Musings on Grammar, Usage, and Garner’s


Oxford comma cartoon from the New YorkerBe honest with me: how serious are you about the serial comma? Do you wade into discussions on language forums and social media brandishing citations from your favourite authorities? Do you dismiss dissenting authorities as heretics? Are there style and usage guides on your bookshelf with sticky notes and bookmarks in them so you can immediately find your references should anyone post a contrary opinion? Do you haughtily refer to it as the Oxford comma instead of the serial — or, the gods of language forbid, the Harvard — comma?*

Do you rail and wail over comma splices? Does a misplaced apostrophe cause you sleepless nights? When the mayor is quoted using “asks” as a noun or the town’s media releases uses a non-word like “actioning” as a verb, do you do a facepalm and mutter about the accelerating erosion of language in government? Does incorrect capitalization give you a headache? Do you shudder seeing ordinal numbers where cardinal numbers belong? Do you break out in hives every time you hear someone say “I seen” or “yous”? Does “irregardless” make your teeth clench? Do you interrupt conversations to correct someone who says “between you and I”? Does “y’all” want to make you go back to bed and pull the covers over your head? Do you read local media and wonder if anyone in the news business knows how to use a semicolon? Or that a.m. and p.m. require periods (and small caps are preferred for both if they aren’t used)?

If you answered yes to any of these, if you smiled at least once as you read them, or even if you knew what the hell I was on about, then I have a book for you. Well, for that rare minority of you who not only read, but read about language, grammar, style, and usage. A minority of people who not only care about language and communication, but equally enjoy exploring the trends, the arguments, the changes, and the arguments that arise over how we use them. And who, like me, is not a scholar or academic, just someone who likes to read about words. And probably not anyone in local media (but I digress…).

But lest you think a debate over whether to use a comma after a final conjunction is merely the angels-dancing-on-a-pinhead sort of debate that airs in the stratosphere of academe, please join me in the mud of daily life where it attracts all sorts of attention and contention. In late 2022,  Thérèse Coffey, the UK’s new health secretary and deputy prime minister created a shitstorm of controversy when she sent around an email to departmental civil servants about how to use language in their communications. She emphasized they were never, ever, under any circumstances to use an Oxford comma. An editorial in The Guardian noted:

You might think: given the NHS falling apart, aren’t there rather more important things Coffey should be addressing? What about the 6.8 million people waiting for routine treatment? Or the 132,000 unfilled NHS posts? Or the patients dying in ward corridors? Look, those things can wait because Coffey hates the comma.

The writer went on to call Coffey’s email “patronising, unnecessary, and a distraction” while hotly defending the use of said serial comma. I pumped my fist in the air for her stand.

In 2018, the New York Times reported on a legal dispute that ended up costing the state of Maine $5 million because of a missing serial comma in an agreement with truck drivers. As the story noted:

What followed the last comma in the first sentence was the crux of the matter: “packing for shipment or distribution of.” The court ruled that it was not clear whether the law exempted the distribution of the three categories that followed, or if it exempted packing for the shipment or distribution of them.
Had there been a comma after “shipment,” the meaning would have been clear. David G. Webbert, a lawyer who represented the drivers, stated it plainly in an interview in March: “That comma would have sunk our ship.”

Reading and writing

Even the Smithsonian had a story about that missing comma. In 2017, NPR ran a story titled The $10 Million Lawsuit That Hinges On An Oxford Comma, about that court case, as did our own CBC news and the BBC News. Similarly, a missing comma was the source of a legal dispute between Rogers and Bell Aliant in Canada. These are just a few of the legal challenges that have arisen over the placement (or lack thereof) of a single comma.

Yes, I take the serial comma seriously because it matters to me and, it seems, to a lot of other folks, even to lawyers. Not enough to lose sleep over its absence, but enough that I will wade into discussions about it and fling examples about like a Saundersonite town councillor handing out sole-sourced contracts to their lawyer friends. And, not surprisingly, I enjoy participating in those debates, although I am merely a layperson in them and often suffer the slings and arrows of invective for doing so.

Why it matters

Language and its use matters because I’ve been writing for print ever since I was in high school (when I launched our school’s first newsletter). Since then, I have worked in newspapers, magazines, and book publishing (both as editor and author), as well as being a technical writer for software and hardware. I’ve been writing online since the mid-90s and blogging since 2004 (the first one was retired when this particular blog began in 2012). So it matters to me not only what I write, but how I write it. And where the damned commas are located.

I believe as Hannah Jane Parkinson wrote in The Guardian:

My main reason for enthusiastically supporting the Oxford comma is that it is important to the cadence and rhythm of a sentence. I feel this in my bones. But another argument is that its omission can change the meaning of a sentence, or introduce ambiguity.

I’ll admit that, as I age and my brain ossifies, my writing skills today are not as well-honed as they once were; I am more prone to mistakes and gaffes than I ever was (and I rely on tools like Grammarly and autocorrect a bit too much). But that doesn’t stop me from picking up a usage guide and reading to help reinforce my efforts and remind me of the framework. Or from buying new editions, even though I’m retired from any paying work in the writing and editing fields and could more easily justify the costs. Yet I still enjoy the reading thereof and am comfortable on the sofa with a cup of tea, a cat on my lap, and a style guide open in front of me.
Some of my usage and style books

For most of the past fifty years there has been an edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage on my bookshelves. In fact, today there are three of them: the second, third, and fourth print editions. There’s a reason for that beyond merely being an obsessive book hoarder: each edition has had a different editor (Gowers, Burchfield, and Butterfield, respectively) who has brought something new in both approach and content to the work. Plus, each one has a historical value in the appreciation of how our English language changes and evolves and the discussions therein about those changes are fascinating.**

Fowler’s has long been an indispensable guide for my writing, and along with an Oxford English Dictionary and Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, I can’t recall not having one to refer to at any time in my lifetime of writing and editing for print. Many other guides have been added to the collection, of course, not least of all the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), and various news media and newspaper style guides. The photo above captures only one shelf of many such books I still retain.***

Last week, despite a resolution to stop buying books for a while (I really do have too many to read in my remaining lifetime), I bought a copy of Garner’s Modern English Usage (Oxford University Press): a hefty volume of almost 1,300 pages, weighing 2.2kg. I have been nerdly delighted by it; dipping in at random to read entries, looking up specific content, skittering to and fro through his topics with it on my chest as I read in bed at night.

I’ve been aware of Garner’s work since the late 1990s, when he published A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. I resisted buying it because being Canadian my focus since then has been on English, not its American variant. Because I wrote for American media for many years in the ’70s and ’80s, I do have many American usage and style guides in my library as well (the CMOS has been on it for almost as long as Fowler’s), but I was not inspired to add another to my shelf.

As Wikipedia tells us, Garner expanded his perspective to cover a wider view of English in his fourth (2016) edition. In 2022, the fifth edition (which I recently bought) was published as Garner’s Modern English Usage: The Authority on Grammar, Usage, and Style. How could I resist that siren call? If nothing more, I wanted to while away a few hours doing a one-to-one comparison with Fowler’s to see how well his claim to authority stood up to the competition.

Some examples

To my amazement, Garner dedicates four whole pages to the serial comma, citing numerous authorities and examples both for and against its use. Four pages! Oh, be still my beating heart! Fowler’s 2 didn’t even address the issue separately (commas were included in the category “stops”), merely saying (p.588) that while a comma before the conjunction would be “otiose,” it may “sometimes be needed to avoid ambiguity. Basically a single paragraph, but I really liked the use of the word otiose.

Fowler’s 3 separates comma as a category and describes the Oxford comma briefly  within it (p.162) as “frequently, but in my view, unwisely omitted by many other publishers.” Fowler’s 4 finally gives the Oxford comma its own heading and dedicates the better part of an entire page (p.592) to it, calling it “an optional comma that follows the penultimate item in a list of three or more items…” The editor also warned that the serial comma would not always remove ambiguity and instead to consider rephrasing a sentence as the “best option.”

Garner, however, is clear: “My own preference is for bright-line rules that lead to consistency… unless you’re a newspaper editor, prefer the serial comma.” If you’re not familiar with the term, Wikipedia describes “bright-line rule” as “a clearly defined rule or standard, composed of objective factors, which leaves little or no room for varying interpretation. The purpose of a bright-line rule is to produce predictable and consistent results in its application.”

But that’s not all. In most entries, Garner provides examples, with information about how frequently variants appear in print, and how a change in usage or definition has progressed (his Language-Change Index), from level one (new or rejected) to five (Borg-like: resistance is futile because it has been fully accepted). And even more appealling to my senses: Garner writes with a wry sense of humour about many of the issues he covers.

CMOS 17, by the way, covers the serial comma in 6.19 (p.371) with “…the serial or series comma or the Oxford comma should appear before the conjunction. Chicago strongly recommends this widely practiced usage, blessed by Fowler and other authorities… since it prevents ambiguity.” Stephen Pinker, in his Sense of Style (p. 294) also recommends using the serial comma, but also suggests using a semicolon can help avoid ambiguity. But then, you’d need to know what a semicolon is.

I want to compare another entry to show the differences between these various books and provide a fuller example of their writing styles, albeit without the examples provided in them. Here’s Fowler’s 2, page 509:

re-collect, recollect, remember, recall. To re-collect is to collect or rally what has been dissipated; the distinction between this and the ordinary sense of recollect is usually though not always kept up in pronunciation, and should be marked by the hyphen. Between recollect and remember there is a natural distinction often obscured by the use of recollect as a formal word for the dominant term remember… recollect means not so much remember as succedd in remembering, and implies a search in the memory. Another word, recall, has the peculiarity of suggesting memory stimulated by association. But in practice, these distinctions are rarely consciously observed.

Here’s Fowler’s 3 page 660 and Fowler’s 4 page 691:

recollect, remember: 1. First recollect… is to be distinguished from re-collect, though the two words have the came origin. 2 In most contexts, recollect means ‘to succeed in remembering’, and implies a search in the memory or the recalling of something temporarily forgotten. But the distinction is not an absolute one, and it shares with remember much of the territory of the ordinary sense ‘to call or bring back to one’s mind’.

Here’s Garner’s 5, page 929:

recollect and remember. The distinction is a subtle one worth observing. To remember is to retrieve what is ready at hand in one’s memory. To recollect is to find something stored further back in the mind. As the OED formerly put it, “Recollect, when distinguished from remember, implies a conscious or express effort of memory to recall something which does not spontaneously rise in the mind.”
re-collect: As with other re- pairs, the hyphen is crucial… re-collect means (1) “to collect (something) again” or (2) “to gather or compose (oneself)”.

All cover the same content, but Garner just seems to have a lighter, more reader-friendly style and he makes the point about the subtlety of the distinction. I was bemused by his use of ‘ready at hand’ which I have always seen written as ‘readily at hand’ or ‘ready to hand‘ however. A local idiom for him, perhaps.

All of which should tell you, dear reader, that I am very much enjoying my perusal of this latest usage guide and will continue, at least until another book distracts me, to read through Garner’s notes and insights and compare them to similar entries in my other books.

I highly recommend Garner’s Modern English Usage, fifth edition, to anyone who loves to read about language and might also have a Fowler’s on their bookshelf. I only wish I could convince our local media to get — and read — a copy, too.


* The serial (aka series) comma is defined in the CMOS Shoptalk blog as “…the one before and, or, or nor at the end of a series of three or more items. It’s the comma after b in “a, b, and c”—and, incidentally, the comma after the first or in the previous sentence.”  The definition is also found under the title “Serial Comma” in New Hart’s Rules: The Oxford Style Guide, which is what the fourth edition of Fowler’s (Burchfield) follows. (FYI, I don’t have a copy of New Hart’s… but it’s now on my wishlist…)

The name Oxford comma comes from a claim by the Oxford University Press to have published the first printed definition of it in Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers, 1905 edition. In 1906, the first edition of the Chicago Manual of Style also recommended putting a comma “before ‘and,’ ‘or,’ and ‘nor’ connecting the last two links in a sequence of three or more…”

As CMOS reprints from New Hart’s most recent 2014 edition (Section 4.3.5);

The presence or lack of a comma before and or or in a list of three or more items is the subject of much debate. Such a comma is known as a serial comma. For a century it has been part of Oxford University Press style to retain or impose this last comma consistently, to the extent that the convention has also come to be called the Oxford comma. However, the style is also used by many other publishers, both in the UK and elsewhere.

Lynn Truss made a point of the serial comma in the title of her entertainingly sarcastic book on grammar: Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. Here are some humourous examples from around the web that show where that Oxford comma should have been:

  • The country-and-western singer was joined onstage by his two ex-wives, Kris Krisofferson and Waylon Jennings.
  • How Harry Reid, a terrorist interrogator and the singer from Blink-182 took UFOs mainstream.
  • Attention: Toilet ONLY for disabled, children, elderly and pregnant.
  • I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.
  • Book dedication: Dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
  • The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.
  • Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.
  • Some people enjoy cooking their families and their dogs.
  • Let’s eat Grandma (okay, not an Oxford, but still missing that comma…).

Benjamin Dreyer, in Dreyer’s English says it for us all: “Only godless savages do not use the Oxford or serial comma.” I stand firmly with Dreyer on this, but, sadly, the Canadian Press Styleguide says not to use the serial comma. CP has long been subservient to the American Press (AP) style to get its content reprinted in US newspapers where words like “labour” and “favour” befuddle their editors enough they won’t reprint anything so spelled.

** I did have a hardcover reprint of the first edition for many years, too, but seem to have misplaced it in recent downsizing efforts. I also have usage guides by Gowers, Flesch, Follett, and others not visible in the photograph, plus numerous books on typography.

*** I also have other dictionaries including Merriam-Webster, Random House, Collins, and Chambers, all of them very respectable. The only one I consider for usage notes as a challenger to the OED — of which I have several editions — is the Merriam-Webster, because its focus is on American usage and our Canadian English often uses their terms and style. Chambers is good for having Scots terms within it that are not always included in the bookshelf-sized editions of the OED. However, as I have often written, the generic “Webster’s” dictionaries often sold inexpensively in box stores and back-to-school sales shelves (not the Merriam-Webster’s, which is the authentic version) will never find a home on my shelf because they are usually outdated reprints of works decades old, often purloined from copyright, and lacking any respectability. I have numerous specialty dictionaries as well, but I’ll save that for another post.

Words: 3,093

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One comment

  1. More books!

    I was perusing some boxes of books in my basement looking for the mysteriously misplaced first edition of Fowler’s, and uncovered two more Fowler’s I had forgotten: another 2nd edition, and the Pocket Fowler’s, which is an abbreviated version of the 3rd edition. And inn the same box I found Wretched Writing, which I read a couple of years back and thought I’d enjoy reading again.

    The nook on the upper right, Damp Squid, just arrived by mail and is by Jeremy Butterfield, the same person who edited Fowler’s 4th edition.

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