Around the Writers’ Table

To comma or not to comma.


In 2019, roving grammar guru Ellen Jovin set up her grammar table at Islanders Write and greeted the grammar-minded on their way into the event. Jovin recently sent me an advance copy of her forthcoming book, “Rebel With a Clause.” When I cracked it open a few Sundays back, a line about a comma gave me my first laugh of the day.

Writes Jovin: “For something that could be mistaken for a speck of dirt on a page, the Oxford comma — known less snottily, but also less broadly, as a series comma, inspires strong attachments. It is one of the emotional hot-button issues of our day.”

The Oxford comma is the comma that is placed in a list of words before an and. While its usage is not required, some people, myself among them, have a hard time understanding why other people resist using it. Whether the rift between the Oxford comma users and nonusers rises to the level of a Yankees–Red Sox rivalry, or that of the vaxxed versus antivaxxers, the little guy on the ground has been known to cause a ruckus. In 2018, Oxford comma drama spilled into the courtroom when a judge awarded $5 million to drivers working for a dairy company because of an alleged missing Oxford comma in their contract. As reported in The New York Times, “The First Circuit ruled that the missing comma created enough uncertainty to side with the drivers, granting those who love the Oxford comma a chance to run a victory lap across the internet.”

Oh, the smugness of the Oxford comma-ners!

“Those who want to do without see elitism. Those who go with it see logic and reason as the basis for use,” replied author, retired psychiatrist, and seasonal Chilmark resident Dr. Peter Kramer when I asked him for his take. (Note the Oxford comma in that description of him.) A self-described Oxford comma enthusiast, Kramer added, “To those who require the Oxford comma, omitting it seems like a step toward ending order or civility. To those who dislike it, adding the additional comma seems stiff, uptight, fusty — a step back toward a culture that was oppressive.”

According to novelist, Shakespeare geek, and Vineyard-raised Nicole Galland, “the serial comma was first called the Oxford comma about a hundred years ago, and since then has divided English-language grammarians as severely as the rift between the Capulets and the Montagues in ‘Romeo and Juliet.’”

And while on the topic of Shakespeare and Galland, her fourth novel “I, Iago” was the answer to 9-down in June 9th’s New York Times crossword puzzle. The clue being: “‘I, ___,’ Shakespeare-inspired novel written from the villain’s perspective.”

Which brings us to West Tisbury resident Geraldine Brooks, who was profiled in the New York Times last weekend, and could be heard and seen on NPR and CBS Saturday morning discussing her much-anticipated, multilayered new novel “Horse” (Viking), which will be published on June 14 (see Jennifer Smith Turner’s review in this week’s MV Times). If you’re on the Island, please pick up your copy of “Horse” at one of our two terrific local bookstores.

And congratulations to Dr. Jessica B. Harris, whose Netflix series “High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America” received a 2022 Peabody Award!

We’re absolutely delighted that Geraldine Brooks, Nicole Galland, Dr. Jessica B. Harris, and Dr. Peter D. Kramer will be speaking at Islanders Write this summer.