The coincidences that I encounter these days are not as profound as they once were. Now it tends to be more along the lines of repeated references to a film I have yet to see, or some negative coincidence like my some last minute excuse always coming up amongst friends. A couple of recent, coincidental encounters have compelled me to make something out of a topic of grammatical concern.
I stumbled onto an online discussion recently about the Oxford comma and whether it is or is not grammatically correct, or required. I later found that another online writer’s personal byline declared him to be “a fan of the Oxford comma,” and having already been given cause to reflect on it, I thought to myself, “Well, hell, me too!”
For those of you who are extremely casual grammarians or who pride yourself on a 1337 ability to avoid the conventions of written English, the Oxford comma is the comma that comes between the penultimate entry in a list and the word “and.” Nouns, punctuation, and a conjunction make up a list, and there’s an Oxford comma in this sentence. Some writers use it, some don’t. Some style guides require it, some reject it. Speaking quite generally, both its use and its non-use are acceptable. It seems to me that many people, either because they haven’t thought about it or because they’re naturally committed to one or the other, don’t realize this.
That even goes for teachers of English. The reason why I know about the controversy over the Oxford comma is that I remember it being a legitimate point of confusion in elementary school. I’m fairly certain that when it first came up, the teacher of what I’m guessing was my third grade class, told us quite explicitly that there was no comma between the second-to-last and last entries in a list.
I more clearly recall when it came up with a later English teacher, because she didn’t seem to know which was correct, but would not admit to that fact. She was overseeing an assignment in which students had to add punctuation to an existing sentence, and when she gave the answer she listed the places where each of the commas belonged, paused, and added the Oxford comma to the mix. Even among a group of nine year-olds, the class was bifurcated on that answer, so that I cheered to myself over my superior understanding, and my neighbor had to correct his paper.
At this point you may be asking what on Earth this has to do with breaking points. Well, having thus had an opportunity to reflect on my personal relationship with the Oxford comma, I realize that the way I learned about it might represent something that’s essential to the development of an intelligent, independent child.
You see, regardless of what I’ve become, I was the picture of an upstanding, studious child who did with religious devotion what he was told to do by parents and teachers, and always followed the rules. That contributed to a marvelously successful academic career, which paid off with a sense of pride for most of the time that I was in school but left me with nothing once I no longer had anyone to obey.
Now I seem to have such a contentious, anti-conformist mindset as to give me a rather hard edge, which acts as a social barrier. Nevertheless, I remember well the child that always did his homework, developed an earnest rapport with authority figures, never snuck out at night or dabbled with drugs or alcohol. In many ways, I am still the child, even though I have a well-developed and eagerly maintained sense of self. So I know that if I were to finally be injected into a corporate setting, or otherwise put low in a hierarchy that I’m wont to accept, I will still do what I am told to do at most every turn, and do it with sincere deference.
Knowing the kind of child that I was, I sometimes wonder just how I would fare in the Milgram experiments, which, in the early 1960s, demonstrated how easy it is for ordinary people to do monstrously unethical things when directed to by an authority figure. My life has been unfortunately short on severe challenges to my own morality. Mostly, there have just been instances where circumstances casually flirted with a scenario in which I might be called upon to either speak up or stand by as a witness to preventable wrongs. And I’ve always been afraid of my apparent slowness and caution in responding to such situations.
In a lot of ways, I was quite unlike what one expects in a typical intelligent youth. My aversion to drugs and alcohol, even to sex, has been lifelong, but psychological studies indicate that a curious willingness to experiment with such things is characteristic of a changeable, and thus intelligent, mind. The saintly boy scout type might prove to be exceptionally good at reciting the rulebook, but that doesn’t demonstrate any real intellectual curiosity. Rebellion is supposed to be a natural part of adolescent development, but I never experienced it. My greatest act of rebellion came at twenty-one when I refused to apply to graduate school.
These sorts of contrasts make me wonder if I really have the firm, capable mind that I was always praised for, or if, instead, I am just a terrifically smooth-running machine. All those subject areas that I was so good at in my primary and secondary schooling – did I really understand them, or did I just repeat what I was told at the same time that I repeated “don’t talk to strangers,” “don’t smoke,” “don’t skip class,” “don’t talk back”?
My worries about the authenticity of my own intelligence are modestly alleviated, however, by the knowledge that insecurity has been a characteristic of virtually everyone for whose intelligence I have had respect in the past. Whenever I question my skill at or grasp of something, I take a little bit of comfort in remembering the Dunning-Kruger Effect – the tendency of skilled people to think that everyone else is as good as they while deficient people think everyone else is as bad.
Still, I’m not like the other mentally-capable people I know, and it leaves me with the worry that all along I’ve just been adeptly imitating them, saying the sorts of things they say, following the rules that are supposed to lead to where they are, and generally copying instead of thinking. After all, the best and the worst of people are the ones who question authority. The rest are just mediocre.
Of course, what I need to keep in mind is that an essential willingness to question authority doesn’t mean that it’s necessary to do so. And yet it is necessary to have that willingness, because a constant follower is not one to form his own ideas. That’s a problem when the ideas that you’re asked to follow are wrong, and it’s equally a problem when you have no firm idea to parrot. Case in point, the Oxford comma.
I was probably eight years old when I learned how to separate items in written lists. In retrospect, I take great pride in my reception of that lesson. More to the point, I take pride in the fact that as a child I was not receptive to that lesson. The absence of the Oxford comma in third grade English is the first memory that I can dredge up from my spotty personal history of an instance in which I actively, albeit silently, disagreed with a teacher.
I don’t know where I learned that skill so early in life, but I believe that it contributed in magnificent ways to the development of the person writing this today. A year or so after that first lesson, I defied the prior teacher’s instruction and inserted a comma next to the conjunction, because that’s what made sense to me. I felt then as I do now: There’s no sense in excluding the comma from the last item in a list, because the conjunction doesn’t fully separate one noun from another. There are situations in which you might pair two words as a compound noun linked by a conjunction, such as “salt and pepper,” or “soup or salad.” If such a compound comes at the end of a list and it’s accepted that the writer omits the Oxford comma, the two nouns will be inappropriately divided from each other.
In a far less analytical way, I was aware of this at eight years old, and even though I wasn’t intellectually prepared to defend my opinion to an old woman in a position of authority, I at least had the fortitude to let the instruction pass through my ears unheeded. When my later teacher hesitated over the question, I was vindicated, because I knew then that it was a legitimate area of uncertainty, and I was confident that I had resolved it correctly.
Children need the skill to resolve linguistic and explanatory puzzles on their own, if they are to become intelligent beings. Knowing what I do about myself, I’m almost certain that if I hadn’t displayed that skill at an early age, I would in fact be the intellectual automaton that I sometimes fear I could be. In light of that, early childhood education cannot be simply a matter of transmitting information; it must encourage children to resolve questions that the teacher has left uncertain, and even to challenge the claims of authority.
In many circles, this is something that’s explicitly rejected. We often tend to value pure obeisance in our children, discouraging them from questioning until they’re old enough to do so. That, however, is not education. The creation of loyal citizens is not the same as the development of clever, critically thinking youths. The patterns that we establish as children can follow us throughout our lives, and a pattern of accepting things at face value then can make it difficult to pick up the skill of questioning later on. When it is not deliberately fostered, I don’t know where the impulse to reject false information comes from, but it is enormously valuable to developing minds, and I thank god that I picked it up somewhere.
And I thank god for the Oxford comma.