optional commas

I was tweet-talking with Lane Greene this morning about whether Americans' love for/Britons' indifference to optional commas can be quantified. And so I did a little experiment. And so I'm going to tell you about it.

For this I'm comparing the British National Corpus and the Corpus of Contemporary American English. (They're not 100% comparable, but they'll do.) In the BNC, there's on average 1 comma for every 20 words written. In COCA, it's 1:15. So, there are a lot more commas in the American corpus. (I tried this on the GloWBE corpus too, and got about 10% more commas in AmE than BrE–but it's harder to know in GloWBE that the writers are from the country that they're categori{s/z}ed in.)

That doesn't tell us that Americans like optional commas more, though. That could mean that Americans like the grammatical constructions that require commas more than Brits do. Or it could mean that Americans write longer lists than Brits do. To really know, we need to look in contexts where the comma might occur and see if it's there. I did this for one context last year and found that my American friends were about twice as likely to use a comma (versus not using one) in the phrase "Happy Birthday(,) Lynne", and my British friends patterned in the opposite way.


So here are a few more contexts.

After a short, sentence-initial adverbial: If you want to modify a sentence with 'when, where, why or how', you can use a prepositional phrase or an adverb. Usually, these wouldn't have commas around them, but, at the start of the sentence, they often do, to mark the particular prosodic (intonational) pattern that goes with such phrases and to help the reader know that the subject of the sentence has not turned up yet.

To look at this, I decided to try sentences that start with phrases like "In 1973..." So I searched the corpora for:
. In 19* (,) the
That is to say, a (BrE) full stop/(AmE) period followed by in followed by anything starting with 19 (which ended up just being year-names), then a comma or no comma, then the word the. The the ensures that I'm not getting longer phrases at the start. So every hit is something like "In 1973(,) the band released their best album" and not things like "In 190 years of customer service at their Oxford Street branch (,) they'd never before killed a customer". That way, I've got a uniform set of short sentence-initial adverbials. (The longer ones are more apt to have commas in BrE; it's just the short adverbials I'm testing.)

And this is what you get:


comma            none         ratio
UK      495 1095    1:2
US       3445 1449   2:1

In other words, (more than) twice as many commas as not in AmE, and the opposite in BrE—just as we found in the birthday vocatives. (The US corpus is much larger than the UK one, so it works best to compare the ratios between countries.)

On to the next context:
You can visit the Oxford Comma on Twitter
Pic by @rcasinelli

The serial/Oxford comma: I was once one of those people who thought that having a firm stand on the Oxford comma was a good thing. I now think it's pretty silly. We don't need tribalism in punctuation any more than we need tribalism in the rest of life. But oh well. There's a lot of it if you hang out in the part of Twitter that I hang out in.

A quick definition for those outside the punctuation-culture wars: the serial, or Oxford, comma is a comma before the conjunction (usually and or or) in a list of three or more. So:
Oxford:  I like blogs, dictionaries, and world peace.
Non-Oxford:  I like blogs, dictionaries and world peace.

Serial comma is the older (1922), orig.-AmE name for the thing. The term Oxford comma (after the Oxford University Press) is newer (1951) and now the more popular term in the US. Why? Because, as Mary Norris, in her Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, puts it: Oxford “gives it a bit of class, a little snob appeal”. And that's what the punctuation-culture wars are about.  FiveThirtyEight found that Americans who prefer the Oxford comma tend to pat themselves on the back about their grammar knowledge. John McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun (quoted at last link) concludes that “Feigned passion about the Oxford comma, when not performed for comic effect, is mere posturing.”


Anyhow, Americans do have a reputation among editors for liking that comma more than Brits do.  
Is the reputation well founded?

I looked in the aforementioned corpora for
butter , [noun] (,) and [noun]       
men , women (,) and children
Why butter? Because if I tried to search for "noun, noun(,) and noun", the computer couldn't cope. I needed to stick a particular noun in there to bring the amount of data down. The second phrase gives me more data to work with, but since it's a set phrase, I didn't want to use just it in case it garbled the results. (In the end, there are apparently fewer discussions of ingredients in the BNC than COCA, so the butter examples didn't do much for the numbers. But I have to leave it at that because I need to get back to work.)

 And I found:


Oxford comma      none          ratio    
UK      4+1124+124     1:10
US       109+310129+434    1:1.3

So, it is true that Americans use the Oxford comma more than Brits do. But it's not true that Americans use the Oxford comma more than not.

And if you grew up in the US at the same time as I did, thinking about lists containing butter might make you think of this Sesame Street gem, now stuck in my head for the rest of the day:


28 comments

  1. I have been trying out Grammarly for a month and my impression is that it tries to put in far too many commas (I'm a Brit)

    However I have just noticed the default is American English so I have changed to British English and will wait and see.

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  2. When the Oxford comma is not used I reread the phrase; when it is used, I don't. There can be ambiguities both ways but, all things being equal, I use it.

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  3. If Grammarly is sophisticated enough to change preferences on optional commas from the US to the UK, I'll be surprised. (Let us know.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Probably not, but googling their website finds a change in treatment for punctuation inside quotes (or not)

      Delete
  4. There's an editing error in the 3rd paragraph, where a sentence got (apparently) pasted into the middle of a word.

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  5. Well, what this shows is that AmE is in a commatose condition ....

    (I stole this joke from James Thurber. If you are going to steal, steal from the best.)

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  6. Love the video, I actually got the shivers from nostalgia.
    (tend to use the Oxford comma but not a fanatic)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Although I'm Canadian so I'm neither AE nor BE

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  7. I don't consider myself to be anything like an expert in these things, I think it clarifies the meaning of the list.

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  8. Someone on alt.usage.english (I think originally Mark Brader) hypothesizes a "Great British Punctuation Shortage of (?)1953" -- or more specifically, that there was an time in post-war Britain where many publishers deliberately chose to adopt a punctuation-light style, in the name of "modernity", and that this didn't happen in the US (or Canada, which nowadays mostly follows US norms, other than in spelling). (The jokier version would be that commas were never taken off rationing after the War, so publishers had to choose more carefully when to use them!)

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    Replies
    1. And by contrast, when the New Yorker began, they laid their hands on a giant warehouse full of commas and they still haven't got rid of them all despite their profligate style.

      Delete
    2. Yeah, the New Yorker never found a sentence that couldn't use at least an extra comma or two. I'm generally pro comma, but even I find myself gasping in wonder at the embarrassment of comma riches in the magazine.

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    3. Not just commas, but also diacritics.

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  9. I once saw an example where, it was suggested, an Oxford comma would have been useful. "This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God."

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    Replies
    1. The possible presence of compound list elements is the primary reason to use the serial/Oxford/Harvard* comma. IME, the comma never increases confusion, though its absence sometimes does, which is why the style committees I've been a member of strongly prefer it.

      And for really complex lists**, there's always the choice to use semicolons rather than commas.

      * Since Lynne didn't mention it, "Harvard comma" is the other name in the US, though it seems less used now than formerly.

      ** When you have to go to semicolons for list-item separators, you are approaching the limit of what normal people can parse. You should really think about simplifying the structure of that part.

      Delete
    2. "This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God."

      I've often thought that this is a case where the absence of the OC makes no difference, once one considers the relationship between Ayn Rand and God.

      Delete
  10. I'm of the opinion that no serious discussion of the Oxford comma is complete without a reference to this seminal work by the great Brian Bilston.

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  11. The three things I hate most in this world are pedantry, the Oxford comma, and paradoxy.

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  12. After a short, sentence-initial adverbial:

    This came up in that thread on comma vocative. Diane Benjamin proclaimed To me, any introductory element which comes before the subject of the sentence needs to be set off by commas. I countered with a quote from David Crystal's Making a Point which ended "This is the main domain where 'taste' operates."

    It's worth quoting what Crystal says next ...

    QUOTE
    But we mustn't ignore semantic factors. A lot depends on the subject-matter. We're more likely to see a comma in a story where the action is proceeding slowly, or where the writer wants you to make you think, create a particular atmosphere (of oncoming menace, of impending doom), slow down the pace, or is simply acting like a camera panning around a view.

    Gradually, the first light of dawn illuminated the room.
    Equally, the gun may have been in the desk.
    Regrettably, you have no future (MrBond).
    Outside, several children were playing.


    We're less likely to see a comma after initial adverbials where the action or the emotion speeds up:

    Suddenly a dog barked.
    Obviously I'll go with you.
    Please don't do anything silly.


    If commas are used here, they convey a more dramatic implication, which could be differently expressed through a dash or elliptic dots

    Please, don't do anything silly. (A more forceful appeal?
    Please ... don't do anything silly. (The speaker is dying?)
    Please — don't do anything silly. (The speaker is being authoritative?)
    UNQUOTE

    Serial comma

    This also came up on that thread. Let me repeat a link I posted to another comic illustration:
    click here.
    (This links to where I quoted it on another message board, as the original page had been altered.)

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  13. Sorry, that link takes you to the page where the joke used to be. This link seems to work:

    link.

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    1. . In 19* (,) the

      The examples I quoted from David Crystal were one-word adverbials (aka adverbs). But I think the principle can be applied here too. Consider,

      1. .. and we lived in France for a year. In 1995, the family moved again, this time to Germany. .
      The comma, I suggest, brings out the 'rhythm' of the narrative — marking In 1995 as a sort of punctuation.

      2. I remember it as a sleepy town, comfortably unaware of what happened in the big world outside. In 1995 the life we had know changed utterly and overnight.
      I would very much object to a comma here. The second sentence doesn't represent just another step in the narrative. It brings in a new contrastive situation. The date phrases is the TOPIC not as a linking device but as the essential point of that the sentence is saying.

      I capitalised TOPIC because it's a technical term in analysing text. The TOPIC is what you start with, and what follows is the COMMENT. Very often those opening words are also the topic in the non-technical everyday sense of 'what this is about'.

      A TOPIC starts at the beginning of a sentence, but where does it stop?. This is where the comma comes in. In a written sentence, a comma can be used to demarcate the TOPIC.

      [I should add that comma separation is by no means always possible. It is now considered unacceptable to put a comma between a SUBJECT and the rest of the sentence. With these initial adverbials we can mark off a phrase which we could have placed elsewhere in the sentence, but chose to place as a TOPIC phrase.]

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  14. By habit I don't use the Oxford comma but I've read so many US journal articles that I don't scratch my eyes out at the sight of them. Because I read a lot of science journals, where highly qualified statements even in lists are the norm, I'm used to lists with semi-colons as the separator because the statements being separated have commas for the qualifying statements they contain.

    One of the things I do in the day job is write code. Of course that's not English but we use a comma to separate items in a list or array (which can be a fancy, multi-dimensional list in effect) and semi-colons to mark the end of a line of code (which is not necessarily confined to one line on the screen). The grapheme . is used for a decimal point of course. This is pretty standard across a pretty wide variety of programming languages (I'm sure there are exceptions but I don't remember coming across one in years, maybe even decades).

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  15. Since I mentioned the New Yorker earlier, this seems like a good place to post what may be the most New Yorkerest sentence ever committed to print:

    “When I was in high school, at Horace Mann, in the Bronx, in the nineteen-seventies, everyone took pride in the brilliant eccentricity of our teachers.”

    This is from Mary Norris's reminiscence in the New Yorker, and she explains why house style demands all those commas. I remain unconvinced.

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    Replies
    1. @David L: Try this one:

      https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-correct-punctuation-of-donald-trump-jrs-name

      Delete
    2. "Usually, these wouldn't have commas around them, but at the start of the sentence, they often do, to mark the particular prosodic (intonational) pattern that goes with such phrases and to help the reader know that the subject of the sentence has not turned up yet."

      I'd put a comma after "but" to mark "at the start of he sentence" as parenthetical.

      Delete
  16. at M Dolbear: at least one comma should have appeared in your second paragraph, don't you think?

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  17. Usually, these wouldn't have commas around them, but, at the start of the sentence, they often do, to mark the particular prosodic (intonational) pattern that goes with such phrases ...

    My personal instinct is to omit a comma after Usually — to mark the absence of such a prosodic pattern. In my speech, that is.

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Abbr.

AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)