Saturday, July 30, 2016

Your defence of the Oxford comma sucks

The Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma, is the comma before the last item of a list. Some people usually put it in; some people usually leave it out. It’s the comma that appears in the first but not the second of these:

Tom, Dick, and Harry.
Tom, Dick and Harry.

I usually leave it out. When I was a little boy being taught how to use commas, I was taught the style that leaves it out. I got into the habit before I knew there was an alternative, and I haven’t seen a good reason to change. I’ve changed other writing habits I was taught as a child; for example, I was taught to type two spaces after a full stop, and to write “realise” and “jeopardise” instead of “realize” and “jeopardize”. Now I put one space after a full stop and write “realize” and “jeopardize”. I won’t bore you with the reasons for these changes, though if you’re keen then there are people to bore you with them here and here. Some people think there are also good reasons to buy into the Oxford comma. Their reasons are silly.

The standard Oxonian argument rests on the ambiguity of phrases like the following:

I’d like to thank my parents, Marilyn Monroe and God.
We invited the lion tamers, Stalin and Nelson Mandela.

These phrases are ambiguous between their intended readings and ones that imply that Marilyn Monroe and God are the speaker’s parents and that Stalin and Nelson Mandela are the lion tamers. The Oxford comma would remove this ambiguity. The argument doesn’t work, for four reasons.

First, the examples are made up. If you want to show that not using the Oxford comma causes problems, the best evidence would be instances of it causing problems. If people never used the anti-Oxonian style, the use of hypothetical examples would be understandable. But lots of people use that style, and if it’s a problem then their use should supply evidence of this.

Second, the examples are not ambiguous in context. We all know that context usually removes ambiguity, and context includes common knowledge among speakers and listeners. It also includes expectations about the sort of thing people are likely to be saying. We know that Marilyn Monroe and God are not your parents and you wouldn’t say they were, and this removes the ambiguity. Ambiguous examples would be ones like these:

I’d like to thank my parents, Steve and Michelle.
We invited the lion tamers, Steve and Michelle.

But those examples aren’t the ones people use to defend the Oxford comma, and that’s another reason their defence of it sucks.

Third, the fact that using the Oxford comma would sometimes remove an ambiguity does not mean you have to use it all the time. It is quite normal to use optional extra commas or other punctuation when leaving them out would make for problematic ambiguity. Every sensible writer does this, unless their punctuation style is already maximally comma-heavy and so there are no optional extra commas to add. It’d probably be sensible to use an Oxford comma in the examples above about Steve and Michelle, or to rephrase them if you intended the other readings. But the argument that you should always use the Oxford comma because sometimes it resolves ambiguity and you should punctuate all your lists the same way would lead to a maximally comma-heavy style in general, and nobody wants that. (Well, maybe the New Yorker wants that, but nobody else does. I’m a big fan of the New Yorker, but I disagree with their style guru Mary Norris about almost everything.) And even if you’re willing to bite the maximally comma-heavy bullet, it won’t do any good. When lists contain items which themselves include commas, you eventually have to start separating them with semi-colons or the writing will be incomprehensible. Not even the New Yorker advocates separating all items in all lists with semi-colons, just to maintain consistency with a practice that is occasionally necessary.

Fourthly, all the made-up examples can be easily changed into ammunition against the Oxford comma.

I’d like to thank my parents, Marilyn Monroe and God.
I’d like to thank my mother, Marilyn Monroe, and God.
We invited the lion tamers, Stalin and Nelson Mandela.
We invited a lion tamer, Stalin, and Nelson Mandela.

Here’s an example of this ambiguity occurring in the wild:

Oxford comma obama a republican.png

Monday, July 18, 2016

Cocksure certainties

I was reading an opinion piece in the Observer by Nick Cohen yesterday, and I came across this paragraph:

As the opposition collapsed last week, Paul Mason insisted that Labour must be transformed from a party that seeks to govern into a “social movement”. Mason, along with Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Milne, is part of a group of journalists who have poisoned public life by taking braggart swagger and cocksure certainties of newspaper punditry into politics. But in this instance, he was authentically reflecting “the people” or, rather, that tiny section of “the people” who pay £3 and click on a link to show they agree with him.

My first thought was that it was strange for a political newspaper pundit to talk about political newspaper punditry in such uncharitable terms. It might be fair enough for a reality TV star to criticize Donald Trump for poisoning public life by taking the cartoonish offensiveness and fakery of reality TV into politics, but this seems different. Political newspaper punditry seems too similar to public life for braggart swagger and cocksure certainties to be OK in one but not in the other. Perhaps you’ll disagree with me about that. But there’s something else I wanted to pick up on in the paragraph. It’s the cocksure certainty expressed with such braggart swagger in the last sentence. I think it might not be quite accurate.

Corbyn labour leadership results.jpg

You’ll notice that Corbyn did much better than any of the other candidates among members, and among registered supporters, and among affiliated supporters. From what Cohen said, you’d think that Corbyn won the election because of the votes of the people who had paid £3 to be able to vote in the leadership election. Those people are the “registered supporters” column. But if Corbyn is winning in all the columns, then what Cohen said is quite misleading. Unless I’ve misread something.

I don’t know if he really thinks Corbyn won the election on the back of the £3 voters. It seems a weird thing for him to be wrong about. But since people are discussing Corbyn’s leadership a lot at the moment, it’s worth getting this right. When Corbyn was elected, the big split wasn’t between the party and the clicktivists. It was between the party membership, the clicktivists and the members of affiliated organizations on the one hand, and the Labour MPs on the other. Maybe the split is in a different place now, but that’s where it was last year.

Now, I understand that Nick Cohen thinks that the platform that most Labour MPs want the Labour party to present is closer to the views of the electorate as a whole than Corbyn's platform is. That's a genuine concern. But it's very different from the idea that Labour's leadership is out of touch because the election was hijacked by a group of fairweather enthusiasts with £3 to spare. If Labour is out of touch with the people, then it's out of touch at every level but the MPs. (The MPs may of course be out of touch as well. We don't really know a great deal about the people's view on Angela Eagle, Owen Smith, or whoever the Parliamentary Labour Party wants to replace Corbyn with.)


I did try asking him on Twitter whether he thinks that Corbyn only won because of the £3 voters, but he didn’t reply. That’s completely understandable: he’s famous and I’m sure people tweet at him all the time. Here’s the tweet:

Tweet to Nick Cohen about Corbyn and £3 voters.png

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Negotiating styles

In Britain, where I live, we’ve been having a bit of a political crisis over the last week and a half. We went and voted to leave the European Union, and now we have to decide how exactly that’s going to work. One of the things we have to decide is what’s going to happen to all the citizens of other EU countries who live in Britain at the moment. As Britain is an EU country too, they’re currently allowed to live here. Once we leave, they won’t automatically be allowed.

Now, we could just let them stay, if we wanted to, but we haven’t committed to that yet. Apparently when we’re negotiating our new relationship with the EU, deporting them will be on the table. And you might think that’s just good sense - the other EU members will want to look out for their citizens’ interests, and that means negotiating an arrangement on which they won’t have their lives turned upside down by being deported. Committing ourselves now would reduce our negotiating power.

But don’t we want them to stay? They contribute to life here, and deportation is awful, so kicking them out would be lose-lose. These people are our friends and neighbours, and deporting people is neither friendly nor neighbourly. But the possibility that we don’t want them to stay shouldn’t be ruled out. The person making this decision is quite likely to be Theresa May, and gratuitously deporting people is one of her hobbies. And then there are all the people in Britain who just don’t like immigrants. Without those people we never would have voted to leave the EU in the first place. So maybe that’s what’s going on.

But perhaps we really do want them to stay, but we’re pretending to be willing to do mass deportations as part of a negotiating strategy. If the other EU members don’t call our bluff, we might get some concessions out of them. It’s like threatening to walk away from the table. You don’t want to walk away from the table, but if the other side thinks you might do it anyway then you have more bargaining power.

This isn’t like walking away from the table, though. What happens if you don’t come to a deal? You do what you can to get what you wanted by yourself. And since we don’t need EU members’ co-operation to let their citizens stay here, in the absence of a deal we would just let them stay, if that’s what we wanted. Threatening to deport them, even though we don’t want to, is therefore not like threatening to walk away from the table. So what is it like?

It’s like threatening to kill hostages. People don’t tend to particularly want to kill their hostages, but they threaten to do it because they think people won’t dare call their bluff. This negotiating tactic can work, of course, both in real hostage situations and in the iterated prisoner’s dilemma of international diplomacy. But however effective it is, it’s not the negotiating tactic of civilized businesspeople. It’s the negotiating tactic of Bond villains, and I don’t want people negotiating on my behalf to use it.