I almost got into a fight the other day with an engineer over a comma.
Don’t worry. It didn’t come to fisticuffs. She was civil about the whole thing. Yes, she was a civil engineer.
I’m sure you want to hear all the details, starting from the very beginning. It began innocently enough. The engineer and I talked. I wrote down what she said and then tidied it up a bit. Because the resulting article would be published under the engineer’s name, I sent it to her to review.
She returned it the next day with several more commas than it left with.
As a professional, I remained calm. This has happened before. These were Oxford commas, also known as serial commas, which are also known as Harvard commas, which makes them sound a whole lot smarter than they actually are. At least in some people’s opinions.
Some of you may not even know that some commas have a special name. Your fourth grade teacher likely didn’t mention it when he or she taught you to write “red, white, and blue” when asked the colors of the American flag.
What our teachers – mine included – also didn’t say is that the use of Oxford commas, not to mention em-dashes and exclamation points, are not universally governed by some great McGraw-Hill-financed punctuation overlord. No, our teachers led us to believe there was only one correct way to punctuate a sentence that contained a series.
Turns out, they were wrong.
This very newspaper, in fact, belongs to a powerful, anti-Oxford comma faction that omits the second comma when writing the colors of the flag. Yes, we believe it is equally American to write, “red, white and blue.”
The engineering publication that the aforementioned article was to appear in believes the same thing.
That is why I removed the Oxford commas and sent the article back to the engineer. She reinserted them and returned the article to me.
I appreciated her tenacity. But I had a job to do.
Again, I took the commas out. This time, I included a note, explaining the publication’s stance on Oxford commas.
Next thing I know, I get a note from her boss. Yes, the engineer went over my head. She appealed to a higher grammatical authority. And that is her right. This is America, after all.
Now, you might think I would be offended. Turn the tables, and I would NEVER second-guess an engineer’s decision to use sequencing batch reactors over oxidation ditches in an activated-sludge process.
But this engineer cared about her Oxford commas, and that warmed my heart. It is comforting in a world filled with so much comma apathy.
This is one issue upon which there really are good people on both sides.