On the first day of what would be a depressing and alienating two-year trudge under the fluorescent lights of a rural high school, a soft-spoken bald man stood in front of my English class and looked at the ceiling as if trying to remember what he was going to say.
“So. In the past few years, you’ve all learned that an essay should be five paragraphs. The first paragraph states your argument and includes a topic sentence. You develop your argument over the next three paragraphs, and finish with a conclusion paragraph that starts with the words ‘in conclusion’ or something.”
Silent assent from thirty smallish heads.
Small gasps. Heresy!
“They probably taught you never to start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but.’ Forget it. Don’t use adverbs? Forget it. Forget,” he pointed at us, “all of it.”
My class drove multiple teachers to tears, and substitutes swore blood oaths on our principal’s desk sealing their promise never to teach again until we were all dead and buried under crossroads, but this man never even had to raise his voice. He’s among the pivotal figures that made me want to write, and not give up for all the years I was terrible at it.1 He understood writing, and just as important, he understood his students.
A little too well, actually; he had to resign after they caught him banging a student.2 Let’s focus on the writing part. He knew the rules that had been ice picked into our heads over the years were just ways to get something out of the kids who didn’t want to write and give the teachers a few things to decorate with smiley faces and Xs. Some of the rules were stylistic nonsense passed down by Hemingway to better distinguish American writing from British frivolity and ensure we never expressed amusement during the cold, hard, manly work of scraping a pencil across paper. Some rules were artifacts from other languages that don’t apply to English in any logical or meaningful way. Some rules were just the usual authoritarian madness of doing it because once somebody smarter than the rule makers said something offhand that the rule makers actually understood and it became out-of-context gospel.
They always promised us that if we mastered all the rules, we could find our voice later, which would have been true if they just meant the basic rules of grammar, but they meant all the rules pitched in the non-bald-not-banging-student-guy classes, and following all those rules would have left us with exactly one voice with which to go write another grammar textbook. Then, in the middle of these rule lectures, they give us Shakespeare, a man so unsatisfied with the state of his language he invented words even when he didn’t need to rhyme.
Bald guy reminded us writing was art. He reminded us that English is a rich and flexible language, and sifting something new out of it is half the fun. He reminded us that the structure of a sentence can be funny or sad. Most of all, he reminded us that writing is about communication. Writing is the most explicit art form; you can communicate enormously complex ideas or explore the oddest and most trivial quirks of the human experience.
Because everybody has a blog or is at least spitting bile at teenagers in a YouTube comment, people are by and large remembering this or figuring it out. The results are mixed, but at least the power and variety of expression through writing is on more constant display.
Yet just as the grammar Nazis are being crushed by the weight of a billion “how r u” text messages, the punctuation terrorists are coming out of the woodwork and fighting over the use and non-use of Oxford commas, and the rule war is being waged anew because nobody seems to understand that punctuation is as much an art as the rest of writing. Instead, they smugly post contrived sentences that mean different things depending on the placement of commas, because this tactic was so successful in fixing that thing that time.
Yes, you can use punctuation in incorrect ways, but that does not mean there is only one way to use it. A friend recently told me publishers don’t care whether you use an oxford comma or not, as long as you pick one and stick with it. This is stupid. If punctuation obscures or distorts the meaning of a sentence in an unintended way, it is wrong, but apart from that, punctuation is about rhythm. An Oxford comma is not a flip switch in an author’s voice, it’s a decision made in the moment to maintain the flow of the idea. Momentum, syncopation, rhythm and pattern make a sentence flow, because writers are trying to transfer the voices in their heads into yours. You can hear punctuation in speech: politicians talk in periods, Morgan Freeman is liberal with the commas, and Jon Stewart is a master of parentheses. Lewis Black made a career out of the exclamation point while Dennis Leary barely uses any punctuation at all. If you told Dennis Leary he needed more Oxford commas, I can only hope he’d put a cigarette out in your eye, but I heard he quit smoking.
Punctuation started with periods that told the speaker when to take a breath, and as both a longtime proponent of using the run-on sentence to better communicate the ranting rage in my head over the nonsense that people choose to fight about in this country and a person who is occasionally asked to read his work out loud, I’ve come to value this original function in a visceral way. Parentheses suggest a subtle aside (Jon Stewart lowering his voice and head) and can provide commentary or extra information while keeping you in the moment.3 Sometimes you want to keep the pace breakneck so you use em dashes—the noblest of the dashes—to let the reader know the ride ain’t stopping and something big is coming at the end.4 In this case, em dashes are doing something similar to a pair of commas, which can also denote side info but they do it more casually, and parentheses. You can use a single em dash to serve a purpose similar to a colon—making it absolutely clear that the thing after the dash follows from the thing before it. It can also be used to signal an abrupt change in—you know, screw it, em dashes do a bunch of stuff, you get the picture. A colon is a way to introduce things and to join ideas, and says something definite: this part of the sentence is important, and you can say it in an authoritative voice. Its purpose gets muddled with the semicolon, which is like a weak link between ideas; you can forget all the stuff about clauses: a semicolon joins two sentences without a period or ‘and’ or ‘but’ or ‘so’ or whatever. Semicolons, colons, periods, dashes, parentheses, commas, and even Oxford commas overlap each others’ jobs far more than rules lawyers would like. The situation is confusing and fluid, which is why everybody is afraid of the semicolon: it’s the only punctuation mark that’s honest and says, “Well I kinda do a little of this and a little of that.”
English is a mutt of a language, inheriting ludicrously contradictory spellings and grammars from other languages. The fact that word and whirred are pronounced exactly the same while lead and lead sound different depending on what you mean (unless the former is in the past tense in which case it’s spelled differently and pronounced like the latter) should tell us English is not so much a black tie affair as it is a soccer riot with a body count. But if we accept the chaos that informs the language, there’s a lot of expressive power to be found.
In conclusion, the next time somebody makes a strong case either for or against the Oxford comma, you can assume that their minds are simply collapsing because they looked into the abyss too soon. If make his point clear, Yoda could, give a shit about Oxford commas, nobody should.
1 2013, for example.
2 This used to say senior instead of student. For some reason, my friend decided to fixate on this, because saying senior was giving the teacher “street cred” whatever that means. This sparked a slew of text messages that started with things like “HE’S STILL A FUCKING SOCIOPATH” and descended into an insane and condescending rant about pitying artists. I think he was projecting. My argument was that you should be specific in descriptions, and, well, there is kind of an important distinction between a 13 year old and a 17 year old, and not just because one of them is above the age of consent in the state of Maine. On the other hand, I walked by a bunch of high school kids the other day and realized that at my age, everyone under twenty looks ten. Anyway, this is all way too much discussion for a throwaway line referencing something I know almost nothing about that happened 20 years ago, but now it says student. You fucking happy Matt? Your weird moral outrage satisfied? Whiny bitch.
3 As opposed to a footnote, which is used for the same purpose but interrupts the flow, and can be used as a punchline, especially for self-referential jokes.
4 Well, not this time, but usually.