Sunday, May 20, 2007

Is There a Violinist in the Gay Church's Bathroom or Not?

Over at the Chicago Tribune, Nathan Bierma's writing this week about the controversial serial comma. You know, that last comma in a phrase like "red, white, and blue." A lot of newspaper style guides these days order that it be yanked from reporters' copy, so you get things like: "At the store we bought Eggos, syrup, butter and deodorant."

Where did newspaper editors get the idea that this rule makes any sense? I hate this notion. Hate it, hate it, hate it. The serial comma should be used consistently, because grammar is, after all, supposed to help you express yourself clearly -- not undermine your meaning.

If you're not consistent about using the serial comma, then you wind up with goofs like the pious author who dedicated his book to "My parents, the Pope and Mother Teresa." Ooopsie!

An article in this week's Time magazine made me do a similar doubletake just now. It notes that Dallas, Texas is fast becoming quite the gay-friendly city (yes, that Dallas, Texas):
Both the Dallas sheriff and the county judge--an Old West title meaning chairman of the county commissioners--are openly gay. The district clerk is gay too, and Dallas is home to what is said to be the largest gay church in the world, the Cathedral of Hope, which has 3,500 members, a full choir, a violinist and long-stemmed roses in the bathroom.
Now tell me, are parishoners serenaded or not when they pee? How do we know for sure? If we all used the serial comma consistently, there'd be no doubt. Feh.

Update: Note that in the comments section below, a staffer assures that the Cathedral of Hope most certainly does not have a fiddler on the loo.


Anonymous David Plunkett said...

Hello Martha! My name is David Plunkett, and I am the assistant to Rev. Michael Piazza, the Dean of Cathedral of Hope. I did a similar double take when I read the "Time" article and have been chuckling about it all weekend.

I can assure you, without a doubt, that we do NOT have violinists in the bathrooms. I also can say that we rarely have long-stemmed roses in there either! The Sunday that the writer visited, in addition to our full orchestra, we featured a violinist who accompanied a choral anthem.

As one of my duties, I edit many of Rev. Piazza's writings, including his books. While I am not a fan of the "serial comma," having learned that it is unnecessary in simple lists, this is one case where I certainly would have advocated its usage!

9:53 AM  
Blogger Martha said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

10:22 AM  
Blogger Martha said...

Ooopsie. Hit the wrong button there.

Here's what I said:

David! So nice to hear from you. Thank you for clearing that up! (Although I'm very disappointed to hear about the roses. I thought that was a nice touch.)

Hey, David, while I have you here: Do you know my old pal Rev. Dr. Mona Fae West? We shared many a laugh during her seminary days back when I lived in Louisville! :-)

10:27 AM  
Anonymous David Plunkett said...

Oh, we sometimes have flowers in the bathrooms, but rarely are they long-stemmed roses! I think our volunteer florist had some left over that week from an arrangement for the chancel!

Yes, I know Mona. Mona was on staff when I came aboard more than five years ago. She left in 2004, not too long after Cathedral of Hope disaffiliated from the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches. (We are now a member of the United Church of Christ.) After working with Midway Hills Christian Church here in Dallas, she became the Senior Pastor of Church of the Trinity MCC in Sarasota, FL, where she is now.

Thanks for the smiles today!

11:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Two copyeditors, three opinions.

With all this serial comma mishegoss, you'd think they were discussing Talmud. And I still don't have an answer.

11:15 AM  
Blogger Martha said...

Anonymous! Look me in the typeface: I'm right, and all those newspaper style guides are wrong, wrong, wrong.

Case closed!

12:25 PM  
Anonymous Mark said...

"Look me in the typeface" made me snort.

Martha, I admire your passion on this subject, and I'd like to point out that sultry can be defined as "characterized by or arousing passion". Therefore, once again, you are the Sultry Radio Host, Martha Barnette!

8:37 AM  
Blogger Martha said...

LOL, Mark. Well, sultry it is, then. This issue really burns my grits!

3:37 PM  
Blogger sunbelt said...

Must keep the serial comma. Its absence is simply too distracting.

9:37 PM  
Blogger Martha said...

Yay, Sunbelt! Where ya been?

(Don't tell me -- the Sunbelt?)

12:54 PM  
Blogger The Bro' said...

Hi Martha, David, Mark and all,

You guessed it, I don't favour the use of serial comma in short lists. I don't think it's necessary to have a comma and an and. It seems a bit redundant. I would, however, use the comma in the sentence from "Time", but that would be after using a bit of common sense during the writing process and not through automated comma use.

This reminds me of the question of whether to use a comma before the word etc. I was always told never to use a comma there because the "etc" already contains the "and" that makes the comma redundant. Maybe this is Brit usage. (I'm a Brit)

1:43 AM  
Blogger richard said...

Serial comma is essential in all lists, be they short or long.

If we all play by the same rules, we will allay confusion and no one will get hurt.

10:04 AM  
Blogger lister said...

Funny, but, I, consider, the, serial, comma, to, be, the, unnecessary, overuse, of, this, gem, of, punctuation.

All kidding aside, I never use the comma before the "and" unless one of the items in the list also uses an "and". Example:

I ordered french fries, milk, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, cookies, and an orange.

The only other occasion for the extra comma is if you are clarifying a thought (such as with the violinist in the bathroom).

Otherwise, I, don't, need, the, extra, comma, cluttering, up, my, page.

9:25 AM  
Anonymous Lukelightning said...

I've flip-flopped on this issue, but have finally settled on "yes, I like the serial comma."

10:44 AM  
Anonymous Marge said...

You have defended one of my great causes - the serial comma. I totally agree with you, and particularly like how you read the sentences to show how ridiculous it is NOT to have a comma throughout a series of words. The main objection I had to Eats, Shoots, Leaves, was that she didn't feel the "Oxford comma" was important. I am not sure why it was called that, but she is wrong and you and I are right! Keep up the good work.

9:01 AM  
Blogger Lexi Revellian said...

Hi, I've just been told to look at this blog because of my reckless disregard of the serial comma.

I think some rules are absolute - like the rules on apostrophes - others are to comfort people who like rules.

A feel for the language is what you really need.



10:27 AM  
Blogger Erik Deckers said...

Actually, I even prefer calling it the Oxford Comma (or if you prefer the "Made in America" designation, the Harvard Comma). That makes it sound much more prestigious.

I often tell people in my writing class, "You can't argue with Oxford, that's where smart people go to school."

8:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a new question: what is the proper way to spell cancelled? I have always done it with 2 l's, but on television it is done with 1. It looks wrong and really bugs me.

8:15 AM  
Blogger Craig said...

I know I'm late, but thanks for the serial comma discussion. I don't understand why people think leaving the last comma makes the sentence clearer.

Thanks, too, for the mini summer podcasts. It's a great idea! I think we got enough reruns last year.

12:16 AM  
Anonymous jimmy said...

Well I really only looked at this blog because I have been a member of Cathedral of Hope for 14 years. The comma thing doesn't really bother me as long as there is only one way to read the sentence. If it takes the comma to make sense then it should be there.
I love Mo'Faye, too.
I did not feel compelled to even post to this blog until I read the one about cancelled. I have always been told that adding an 'ed' without doubling the final consonant makes the vowel sound long. So canceled would be can-sealed. Very stupid pronunciation I think. I noticed that airport monitors show it both ways at the same time which is far more annoying than sticking with one or the other. It bugged me so much that I actually looked it up in the dictionary and it said it is correct either way. I prefer cancelled, which follows the rule to double the consonant and add 'ed'.
Sunday July 29th is the 37th Anniversary of Cathedral of Hope. Everyone is welcome to join in the celebration at 9 or 11 am.

10:13 PM  
Anonymous Marge said...

I am so sad that your program will no longer be podcast. Any chance we will be able to continue to hear it somewhere?

11:28 AM  
Blogger Martha said...

Marge, Marge, Marge! Not to worry!!!

The good news is that our creative team at AWWW is hard at work behind the scenes to ensure that our listeners experience no interruption in service! Just amble on over to to find out more.

And PLEASE do sign up there for our “A Way with Words” email newsletter, so you’ll be one of the first to know the latest news about our show (and we do expect to have some very soon)!

Meanwhile, I very much appreciate your concern and enthusiasm!

2:02 PM  

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