Karl the Curmudgeon Almost Wins the Oxford Comma

"Kid! Kid!" My friend, Karl the Curmudgeon, burst into Capoci's, waving a newspaper in the air. Capoci's is an Andorran bar, and we were going to watch the Roller Hockey World Cup's semi-finals. Andorra was facing off against Catalonia, and this promised to be an exciting match.

Don't give yourself an aneurysm, I said. What's up? Karl slapped a copy of The (London) Telegraph on the bar.

"Look!" he declared, looking like he had just found the final map to Blackbeard's buried treasure.

I picked up the paper and began to read. 'Owen Paterson has produced a 10-point guide for his civil servants on the pitfalls of common punctuation errors, including the Oxford comma.'

Son of a—!

"HA!" shouted Karl. "See, I told you the Oxford comma was a load of crap." He gestured at Nicolau, the bartender. "Two Alpha Torradas, Nicky."

Nicolau placed the two Andorran brews in front of us. I took a few big swigs, while I considered my next move.

I had been ambushed, placed in a very precarious position. Karl and I had tangled over my love of the Oxford comma last year, when I soundly thrashed him on his misguided abstinence of the punctuation point. Now Karl was citing the publication of an article in a far-off newspaper about a high-level bureaucrat's hatred of my useful, helpful, and wonderful comma (the one just there after "helpful") as some sort of. . . evidence that I was wrong.


I took another long, slow drink and emptied the mug. I plonked it down on the bar.

Look, I said, the very fact this is even an article in The Telegraph should tell you how misguided Paterson is. No one would bat an eye if he had demanded that people stop printing and filing emails. But he's so fundamentally wrong that one of the biggest newspapers in all of England thought it was worth mentioning

And not, I added, the one with topless women in it. So you know it must be serious.

"But look," Karl hissed, stabbing the article with a gnarled finger. "He created a 10-point guide he's calling 'Punctuation Rules.' A guide!"

Yeah, but he's a laughingstock to the rest of the government. Look, some even called him the "Minister for Semicolons."

"So? Even great ideas often receive violent opposition from mediocre minds."

True. And sometimes those minds write punctuation guides.

"Now you're just being petty."

Look, it says right here, 'Mary Creagh, the shadow environment secretary' — what's that, like the secretary of Mordor?

"I don't know, I don't understand British politics."

I continued: 'Mary Creagh accused Mr. Paterson of wasting time with his guide. She said, "Instead of obsessing over every dot and comma, Owen Paterson should be getting a grip on his department."'

"Yeah, but she's supposed to say that," said Karl. "She's the opposition party, and they're supposed to nitpick and whine about everything the party in power does."

I flagged down Nicolau, and he set two more Alpha Torradas down. I took a drink, and checked the score. Andorra 7, Catalonia 6. It was an exciting match.

We can barely trust bureaucrats to do the jobs they've been charged with, I said. Especially this guy. He's the minister of the Environment department, and yet he's a climate change skeptic and is opposed to wind farms.

"So? Now you're going way off topic."

No, I'm making a point. This guy's actual job is to help protect the environment, but he's skeptical that it needs protecting, and he's opposed to the technology that will help protect it. Yet this is someone whose grammar rules you choose to follow? You're a writer, for God's sake. Why are you taking punctuation advice from a bureaucrat?

"Because he knows what he's talking about."

Oh yeah, he's a real model of literary excellence. Most government types are. So it must be that most writers would be good at government. Maybe British novelist Nick Hornby can keep England safe from another Mad Cow disease outbreak.

"Kid, I don't think—"

Or maybe Eddie Izzard, the transvestite comedian, can bring sustainable economic growth to rural England.

"I can tell when you're losing an argument, because you start cracking jokes and oversimplifying the other side's argument."

No, I'm just saying of all the people to give bureaucrats a lesson on punctuation and grammar, it shouldn't be another bureaucrat. They couldn't write a Stop sign without a committee and a mission statement.

Karl smirked. "I think I won this one."

My mind raced. I was desperate. I couldn't lose, not like this. Then I spotted my life saver in the article, and clutched at it like a drowning man going under for the third time.

He also hates dashes — especially the long em-dashes — and thinks everyone should just use periods.

"Why, that addle-minded, know-nothing son of a—!"


The second edition of Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), is now available. I wrote it with my good friend, Kyle Lacy.

My other book, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing is also out.

You can get both of them from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million in October, or for the Kindle or Nook.


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