more than a comma


roughly three years ago the english-speaking world was being engulfed by a roaring controversy around the oxford (or serial) comma. you surely remember that (you don’t? where were you? under a rock? just kidding). in case you don’t even know what i am talking about

in english language punctuation, a serial comma (also called an oxford comma) is a comma placed immediately before the coordinating conjunction (usually and or or) in a series of three or more terms

apparently, the controversy was ignited when two key authorities on proper usage (the associated press stylebook and the chicago manual of style) both made changes to their latest updates, with the second recommending it in most instances and the first one dropping it in most cases. picture that: doing away with something that had been deeply ingrained in our collective minds as language speakers (and writers) just like that. what a crime! what a heresy! what an abomination!

or not? because, fortunately, languages are live organisms, that evolve over time -adapting to social, cultural, and economic changes. otherwise they die (latin anyone?) and the english language is no exception: to mention but just a few recent changes, keep in mind that the aforementioned style guides both

  • do not capitalize ‘internet’ and ‘web’ anymore

  • use ‘email”, not ‘e-mail’ anymore

  • allow for a singular ‘they’ when referring to someone who doesn’t identify as he or she anymore

but it is true that, sometimes, that comma can be loaded with meaning and that it can have a deep impact on people’s lives -such as when in 2017 a missing comma in maine's overtime law decided a dispute between a dairy company and its delivery drivers. a court case worth millions of dollars that made a difference in the lives of those milkmen and women.

and the rage over the oxford comma seems not to abate: just three months ago, there were calls for boycott of the brexit 50p coin over a ‘missing’ comma as the new coin entered circulation in the united kingdom.

while it may be true that punctuation sometimes saves lives, it is also true that deep down it’s all a matter of style -or etiquette, which in its most current version we call netiquette (a combination of ’net’ -from internet- and ’etiquette’) and that reminds us that, when writing (particularly in electronic communications such as email), using capital letters is the equivalent of shouting. not nice.

which brings me to my personal style -one which favors lowercase through and through. for two reasons:

  • first, because it would be the opposite of using uppercase (capital letters), almost like whispering, as in an intimate conversation over coffee. nice and quiet.

  • second, because it would be a better representation of my stream of consciousness, the way thoughts and feelings pass through my mind. unfiltered.

in fact, initially i was tempted to write this newsletter in pure stream of consciousness style: not only all lowercase, but also no punctuation, no paragraphs -just pure ideas, or feelings, or emotions, on the screen as they were flowing through my mind. but i understood that that would make it probably too confusing for many potential readers… so i settled for this. i decided to meet you halfway.

it’s not that i don’t love punctuation. i do. just like the rest of the english language. it’s just that i am not that punctilious (even if both ‘punctuation’ and ‘punctilious’ share the same root). i don’t want to serve the language. i want the language to serve me. period. (which is more than a comma).

credits: photo by sidharth bhatia on unsplash