The Common Comma
Once upon a time, way back in the third grade, Mrs. MaGee told me never to put a comma before the “and” in my lists. She said that the “and” means the same thing as a comma.
And so I never did. I wrote “balls, bats and mitts.”
Years later, another teacher told me that I should always put a comma before the “and” in my lists because it clarifies that the last two items in my list are not a set. He said to write “Amal, Mike, Jose, and Lin.”
Logic told me that the third-grade teacher was right because, if the last two in the list were a set, the “and” would have come sooner as “balls and bats and mitts” or “Amal, Mike, and Jose and Lin.” But that is also just odd. What if I really did mean to have two sets? Now I felt like I had to write “Balls. Also, bats and mitts.” It felt like juggling. If this is confusing, I’m pretty sure that I’ve made my point. These rigid rules felt so awkward! Things I can say effortlessly outloud are, all of a sudden, impossible on paper. Who wrote these rules?
That’s actually a valid question. Who did write them? Novices to the study of language sometimes imagine that language started back in a day when there were pure versions of all the world languages that younger and lazier speakers continue to corrupt, generation after generation. They imagine a perfect book of grammar that we should all be able to reference. Nothing about that scenario is actually true.
So, why and how did we get all those rules? Way back around the 1700s, we finally started to get some books written about the structure of language, specifically for teaching. These, even then, were vastly different from the work being done by linguists in the field who were interested in marking language as it is, not how they thought it should be. As time went on, people introduced writing rules that originated in other languages, like Latin, and imposed them on English. These misapplications have followed us into modern times. Many of the guidebooks for writing are filled with these exceptions to the natural ways that English once worked. They include, surprisingly, the rule against double negatives (“we don’t need no stinking badges!”) and other standard prohibitions against language that was quite normal long ago (and still is in non-standard varieties of English).
Some more of those gems include “never say ‘I’ in an essay,” “don’t use passive voice,” and “don’t start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but.’” We can sprinkle in the Latin rule, “don’t split infinitives” (think Star Trek‘s “to boldly go”) and unnecessary restrictions like “adverbs go after the verb, not before.” These rules have interesting histories but the history doesn’t necessarily support their persistence. In fact, most of them can be dismissed as simple preferences of some dead white guy from centuries ago. They don’t obey any rule of logic, though some obey a system from a different language that has no application in English.
A great example is the double negative. In the 1700s the location of the royalty and their dialects determined what was “correct.” The south of England used double negatives but the north of England (where royalty lived) did not use them. Something so simple as location dictated what went into the books. Then in 1762, Robert Lowth wrote Short Introduction to English Grammar and relegated the southern usage to “uncultivated speech” instead of what it really is, which is an emphasis on the negative point being made. The American usage that developed from before Lowth’s writing is retained today in many dialects, but famously so in Southern varieties and African American Vernacular English (AAVE).
What is happening here? Am I arguing that grammar rules are okay to break sometimes? I am taking up an argument that seems to be at an academic impasse. Linguists believe that there is more than one grammar. We say “grammars.” Stephen Pinker, a cognitive psychologist, offers his take on this phenomenon in an article for The Guardian called “Stephen Pinker: 10 ‘grammar rules’ it’s okay to break sometimes.” He characterizes the debate between descriptive and prescriptive grammarians like this:
Prescriptivists prescribe how language ought to be used. They uphold standards of excellence and a respect for the best of our civilisation, and are a bulwark against relativism, vulgar populism and the dumbing down of literate culture. Descriptivists describe how language actually is used. They believe that the rules of correct usage are nothing more than the secret handshake of the ruling class, designed to keep the masses in their place. Language is an organic product of human creativity, say the Descriptivists, and people should be allowed to write however they please.
His point is that some think that every rule of grammar is worth preserving lest the language devolves out of existence. Others believe that the actual use of the language (any language) and the natural changes that occur are a good thing. Sometimes, as is the case with the double negative, before the rule against it was made, people used “incorrect” phrases all the time. So, the argument about preserving rules and allowing change is kind of mixed up. Pinker describes the conflict experts have, but it’s even more complicated by the history.
Still, I reference Pinker because he is a cognitive psychologist that studies both linguistics and composition. Even more importantly, he is also a best-selling author of nonfiction. Pinker has made boring and dry topics like linguistics and neuroscience feel easy, even to the average reader. That’s a kind of magic that I want to bottle and sell. So, I look to him on matters of writing. Pinker and I agree that when it comes to grammar, it should be addressed with the goal of being understood, not of being “right.”
Navigating the rules of grammar is not just hard for those that speak in “dialects” (or different grammars) of English. It is hard even for those who grew up in a middle-class culture speaking a relatively standard form called Standard American English (SAE). Those born into families and communities speaking SAE struggle with the rules like:
What do I do with commas and semicolons?
Do I use who or whom?
Which word: there, they’re or their; too, two or to?
and so forth.
Even your professors make common speech errors. Try my favorite test. See how many times members of college faculty say “there’s” when they should have said “there are.” No one speaks like a textbook.
One of my favorite debates, because it is so utterly pointless, is of the Oxford comma. This phenomenon is the one I opened with. Do you always or never put a comma before the “and” in the list? The Oxford comma is the one that says “yes, always.” I was taught “no, never.” So, who wins?
John McWhorter pleads a case that I buy. He says neither side wins. In his article “Should we give a damn about the Oxford comma?” he argues that “to treat the failure to use the Oxford comma as a mark of mental messiness is a handy way to look down on what will perhaps always be a majority of people attempting to write English.” And that is a key argument for me. Much of what we do when looking down our nose at particular errors is to demonstrate disdain for our differences on the page. In fact, for the rest of this document, let’s not call them “errors.” Let’s call them “varieties of speech/writing.”
As frustrating or embarrassing it is to be called to the carpet for your variety of speech, these grammar scuffles are mere annoyances when they occur between English speakers of the same general class, race, and economic status. However, when we approach minority English language speakers and English language learners, we pass into a new territory that borders on classism and racism.
To understand this, you must understand the terms stigma and prestige. These terms apply to a number of sociological situations. Prestige is, very simply, what we grant power and privilege to. Remember the history of the double negative from the 1700s? The book taught that single negation is a mark of prestige.
On the other hand, stigmatized varieties of English are those that people try to train you out of using. If you were raised in the Appalachian region of America, you may have some varieties of speech that other people dislike and hope you will lose. Things like “y’all” and “a-” prefixes on “a huntin’ and a fishin’” are discouraged; some think it means the speaker is uneducated. By being negated, double negatives became stigmatized.
This distinction is “classist” because it assumes characteristics and abilities based on a person’s variety of speech. It may sound strange, but speech is not a mark of intellect or ability. One famous example is of Eudora Welty, a renown Appalachian author. A story is told that during her stay in a college dormitory she was passed over by the headmistress for opportunities to have tickets to plays and cultured events. When she confronted the headmistress about the oversight, she explained that she had doubted Welty’s interest in the theater because of her accent. Of course, now, Welty is an honored and prestigious author. Her variety of speech did not affect her ability to produce effective writing that communicates to her audience.
Some varieties of English are stigmatized because they represent racial minority speech patterns, even though they are legitimately home-grown American English. How many of us can easily hear and understand what is culturally Black English, Spanglish, or Chicano English, but know that those varieties won’t go into your next essay for History 1700?
Students learning English, or even just Standard American English, will vary in their ability to represent prestigious language patterns, even though what they write or say is generally understood. For example, people from India may have grown up speaking a different variety of English. The same is true for some people from Hong Kong when it was a British holding. British English with a Chinese accent was their standard, and they struggle to be understood in America.
So, for multilingual and/or multivariety speakers, one challenge of writing is the expectation that they will sound as narrowly experienced in language as monolingual speakers. This is what Lippi-Green called standard language ideology. It’s the practice of prestige and stigma. It is a rather bizarre sort of prestige to value evidence of less experience, but that’s exactly what unaccented language is. A middle- to upper-class white American who travels nowhere and learns nothing of consequence can still sound perfectly prestigious merely by speaking their natural English variety. We actually prefer (or privilege) the appearance of ignorance.
There are a rare few that can perfectly compartmentalize languages. Linguistic geniuses (I use that term loosely) exist—those who can sound perfectly natural in several varieties or languages. It is an ability that only the teensiest percentage of people with just the right exposure, talent, age, and experience will ever achieve. The rest of us can increase our range of speech and writing contexts, but our own idiosyncrasies will always exist, and we will be (unnecessarily) embarrassed by them.
Teaching professionals continue to debate how to teach in a way that combats linguistic stigma and shifts toward preferring linguistic diversity. From the CCCC’s Students’ Right to Their Own Language (SRTOL) circa 1974, we read:
We affirm the students’ right to their own patterns and varieties of language—the dialects of their nurture or whatever dialects in which they find their own identity and style. Language scholars long ago denied that the myth of a standard American dialect has any validity. The claim that any one dialect is unacceptable amounts to an attempt of one social group to exert its dominance over another. Such a claim leads to false advice for speakers and writers, and immoral advice for humans. A nation proud of its diverse heritage and its cultural and racial variety will preserve its heritage of dialects. We affirm strongly that teachers must have the experiences and training that will enable them to respect diversity and uphold the right of students to their own language.
So, since before many of your teachers were born, an international body of composition instructors has acknowledged that students have a right to their own language. Ever since then, the struggle to maintain a standard and find ways to work with differences have played out in the profession. Today, we have experts in the field that suggest utilizing “vernacular speech” (that’s your everyday speech) to improve the quality of writing, to a point. Peter Elbow writes in his book Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing about the ways that we can utilize spoken, everyday language as a way of improving the readability of text and ease the writing process.
Steven Pinker (you know—the one whose writing skill we should bottle and sell), like Peter Elbow, believes a more conversational tone in writing can improve its quality. He says that there are ways of scientifically assessing clarity and ease for readers. For example, this type of research takes on the debate of whether or not a typist should place one or two spaces after periods. It may seem trivial, but it’s a debate that has lasted since word processors were programmed to intelligently space punctuation. Researchers strapped people down in front of a computer screen and measured eye movement while reading to settle the debate. Much to my surprise, it turns out that two spaces are easier to read than one (Johnson).
I don’t know if I would always go so far as to do scientific experimentation on readers in order to make writing decisions, but choosing rules that make things easier feels like a really good idea, doesn’t it? The New SRTOL document authors argue, “it is one thing to help a student achieve proficiency in a written dialect and another thing to punish him for using variant expressions of that dialect.” So, in modern times, teachers want you to recognize and utilize a standard in writing without punishing your speech. You want to learn how to do the same with yourself and others.
However useful it is to accept variations in classroom English, there are, in fact, varieties of English that are native to the United States (not spoken anywhere else) that are not so easy to understand. Some examples are Louisiana’s Cajun creole and Hawai’ian Pidgin creole. Theorists that give nods of approval to teaching within varieties they understand may not be addressing a large enough group of English varieties. If we are suggesting a student use their native language ways to improve readability, sometimes the student’s writing will be unintelligible to the teacher and peers. It’s a whole different job to have everyone learn new languages in your composition class.
I assume that when CCCCs composed these sentences, “Language scholars long ago denied that the myth of a standard American dialect has any validity… We affirm strongly that teachers must have the experiences and training that will enable them to respect diversity and uphold the right of students to their own language,” they were being sincere, but it might be a stretch. Your teachers are not experts on every variety of English or the many creoles. Neither are you. There is still a way to manage the goals we have.
The updated version of the Students’ Right to Their Own Language makes a request of teachers when they say, “Since English teachers have been in large part responsible for the narrow attitudes of today’s employers, changing attitudes toward dialect variations does not seem an unreasonable goal, for today’s students will be tomorrow’s employers.” English faculty have continued to teach SAE (also called Educated American English or EAE) in one part because it’s what the rest of the country thinks that educated writers should use for speech and writing. So, even though teachers accept that the standard is a myth, we find the standard useful and the prestige/stigma problem lingers because we continue to use it. This is where you—the students—can help. Let’s revisit the value that standard language has and the work it does.
One of the undeniable benefits of a standard is that it is a lingua franca. This term roughly means “the language everyone shares.” With so many variations of English, it is just clearer to write in one variety than to learn them all. This different idea of a standard is about ease and convenience, not prestige. Teaching within one standard is a system-wide rhetorical choice to be understood by the largest audience possible. Ignoring what that should be and focusing on what that is seems like a better way of determining what we call the standard. So, most of us aim for a sort of amalgam of language that is acceptable to most people without sticking rigidly to arbitrary rules.
What you, the students, probably want to know is how to write. The more important point that I hope you will walk away with is this: STROL says, “The attitudes that [you] develop in the English class will often be the criteria [you] use for choosing [your] own employees,” (emphasis mine). So, what you learn about writing in English class follows you as you make choices and impacts your options in the economy, but so do your attitudes about language and people. Spencer Kimball is often credited with this admonition, “Love people, not things; use things, not people.” I would apply a similar sentiment to language.
Don’t only use language with people you understand.
Use language to understand people.
As a student, you expect to leave school with more skills and greater flexibility. In that spirit, seeking diversity in your language education makes sense. As you become our future employers and employees, you will inherit the opportunity to reject stigma toward linguistic diversity. You can do so by accepting these simple facts (adapted from Rosina Lippi-Green’s “Linguistic Facts of Life”):
- Language is complex and diverse.
- Language is not a moral marker.
- Language is not an intellectual marker.
- Language serves to communicate between people.
- Language changes.
By embracing these facts, you can feel less shame or stigma in your own language and others’. If you accept language differences as natural, you might choose to expose yourself to and understand more languages and varieties. You will write aiming to be understood by a majority of readers for convenience, not for fear of judgment.
So, fine, Oxford Comma when you wanna—but dash linguistic stigma.
Conference on College Composition and Communication. Students’ Right to Their Own Language. http://www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Groups/CCCC/NewSRTOL.pdf. Permalink: https://perma.cc/4RQ6-R7M3.
Elbow, Peter. Vernacular Eloquence: What Speech Can Bring to Writing. Oxford Press, 2012.
Johnson RL, et al. “Are two spaces better than one? The effect of spacing following periods and commas during reading.” Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics. 2018. http://ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29691763. Permalink: https://perma.cc/3WFR-CJFT.
Lippi-Green, Rosina. “Chapter 1: Linguistic Facts of Life.” 1997. English with an Accent. http://people.cas.sc.edu/dubinsk/LING240/readings/Lippi-Green.1997.Chapter1.English.with.an.accent.pdf. Permalink: https://perma.cc/Z332-T7GY.
McWhorter, John. “Should we give a damn about the Oxford comma?” CNN. March 19, 2017.http://www.cnn.com/2017/03/19/opinions/oxford-comma-ambiguity-opinion-mcwhorter/index.html. Permalink: https://perma.cc/A3JR-5CJU.
Pinker, Stephen. “10 ‘grammar rules’ it’s okay to break sometimes.” The Guardian. August 15, 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/aug/15/steven-pinker-10-grammar-rules-break. Permalink: https://perma.cc/PQY6-REAG.
—. “African American English Is Not Improper English.” YouTube Channel, General Turner. Sep 22, 2015. https://youtu.be/kUiziVEoi1s
—. “On Standard English and Myths.” YouTube Channel, Grammar Revolution Movie. Nov 4, 2014. https://youtu.be/jbHpGlvmp9A
—. “Linguistics, Style and Writing in the 21st Century – with Steven Pinker.” YouTube Channel, The Royal Institution. Oct 28, 2015. https://youtu.be/OV5J6BfToSw
—. as cited in Radio Boston. September 30, 2014. http://www.wbur.org/radioboston/2014/09/30/pinker-harvard-writing. Permalink: https://perma.cc/RDR4-6PSK.