## Math and Grammar

A coworker is currently preparing to take the GRE, and today she complimented my use of semicolons in a serial list. Apparently, the comma’s stronger cousin has been a topic of study for her recently. I told her that if she really wanted to brush up on her grammar, she ought to review the debate over the Oxford comma. The Oxford comma is the comma used immediately before and, or, and sometimes nor preceding the final item in a list of three or more items.

I always use the Oxford comma. That’s probably because I’m old, and that’s what I was taught to do back in my one-room schoolhouse days. But it’s not just habit. There are two practical reasons.

For a serial list where each of the items contains many words (including conjunctions), I find that the Oxford comma tells the reader where to pause . For example,

Yesterday, I squared a circle, trisected an angle, found a one-line proof of the Riemann Hypothesis, and conjectured and verified three new theorems.

But the Oxford comma is especially useful for lists of exactly three items; it makes it clear that the second and third items are actually part of a list, not just modifiers of the first item. An unintended consequence of not using the Oxford comma is shown below:

And the good folks at We Know Awesome (one of my new favorite sites) have a pretty good example involving JFK and Stalin.

It turns out that math can be useful when thinking about grammar. During a recent presentation, I showed how proportional reasoning can be used to identify past participles:

Just cross-multiply, cancel the ew and gr, and algebra reveals the past participle of flew!

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• 1. puntomaupunto  |  April 3, 2012 at 9:26 am

I like and use the Oxford comma, but I strongly object to your use of a comma after “Yesterday” in your sentence.
(by the way, your lines are pretty long)

• 2. venneblock  |  April 3, 2012 at 11:14 am

Wow… you “strongly object”? That’s strong language for a grammar discussion. I would expect such venom to be reserved for conversations about whether or not 1 is prime, or similar.

Seriously, I learned that a comma should be used after an introduction when the introduction indicates a time or place. Grammar mavens differ on this rule, but at least the Grammar Monster agrees with me: http://www.grammar-monster.com/lessons/commas_after_a_sentence_introduction.htm.

• 3. puntomaupunto  |  April 3, 2012 at 4:26 pm

@venneblock: we grammar nazis have definite opinions (Of course 1 is not prime nor nonprime, let’s call it a unit and go away with it)
I checked my battered copy of Thompson-Martinet, where I studied English grammar: there is not a direct entry but there are examples of sentences starting with a time adverb and no comma after it, and no single counterexample. If the introduction is long (In the year 2525, if man is still alive…) a comma is fine, but a single word does not need it (IMNHO, of course!)

• 4. venneblock  |  April 3, 2012 at 8:55 pm

I think you’ve nailed it, @puntomaupunto: you prefer the method you were taught when you learned grammar, and I prefer the method I was taught. It seems that many of us, including most of the grammar mavens, claim that what is correct is what they learned as a child. I don’t have a solid rationale for WHY one method is better than the other — but one certainly LOOKS more correct to me!

• 5. puntomaupunto  |  April 4, 2012 at 4:25 am

I bought my Thompson-Martinet when I was 16 or 17 – when you learn English as a second language, grammar nitpicking is not your top priority – but I see your point

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