The Oxford Comma is Actually Useful – A Fisking

I don’t understand why I keep seeing memes about the Oxford Comma. It’s a nerdy thing to meme about, but it’s also, I suppose, a sign of health that people care that much about quality.

But this is the 21st century, and we will have our stupid Hot Takes. Here’s the Federalist, an online mag generically of the right, having the dumbest Hot Take of the Year: Why Using the Oxford Comma is a Sign of Bad Writing.

Original in Bold, my responses in Italic.

Oxford commas are the galoshes of grammar: sometimes necessary to avoid a mess, but never elegant. Mandating the Oxford comma is inimical to good writing. Just as we omit unnecessary words, so too should we excise excess punctuation.

The first statement seems not entirely unreasonable, depending on what we mean by “elegant”. But the second statement seems like a dweeby hot-take stretch. Anything in excess should be excised, but you have to demonstrate why it’s excessive.

Consider a recent example circulating online, in which a young woman argues for the Oxford comma by breaking down the phrase, “I thanked my parents, Batman, and Superman.” She points out that removing the comma after “Batman” could change the meaning to suggest that Batman and Superman are the writer’s parents, rather than additional persons being thanked. Rather than proving the necessity of requiring the Oxford comma, however, this example illuminates its dangers.

Its “dangers”? There’s Danger in an Oxford comma? What happens if you use it too much? Do you start mispronouncing words, like saying “Magdalen” as “Maudlin”?

Incidentally, the clause “Rather than proving the necessity of requiring the Oxford comma,” would be improved by removing “of requiring”. “Rather than proving the necessity of the Oxford comma,” conveys the same meaning.

Although the ridiculous nature of the example makes it more vivid, it also reveals that context frequently moots the need for the Oxford comma. In this case, context would likely show the phrase was not meant to claim superhero lineage.

Context would likely show that in this particular case, yes. Because it is extreme. 

Furthermore, the example shows how using the Oxford comma encourages lazy writing. Relying on the Oxford comma for list-making may be clarifying, but it often interferes with good composition.

So we’re substituting a rule on the Oxford comma with a rule that says List-Making is Bad. I eagerly await proof of this Rule.

Assuming the example phrase is humorous, the humor relies on the incongruity between thanking one’s parents and thanking a pair of fictitious superheroes. As currently constructed, however, the wording weakens this, regardless of whether the Oxford comma is included.

This assumption has no warrant. The sentence (not phrase, sentence) is supplied without that precious context. It is intended as an example, not as a story. You are constructing a straw-man.

Simply rearranging the list to “I thanked Batman, Superman and my parents” eliminates the need to use the Oxford comma. It also places the incongruity at the end of the phrase, rather than the middle, thereby giving it more effect.

Here’s my problem with the anti-Oxfords/Cambridgians: if you need a comma to separate “Batman” and “Superman”, why do you not need one to separate “Superman” from “and my parents”? Elements of a list do not cease to be so because an “and” has been included.

“I thanked Batman Superman and my parents.” The same information is conveyed this way, and we’re not likely to be confused that Batman and Superman are not individual beings. But we want the comma there, don’t we? Why then should we not have the second comma? Elements of a list separated by the brief comma pause – it’s not difficult.

If the writer still wished to keep filial piety at the fore, there is a variety of ways to do this that highlights the contrast with the concluding thanks to superheroes. The example could be changed to “I thanked my parents — and Batman and Superman” or “I thanked my parents. I also thanked Batman and Superman.”

Neither of these are more “elegant” than the original. Hyphens are not substitutes for commas: they draw greater attention to the thing separated. To use a hyphen is to shout “PAY ATTENTION TO THIS”. That might be useful, depending on the context (which again, isn’t really relevant to this example sentence), but over-use of hyphens is far more glaring than that of commas. And chopping it up into two sentences does nothing to improve its flow. 

Although these draw the phrase out, they use the additional length to emphasize the contrast between the parties being thanked. Far from demonstrating the necessity of the Oxford comma, this example shows it provides clarity in list-making at the expense of elegant and effective writing.

You keep using that word. I do not think that word means what you think it means.

Mandatory, which is to say mindless, use of the Oxford comma also litters writing with clutter. 

And the straw-man capers about and wishes he had a brain. No one advocates the mindless use of anything. Following a rule is not mindless, provided you understand the purpose of the rule: clarity in lists.

Each needless comma is an excrescence.

Really? An “excrescence”? An outgrowth resulting from a disease or abnormality? What a fancy way of saying “needless things are needless”. Look at you with your polysyllabic Latinates. How ELEGANT.

In the phrase, “Faith, hope and love remain,” appending a comma after “hope” would not clarify anything, but it would waste space and interrupt the flow of a beautiful passage.

How? How does it do that? Is there a premium on space? How is the first comma an unquestionable necessity, but the second one a grotesque extravagance? 

In brief, the Oxford comma is often superfluous and a crutch for bad writing, yet it has many partisans who want to force it on everyone. Why?

Right, because if you fail to use an oxford comma, paramilitary forces will come to your house and execute you for crimes against grammar. 

And note the phrase “often superfluous”. Since “superfluous” means “unnecessary”, it follows that if a thing is often unnecessary, it is occasionally necessary. This is what I like to call the Buried Admission, a trope of Hot Take Writing.

I doubt that many advocates for a mandatory Oxford comma are confused over the parentage of the hypothetical person who expressed gratitude to Batman and Superman.

Which didn’t stop you working it over like a speedbag, but whatever.

Rather, they are irate at grading another what-I-did-this-summer essay that includes something like, “Then I went swimming at the lake with my brothers, Bill and Ted.” The ambiguity (Are Bill and Ted the student’s brothers or additional members of the party?) annoys the teacher reading about the adventure.

So in this instance, an Oxford comma would be useful? The context clues won’t help us? Is that what you just said? 

Many editors, lawyers and corporate types may have similar irritation when dealing with subordinates who cannot write clearly. For them, as for the teacher above, requiring the Oxford comma is a means to establish basic standards for written precision.

Indeed. Things that are basic tend to be required. Because they are basic.

However, mandating the Oxford comma also makes bad writing compulsory. Specific fields, such as legal writing, might find standardization more important than elegance, but they are the exception.

Everything in here is wrong.

First of all, clarity is not bad writing. Clarity is good writing. Ambiguity confuses readers and leads them to stop reading. It doesn’t matter how ELEGANT you are if no one understands what you’re saying.

Secondly, legal writing, business writing, and journalism are not weird subsets of writing separate from the Real Thing. They’re the majority of writing. Far more people value clarity in written communication than prize aesthetics. Not everything is Lit Fic.

It is understandable that those tasked with teaching and editing bad writers want a rule. And rules may help struggling writers avoid egregious mistakes. But unnecessary rules will hamper the development of good writers. Grammatical rules are attempts to approximate the practices of the good writer, but they are insufficient to produce good writing, and their legalistic application may inhibit good writing.

Are you wondering when he’s going to actually define “good writing”? How we can know when we’ve experienced “good writing”? How we can practice it?

Because I know I am.

The debate over the Oxford comma thus recreates, albeit with much lower stakes, an ancient problem of rule-based systems, including law and ethics. It is best to have a wise ruler who can decide each case in accord with justice, but such rulers are rare and cannot be everywhere when they do exist. The law (at best) attempts to articulate an approximation of what is just, but it cannot do so for all particulars and will further require wisdom to interpret and apply in each circumstance.

Thus, even the best system of laws will sometimes dictate unjust outcomes — how much discretion judges should have in such cases is a significant question, as that discretion includes the potential to increase injustice — but the practical alternative to the rule of law is likely worse. Furthermore, the value of the rule of law does not make every proposed law valuable. Some laws do not approximate justice, and enforcing others can do more harm than good.

Good rules good. Bad rules bad.

Which are the bad rules? The ones I say, of course. Because I say so.

These perennial problems of political philosophy cannot be solved as such because human nature cannot be solved. Nor does pondering them resolve the much smaller question of the Oxford comma.

So glad we went on that journey with you then. Sure, it was pretentious bloviating, but at least it had no bearing on the subject under discussion.

However, considering the value and limitations of rules on a grand scale may provide a framework for the current grammatical debate.

Actually, it does help resolve the question! It provides a “framework”! I am blown away by the rule-breaking on display. Those lazy teachers, they tell you to avoid contradicting yourself from one sentence to the other, but what the hell do they know?

Much elegance. Very good writing. Wow.

The standard of good writing is not adherence to grammatical rules. Rather, the good writer is the standard.

The standard of good writing is the good writer. The good writer is the writer who does good writing.

Therefore, good writers will not obey the edicts of self-appointed grammar commissars. Rather, they will strive for “every phrase and sentence that is right” where “every word is at home.” Every comma is too, which means only using them as necessary. 

So with this deathless peroration, we arrive where we started: instead of using a comma for clarity, learn to write more gooder. There is no aesthetic argument for why having a comma appear next to the word “and” is ugly. Such is merely asserted, over and over again, tied up with the word “elegant”, which is beaten like a trick pony to distract us from the paucity of thought.

He doesnt’ even bother claiming that list sentences are boring and you should avoid them. Which I might have been sympathetic to. But even then, the problem with list sentences is their overuse, not their use at all. 

So since he didn’t define his terms, I’ll offer a guideline. A good writer is someone who knows the rules, knows how to use them, and so learns how to transcend them. Knowing what word to use to produce the right impression on the reader is the essence of the art.

And if avoiding ambiguity in lists is an impression you want to make, I recommend and Oxford comma. So does he, he just doesnt’ want to admit it.

31 Incredibly Lame Shots at Modern Bands – A Fisking

Usually when I see an article about “Millenials” or “Millenial Trends” or “Stuff These Damn Millenials are Doing”, I scroll past it. Partly because it’s usually empty-calorie click-bait, but mostly because I’ve decided that “Millenials” are not a thing. There are people born between 1981 and 1997, and they have a set of shared cultural memories. They aren’t all hipsters, and they aren’t all vegans, and they aren’t all anything. They’re exactly like all other “generations” in this respect. Not all Boomers are Hippies. Not all Greatest are war vets. Not all Gen-X are nihilists.

[Also, if you’re talking about teenagers, you’re not talking about Millenials. Millenials stopped being born somewhere between 1997 and 2000, depending on who’s drawing the line. This year’s high school seniors were born in 2000-2001. They are Generation Z, which hasn’t had a label foisted on them yet.]

But I do like me some good music snark, so I clicked on “31 Incredibly Lame Bands Millenials Love.” Because a little You Kids Get Off My Lawn every now and again can be a worthwhile aesthetic exercise, so long as its funny.

However, this one failed. It failed hard, and it needs to be fisked. It’s a crappy slideshow with dull snaps and I’m going to make fun of it. Original in bold, response in italic.

Arcade Fire –  A band that features a synthesizer, an accordian, a french horn, a harp, and a hurdy-gurdy, ffs. No wonder hipsters are absolutely obsessed with them.

The conflation of “hipster” with “Millenial” is deeply dumb. Modern hipsterism started in the late 90’s, and it was a late-Gen-X trend (the difference in experience between the Early and Late of any “generation” is one of the reasons “generations” are sociological nonsense). The guys in Swingers are not Millenials. As to the Arcade Fire, they’re not my cup of tea, but I’ve enjoyed a bit of their music. If you ever enjoyed “Automatic for the People”-era REM, you should have no problem with The Arcade Fire. Unless you think the kids are doing it wrong, which is your right.

The Chainsmokers – As a recent tweet put it, this band is what would happen if Axe Body Spray learned how to play music.

I have no idea who the Chainsmokers are and cannot comment. But the hatred at Axe Body Spray and associated cultural markers is proof if proof were needed that not all Millenials are the same and have the same ideas about culture.

Bon Iver – You will never find a whiter band than Bon Iver. Not Journey, not NSYNC, not Creed, not anything. This is apex whiteness.

And that makes him bad… because…?

Is there anything more tiring than the casual dismissal of ‘whiteness’ as a display of fake hip? HURR DURR WHITE PEEPUL, AMIRITE?

Bon Iver is a folk musician. He makes folk music. You may not like folk music, but it’s a tradition as old as America (older, actually). There’s nothing specifically Millennnial about him. He’s just his generation’s Bob Dylan. And Bob Dylan started sucking in the 70’s, and to my notice has not stopped. So until Iver starts writing hagiographies for dead gangsters, leave him alone.

Florence + The Machine – The stylized “+” is how you know they’re deeply, insufferably pretentious.

At least you can pronounce the “+”. That’s more than I can say for The Artist That Everyone Pretended To Be Huge Fans of When He Died Formerly Known As Prince.

Fall Out Boy – Fall Out Boy sounds like someone found a way to turn Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder into sonic energy.

That sounds awesome, actually. So you must be wrong, because I don’t much like Fall Out Boy.

Imagine Dragons – This is one of those bands that we’re all going to be really, really embarrassed about in about ten years.

And really, really nostalgic about in twenty. That’s how that works. There is nothing lamer than what was cool ten years ago, and nothing cooler than what was cool twenty years ago. This is the Iron Law of Fashion and Music.

The Lumineers – The Lumineers is like if Polyphonic Spree somehow became infinitely more insufferably twee.

“infinitely more insufferably”? Can you BE more dramatic?

chandler
This piece of Nostalgic Gen-X Sarcasm was brought to you by Chandler Bing.

Fleet Foxes – Hospitals could save a ton of money on anesthetic if they just piped Fleet Foxes tracks into their operating rooms.

Heh. Okay, that’s actually funny.

Twenty-One Pilots – If I have to hear “you don’t know, the half of the ABYUYUYUYUYUYSE” one more time, my head will explode.

Again, Twenty-One Pilots is a band teenagers like, and Millenials aren’t teenagers anymore. This is Gen-Z stuff.

Sigur Ros – Good life rule: when you hear the words “Icelandic avant garde rock band” strung together, immediately run as fast as possible in the opposite direction.

Yeah, why expose yourself to anything new or adventurous? Keep listening to the same stuff by the same bands or bands like them. Stay in Your Box, Consumer.

Mumford and Sons – THERE ARE NO SONS IN THIS BAND, WHAT IS THIS VILE DECEPTION.

Of all the shots you could have taken against Mumford, you go with that one? I mean, I get the need to lighten the mood with something not-serious, so people won’t think you’re a crank, but you’re writing a crank piece. Not one “Millenial” is going to stop listening to any of these acts because of you. So write the crank piece, vent your spleen, and be done with it.

Neutral Milk Hotel – Personally, I prefer Biased Milk Hotel.

Another name shot. Be lazier.

Say Anything – This band combines Blink-182’s painful whininess with random sound effects. A winning combination, that is not.

Blink 182 never struck me as whiny, but whatever. At least this one is about the actual music. 

LCD Soundsystem – It’s amazing a band can have roughly 142 members and not one of them will have any musical talent.

No, what’s amazing is that you thought this snap was clever. This is bush-league, 4th grade material. An army of monkeys slapping keys together for an hour will produce something funnier than this.  A 4Channer hopped up on Adderall could make a meme about LCD Soundsystem while playing Fortnite that would be funnier than this. Don Rickles’ mouldering corpse could just lay there being a not-funny-at-all memento mori, and it would still be funnier than “many-people-no-talent”.

LCD Soundsystem is music meant either for working out or partying. They work fine for both. 

The xx – You’re not being edgy with your refusal to capitalize “xx,” JAMIE SMITH BECAUSE THAT’S YOUR NAME, NOT “JAMIE XX.” God.

That’s right, rock stars giving themselves new names is a totally new Millenial trend. Sir Richard Starkey, Jeff Hyman, Frank Ferrano Jr., and Lesane Crooks were unavailable for comment.*

The Arctic Monkeys – Arctic Monkeys were one of the first bands to come to prominence as a result of the internet. Thanks for nothing, internet.

I saw the Arctic Monkeys open for the Black Keys twice. They were great. The A.M. album is solid. You’re just wrong.

Bleachers – OK, yes, fine, the band’s music is good and all, but is it required to be so pretentious that you call yourself “Bleachers” rather than “The Bleachers?” Come on, guys.

Seriously? Not only is this another name shot, but it’s the worst, most philistine name shot imaginable. Not every band has to call themselves “The Somethings”. Pretentious? This doesn’t even rise to Archers-of-Loaf levels. 

And on top of that, you admit that they make good music, so they don’t need to be here. You’re bad at this. You should stop.

The White Stripes – Half of this band was OK. The other half couldn’t find the rhythm with a roadmap and a divining rod.

Which half? You mean JACK GILLIS BECAUSE THAT’S HIS NAME NOT JACK WHITE, GOD!?

People, how many times are we going to go to the well of “Meg Can’t Play Drums”? The whole reason she was in the White Stripes was because she played the drums very simply, which is to say, she bashed them like a hyperactive ten-year-old. That’s what Jack liked. That’s what inspired him, and it fit entirely with in the overall band aesthetic. She wasn’t supposed to be Neal Pert, and she never pretended to be. Give it a rest.

Radiohead – Every single insufferable music snob you’ve ever met has been obsessed with this band, and I can’t think of a single more brutal condemnation than that.

And again, their big heyday was in the 90’s. They’re a Gen-X band. A late Gen-X band, but still. 

And sometimes insufferable music snobs are right. Radiohead doesn’t suck. Go back and listen to OK Computer. It holds up. And this is coming from someone who didn’t care about Radiohead at all in the 90’s.

Modest Mouse – Remember the fifteen minutes when we all collectively thought this band was good? Yeah, I know you’d love to forget it — we all would — but it happened.

I don’t. I don’t regret a moment of digging Good News For People Who Love Bad News. It encapsulates fond memories of driving up the NJ Turnpike to visit my then-girlfriend, now-wife in Brooklyn. “Float On” is still my ringtone for her.

I didn’t think much of the follow-up album, and I haven’t paid attention since. That doesn’t mean we need to memory-hole them. Stop being such a nerd.

Wilco – Oh boy, fifteen minutes of discordant noises with no relation to each other. Sounds like a pleasurable listening experience!

I too have tired of Wilco after spending a summer listening to a lot of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. For some reason I just put it aside and stopped caring about it. So I can sort of relate, but this just sounds like bashing experimental music, so whatever. Enjoy your Top 40, I guess.

Kings of Leon – I’m not convinced there’s a more thorough indictment of the millennial generation than the fact Kings of Leon has four top-five albums in a row and counting.

Enh. I sort of get your problem, because their successful albums, starting with their fourth, have been bland arena-rock. I’m not trying to sound pretentious here, but I like their early stuff. Their second and third albums especially had a lot of good ideas on them.

The Shins – If someone could please explain why millennials consider one of the most boring bands in history to be revolutionary, I’d love to hear it.

Can’t help you. The Shins are pop-revivalists, influenced by Zombies/Beach Boys kind of stuff. People who don’t like that sort of thing won’t find this the sort of thing that they like.

Phoenix – HARD PASS

OMG THAT RESPONSE IS SO HOT RIGHT NOW.

Belle & Sebastian – Why is the prevailing trend in hipster music to be as relentlessly boring as possible?

Good question. 

Sorry, but I’m not defending Belle & Sebastian. 

Bastille – It’s not even necessarily that this band is bad, but I’m still holding a grudge because I’ll have “EHHHH-EH-OOH-EH-OOH, EHHHHH-EH-OOH-EH-OOH” stuck in my head until the end of time.

“I don’t dislike their music, just this one song that wasn’t to my taste. Because I still think it’s important to get angry about that sort of thing. IT’S MY IDENTITY YOU GUYS!”

Tame Impala – Wait, we thought smooth jazz was over like 15 years ago? Why is it making a comeback now?

Because stuff makes a comeback. Aesthetic movements grow for a bit, become dissipated, then are revived by those they influenced. It’s human nature. Deal with it.

The Mountain Goats – The fact every single Mountain Goats song sounds like it was recorded on a Speak N’ Spell — and that this is a deliberate stylistic choice — should tell you everything you need to know about this band.

Okay, first of all, that’s not a fact, that’s your subjective impression. Your feelings are not facts.

Second, lo-fi is a genre/recording style as old as the hills. It may not be to your taste. In fact, it really only appeals to a small number of people. But it does appeal to them. 

Finally, they started in 1991, and they’re releases were mostly cassette-only until they signed to 4AD. These two ACTUAL facts indicate a Gen-X pedigree.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs – This band deserves all the shade in the world just for having a name that’s incredibly annoying to say.

A name that’s in how many choruses to rock songs?

You know, as someone who delights in dumping on bad band names, I am really tired of all these name shots. You’re not going after bands with actual bad names, and you aren’t funny when you do it. And the whole point of this exercise was supposed to be that the Band is bad, not the name.

The Black Keys – NOPE. NOT GONNA BE MEAN TO THE BLACK KEYS, THEY ARE TREASURES.

I see what you did there-700x560

*AKA Ringo Starr, Joey Ramone, Nikki Six, and Tupac Shakur.

Variety Starts Telling Us What Movies We Should Care About Next Year: A Fisking

I don’t care about the Oscars. I didn’t watch them, and haven’t for some years. I don’t require some Star Chamber of Weinstein-enablers to direct my tastes in cinema.

I noticed the article because it let the mask slip: there’s a formula to all this nonsense, and there’s been a formula for some time: there’s a season of Oscar Films, and there’s the rest of the year of Movies for the Great Unwashed. You need to have your movies out during Oscar Season™, or else No One Cares.

Thus, Variety has already decided what we’re going to be talking about a year from now. Or predicted, anyway. This is sufficiently annoying to merit a Fisking.

Original text in bold, my response in italic.

Continue reading → Variety Starts Telling Us What Movies We Should Care About Next Year: A Fisking

Actual Having a Baby vs. Having a Cat: A Riposte to The Oatmeal

Imagine your grandfather parsing that title.

Anyhoo, Matt Inman, hilarious scribbler of The Oatmeal, has ribbingly touted the virtues of cat-ownership vis-a-vis human reproduction. Inman’s antipathy to babies are known, so this is not suprising. Nor am I going to pretend that it is not funny. But in this day and age, we breeders deserve a shot-back. This will constitute it.

Also, as I have both babies and cats in my house, my comparison stems from first-hand observation, and not mere horror at the diminished freedom of one’s peers to consume ethanol in public houses.

It seems bad form to copypasta the man’s drawings, so I will content myself with reproducing his words in bold, and then replying to them in italicContinue reading → Actual Having a Baby vs. Having a Cat: A Riposte to The Oatmeal

The New York Times Attempts a Lame “Modern Man” Listicle, Gets Righteously Fisked

I read two of these yesterday. It’s that bad.

Read for yourself if you doubt me.

David Burkehead was somewhat laconic in his fisking, but he hit the theme of “the modern man does not give a moldy dog dropping about half of this nonsense. None of these things define manhood.”

Over at Monster Hunter Nation, Larry Correia is funny as hell, and points out the glaring inconsistencies. Bonus points for the apt Leviticus parody.

Update: Correia has another good fisking, this time of the HuffPo’s bad advice for self-publsihed authors.

In Honor of Madonna’s Splendidly Awful Show Last Night…

…and of Stacy McCain’s judicious assessment of same, here is a re-post of me fisking a Madonna press conference back in 2005:

Madonna: the Gag That Keeps On Giving

We were hoping that Her Pretentiousness would grace us with a response to those who’ve been mocking her these past several weeks. Well the God she worships evidently exists, because our prayers have been answered. A few excerpts:
Continue reading → In Honor of Madonna’s Splendidly Awful Show Last Night…