the office; I assumed we would now have a discussion involving someone with a wider knowledge of literature. My editor has an undergraduate degree from Oxford in French and Italian; he has an M.Litt. for a thesis on Music and Montale; presumably someone who has read Montale &c. &c. The office was on the 55th floor of a building looking down Manhattan; it was so high you could see the East River and the West River and the end of the island, it was the office of a Master of the Universe.
In this office we have a stupid, petty little conversation. The editor explains that if one does not italicise the titles of books it looks like carelessness. He explains that there are rules. The production manager explains that there are rules. I explain that the Chicago Manual of Style has only whatever authority we choose to give it. I explain: Look, these are two characters obsessed with numbers. The Chicago Manual of Style does not have a rule for using numerals in texts about characters obsessed with numbers because THIS BOOK HAD NOT BEEN WRITTEN when they last drew up the Chicago Manual of Style. They could not ANTICIPATE the need for a rule because the book did not then exist. I WROTE THE BOOK so I am obviously in a better position to decide what usage is correct for its characters than a group of people in Chicago who have NEVER SEEN IT.
It gets worse. In America, land of the free, she argues, we should be free to punctuate as inventively, as creatively as we wish. She dashes to a bookshop to buy The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, and shows it to her publisher. Her manuscript nevertheless slips through to the “advanced reading copy” stage with her persistent “stets” disregarded. She mulls suicide: “If I kill myself now, though, the book will go out looking like this, so I have to try not to kill myself before it is fixed.”
Even Tatum O’Neal is involved. Read the rest here.
Postscript on 7/20: The incomparable Dave Lull retrieved the following passages, from Jacques Barzun‘s essay “Dialogue in C-Sharp,” in response to a younger editor who cited the Chicago Manual whenever he could:
“. . . run words together and make the reader puzzle out the result. See here: antiintellectual in one word. What is the point? What has been gained?”
“Never mind the Manual – it isn’t holy scripture; I haven’t joined a religious sect and taken an oath to be ruled by a book. My creed is that I put my name only to what I write; I write as I like; and I like hyphens – especially when they make reading easier.”
Postscript on 1/8/2013: You see what it’s all come to? “4 Copy Editors Killed In Ongoing AP Style, Chicago Manual Gang Violence,” from The Onion, here.
“Law enforcement officials confirmed Friday that four more copy editors were killed this week amid ongoing violence between two rival gangs divided by their loyalties to the The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual Of Style. ‘At this time we have reason to believe the killings were gang-related and carried out by adherents of both the AP and Chicago styles, part of a vicious, bloody feud to establish control over the grammar and usage guidelines governing American English,’ said FBI spokesman Paul Holstein, showing reporters graffiti tags in which the word ‘anti-social’ had been corrected to read ‘antisocial.’”