The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Wednesday, June 02, 2004  

Proper Punctuation and Proper Philadelphians

It’s time for some more reading recommendations from Rittenhouse.

First off, I highly recommend Eats, Shoots & Leaves, by Lynne Truss, now, at least for a time, safely -- and deservedly -- ensconced on the New York Times bestsellers list, among others.

You will enjoy Truss’s book if you’re the kind of person who can find the humor in a passage like this one:

However, if you feel you are safe paddling in these sparklingly clear shallows of comma usage, think again. See that comma-shaped shark fin ominously slicing through the waves in this direction? Hear that staccato cello? Well, start waving and yelling, because it is the so-called Oxford comma (also known as the serial soma) and it is a lot more dangerous than its exclusive, ivory-tower moniker might suggest. There are people who embrace the Oxford comma and people who don’t, and I’ll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken. Oh, the Oxford comma. Here, in case you don’t know what it is yet, is the perennial example, as espoused by Harold Ross: “The flag is red, white, and blue.”

So what do you think of it? (It’s the comma after “white”. [Sic.] Are you for it or against it?) [Page 84]

If that’s not funny to you, well, you’re just weird. Yes, you are weird, not me; nor is the cherished reader, L.H., who sent me the book as a gift.

Long-time readers have noticed, I’m sure, that I favor the use of the Oxford comma. My good friend Susan Madrak, of Suburban Guerrilla, is opposed. Before I had heard of Truss’s book, Susie and I found ourselves, for reasons still not entirely clear, debating the merits Oxford comma: she opposed, I in favor. Although the debate did not come to fisticuffs, it quickly became evident that neither of us intended to budge from his initial stance.

You see, as it was taught to me, from a source that, if memory serves, had some association with Oxford, the serial comma is to be used after every item in a series A, B, C except for the last item in the series.

Ask someone who abhors or disdains the Oxford comma which item in the series A, B, C is the last and she invariably will say “B” when the last item in the series in plainly C.

The concept of penultimateness (I think I just made that up) is plainly lost on such as these.

I admit I had problems with Eats, Shoots & Leaves from my initial glance at the cover, though I will concede that Truss, with her strategic placement of the ampersand in the title, cleverly postponed the inevitable ruckus over the Oxford comma.

Worse, the subtitle of Truss’s work, “The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation,” is confusing at best. Are we to think there should be no punctuation whatsoever?

Still worse, Truss’s discussion of the use of the possessive apostrophe is, in one very narrow area, simplistic, reductive, and therefore, misleading.

Although correctly noting that a singular noun, proper or not, ending in “s” takes an apostrophe in the possessive (hence: James’s blog, not James’ blog), Truss advises her readers:

If the name ends in an “iz” sound, an exception is made: Bridges’ score, Moses’ tables. [Page 56.]

This is not a comprehensive description of the rule at hand. What Truss meant to say was that in the case of proper nouns of two or more syllables, when the penultimate (there’s that word again!) syllable -- and not the last syllable -- ends in an “s” or “z” sound, the final, possessive “s” is eliminated. (I taught this to dozens of aspiring reporters as the “Jesus and Moses rule.”)

Second, I direct your attention to The Perennial Philadelphians by Nathaniel Burt. Surely not a book for everyone, but if you enjoy taking a look back in time, a time when the WASP “aristocracy” held sway over the doings and comings and goings of a city so large as Philadelphia, and can be entertained by a writer who knows just the right mix of weighty seriousness and wry sarcasm, this book, originally published in 1963, is for you. More than 600 pages and I finished it in three nights. (My thanks to J.L. for the gift.)

I should mention that during my weekend in the country I picked up and completed The Two Mrs. Grenvilles, by Dominick Dunne, a not altogether shielded account of the goings on of the Woodward family. Trashy poolside stuff, don’t you know? And so appropriately so.

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