Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A conversation with breakfast foods

There is this picture making the online rounds lately:

And, it's been bugging the crap out of me.

Among some circles (OK, I don't actually have "circles." But, let's go with my friends and family), I have a bit of a reputation for being a grammar nerd. Truth be told, though, I'm much more of a usage nerd. I can't diagram a sentence to save my life, but can probably tell you if you are using the right tenses and punctuation. However, usage nerd just doesn't have the same Je ne sais quoi. And, yes, I'm insinuating that being a grammar nerd is cool.

Anyway, I get calls, emails and texts from people who want to know the correct punctuation for papers, Christmas letters, their student's reports, etc. I try to help them out as best I can. But, I'm not going to tell you that I'm right 100 percent of the time. You know why? Because then obnoxious people get it in their minds to prove me wrong. So, if you want, go ahead, find my mistakes. I'm not going to tell you that everything I've ever written in this blog is grammatically accurate. I sometimes stretch grammatical accuracy for the sake of a story's flow. But, I will tell you, for the most part, I'm probably pretty right on. And, also, I no longer want you to be my friend if all you want to do is find my mistakes. So go away.

OK, back to this picture above. I'm pretty sure the annoyance stems from the difference in a journalism background and an English background. I graduated with a degree in journalism. I was a copy editor and news editor for my university's newspaper. I copy-edited at a real live newspaper, too. Albeit for the obituaries. (I did finally move up toward the end of my tenure, but if you ever want to hear about scary jobs, just ask me about working until midnight at the newspaper's office. Oh, did I mention it happened to be right across from the city jail? Oh, Topeka.)

So, we're pretty secure in the journalism aspect of my background, right? Enter the AP Stylebook: the Holy Bible for all people working in the newspaper field. The AP Stylebook says:

Use commas to separate items in a series, but do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series: The flag is red, white and blue. He would nominate Tom, Dick or Harry.
Meaning, you don't use the comma when the items in the series are simple and easily understood.  The AP Stylebook does make exceptions for when items in a series contain conjunctions or complex phrases, but for simple, straightforward lists, don't use the last comma. (This comma is known as the Oxford comma.)

The problem is, people with English backgrounds don't believe this. They have been taught to use the last comma always. People like this create the above picture. The one that annoys me so much that I spent an entire 6-mile run ruminating it. Oh yes, yes, I did.

Now, it's not like I'm always against the Oxford comma. I believe it has its place in the English language. I will use it when phrases are unclear, long or complex. It has its place when clarity is needed. But, you CANNOT tell me that anyone would actually be confused by the sentence "I had eggs, toast and orange juice."

Are you going to honestly tell me that people out there would truly believe the person is talking to the oj-soaked toast? Because, I do not believe it. I do not believe that sentence is confusing. I believe a normal person would read that sentence and know exactly what it is saying. If someone believes that a person can talk to toast soaked in orange juice, well, then, I think we have bigger problems than comma placement.

So, we're pretty much talking about common sense. I apparently give my reading audience credit for being smart enough to figure out that you can't talk to inanimate breakfast items. That is why I refuse to use the second comma in that picture. And, if this bugs you, and you really want to use the Oxford comma, well, it's your choice. Maybe your reading audience doesn't have as much sense as mine does. (OK, that was kind of snotty, I apologize.)

But, as for me, and my house, we will follow the AP. Because, that is my prerogative.

Now, I know you're dying to know what I had for breakfast this morning. Get ready. Here it comes ...

I had cereal, milk and a banana. Yum.

PS. If you're wondering about the whole Panda and "Eats, Shoots and Leaves" parable, it is entirely different because it deals with misplaced commas, not the Oxford comma. I love that one.

PPS. Can we stop it with the picture, now?

PPPS. Admit it. You are now humming Bobby Brown's "My Prerogative" in your head. You're welcome.


  1. I've listened to "Grammar Girl" three times and I'm still afraid to let Amy read my writing :)

    The talking toast is funny, humorous and clever.

  2. "I had cereal," Amy said to the toast and a banana. If so, I think you need to call a friend and quit talking to your breakfast! I was taught that the last comma was a matter of preference, that it wasn't incorrect one way or the other. But, I'm an MBA with a minor in Math who works as a writer (and also reads the AP Stylebook!).

    1. Exactly, Cheryl! I don't care if other people use the Oxford comma, I just get annoyed when they say I'm wrong for using it! To each his own.