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The Guerrilla Grammarian asked if she could guest blog today. I generally don’t have guest bloggers, but it’s hard to say no to your own alter ego, so, take it away, G.G.
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Thanks, Amy. I thought I should speak up on this topic because, as a self-proclaimed guerrilla of grammar, I’m often assumed to be the kind who will swing into action, maybe even swing a battle-axe, in defense of the Oxford comma. You know: the comma just before the “and” in a sentence with a series of three or more items, such as this one:

“I like bananas, coconuts, and grapes.”

But in this I am profoundly misunderstood. I value grammar because it gives language clarity and expressiveness; rules added without good reason are just an irritation. Doubly so if they are accompanied by a load of self-righteousness, as, let’s face it, grammar rules tend to be.

I don’t actually have a strong preference between the Oxford comma and the whatever-the-opposite is (Cambridge absence-of-comma?). They convey different rhythms, and so sometimes I find myself using one, sometimes the other, depending on how long I want the reader to linger. However, I was taught the “Cambridge” and so it’s my default. Furthermore, I wish to defend it against the Oxfordites’ low-blow use of the straw-person argument against it.

The argument is made on the basis of clarity, and is inevitably accompanied by amusing examples, such as the probably-apocryphal dedication page

“This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God”

and the classic

“We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.”

Oxfordites will argue that we need the comma after “Ayn Rand” so that the reader does not think she is the writer’s mother (shudder). Likewise, we need a comma after “JFK” so that it’s clear that he and Stalin are not the aforementioned strippers. (I still want to know what occasion could possibly have had that guest list.)

These examples do illustrate the need for an additional comma. The problem is that they do not illustrate the superiority of the Oxford comma in general. The rule I learned already clearly states that one omits a comma before the last item unless it is necessary for clarity. The people who wrote the “Ayn Rand” and “strippers” sentences, if they were real people, would have been using incorrect punctuation by either the Oxford or the “Cambridge” rule.

I repeat: these sentences are not examples of the “Cambridge” comma. They are examples of incorrect punctuation, full stop.

So this is a plea for fair debate. Straw people just fill the air with a lot of dusty chaff. None of us wishes to claim Ayn Rand and God as our parents, no matter which comma usage we prefer, and unless we are not proofreading carefully, none of us does.

Grammatically yours,
The Guerrilla Grammarian


We are each entitled to our own opinions, but not our own facts. The fact is that arming more citizens than are currently armed will not reduce the number of deaths by gun. You cannot point to any statistics, any other country, any studies that indicate otherwise–I know because I read the ones people link to, and they never say what the poster claims they say. In fact, the facts are that we have way too many guns for safety.

Two kids died and another 15 were wounded in the shooting at a Benton, Kentucky, school yesterday. It was the 11th shooting on a school campus in the first 23 days of this year, a tripling of the past several years’ rate of one such shooting per week. After the Benton murders, as always, there are people pleading with the president or the NRA to say something. This is counterproductive, because if the NRA or Trump offer any policy solution, it is always in the vein of “More guns in the hands of more people.” And along with them, hundreds of internet commenters emerge like worms after rain to claim that the problem is not enough guns.

I am sick of our treating these claims as if they have a shred of evidence to back them up. “More guns” is no more a strategy for reducing gun deaths than “Pray to the Tooth Fairy.” If it were, I would support it.

You who make this argument, and you who are silent as it rages, I am sure that we have something in common: you, too, would like to see fewer people die by guns in this country. Will you embrace the solutions that are proven to be effective?

Colored pencil on paper, 18×22 cm (c) Amy Zucker Morgenstern 2018

You know what scares me most about Trump’s latest outrage? It’s not that he described other nations as “shitholes.” It’s not that he said we shouldn’t allow immigration from such countries. It’s not even the deep, toxic racism of his policies.

Those are all plenty frightening, but what’s got me most in a sweat is the evidence that no one, least of all Trump himself, has control over what Trump says and does.

There are those on the left and right who say he’s being strategic: shoring up his base with the occasional blatantly racist comment. But the people who love this comment don’t need shoring up, so if it is a strategy, it’s a bad one. Again: he is not in control of himself.

It’s been a while since I wrote one of my appreciations of Ursula K. Le Guin, though I keep reading new and old works of hers. During my sabbatical last year I read Malafrena and Unlocking the Air for the first time and enjoyed both. This week I pulled one off the shelf that I have read once before–only once, several years ago, and I won’t wait that long again before my next reading, because there’s a lot to discover in Changing Planes (Ace Books, 2003). It’s a volume of short stories, in a sense, though what draws my attention in each is less plot or character, and more what, if this were non-fiction, might be called ethnography. The narrator is writing as a tourist, though a reflective one, of fifteen societies. They are sketches: brief anthropological visits to some of the rooms of Le Guin’s imagination. It’s as if she decided to just play at world-creation for awhile, and it’s something she does with so much creativity, humor, and generosity of spirit that I feel possibilities expand.

I would like to comprehend the language of the Nna Mmoy, whom no visitor has yet understood and whose texts “are not linear, either horizontally or vertically, but radial, budding out in all directions like tree branches or growing crystals, from a first or central word which, once the text is complete, may well be neither the center nor the beginning of the statement. Literary texts carry this polydirectional complexity to such an extreme that they resemble mazes, roses, artichokes, sunflowers, fractal patterns.” (166)

I would not like to visit the Veksi, who are perpetually angry: fighting, sulking, quarreling. But as unpleasant as they are, after this peek into their community I wonder whether their anger is not mostly a response to the perpetual losses and griefs of life. Maybe that’s where our anger comes from too.

On Gy, about one in a thousand adolescents develops wings, in a painful process that changes all of their bones as well as adding these two limbs. As a result, life on the ground becomes difficult for them, with their delicate bones and ungainly appendages; however, many winged Gyr choose not to fly, because catastrophic wing failure is a constant and unpreventable risk. Le Guin draws no analogy, but I draw my own. Maybe wings are like extraordinary talents; flyers are the equivalent of certain artists, writers, scientists, mystics, choreographers–visionaries of all kinds, who take risks in order to experience the inimitable intensity of “one’s whole body, one’s whole self, up in the whole sky. . . . It takes everything to fly. Everything you are, everything you have” (210). Do I live like that? Do I want to? And is it as risky as the Gyrs’ flights, fatal one time in twenty?

I’m both drawn to the migratory life of the Ansarac and sobered by the homesickness that must accompany it. Each of their years is about as long as 25 of ours, and they seldom live much longer than three of their years, never as long as four. So the annual migration north in spring, to where they live in families, in rural villages, and there dance their courtship dances, is made by each of them no more than three times. Come fall–which is a good dozen years later, in our terms–they migrate to an urban life in the south. Couples separate, children go off to school and away from parents, not to be reunited until the following spring, after another one-sixth of their lives has passed. What happens when they are offered a new development that would allow them to travel as often as they wish between the two places is vintage Le Guin. She is never naive, but resists the simplistic stories both of technology as ruin and technology as salvation. She’s interested in how and why people choose the changes they do–and so she imagines for us a more discerning, deliberate approach to “progress” than we have generally imagined for ourselves or our society.

This book doesn’t get the attention it merits. It’s a beauty. And it’s yet another reason that, when my daughter asked me this week who my favorite writers are, Ursula Le Guin was the first name from my lips.

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