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Και νεκρός ενίκα
Another triumph for the Oxford comma, even in its absence
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2013/05/20
12:42pm
Glenn
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Here’s another triumph for the Oxford comma (aka. serial comma) or, rather, a significant triumph in its absence. Consider this real-life sentence:

My mother gave me a safe, stable and loving environment.

I think I might just draw a cartoon for this one. Accompanied by a reporter and cameraman, a flamboyant aristocrat is holding a painting he just removed from the wall:
My mother gave me a safe, stable and loving environment. Here’s the safe and the stable is out back.

Only when the writer’s style employs the Oxford comma can we be sure that both safe and stable in this case are adjectives. With an Oxford comma, the noun stable would be followed by a comma. Since it is not, we can be certain that the writer did not get a vault, a barn, and a nurturing home, but only if the writer employs the Oxford comma.

I came upon the above sentence and saw the humorous ambiguity to the non-Oxonians among us and to the Oxford fence-sitters. I realize this doesn’t settle the debate, but it is still a lot of fun.

2013/05/20
2:31pm
RobertB
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The person might be living inside the safe- a nice environment to live in.

Why the title-  Dead and singular ?

2013/05/21
12:44pm
Glenn
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RobertB said
Why the title-  Dead and singular ?

You can’t trust Google Translate. Και νεκρός ενίκα refers to a Cimon, and Athenian warrior in the battle for Kition / Citium / Kittim, a city on Cyprus. In 450 BC he died defending the city, but on his deathbed he urged his officers to conceal his death for a time. After his death was revealed, it came to be said Και νεκρός ενίκα “Even though dead, he was victorious.” The quote is found on a statue in his honor in Cyprus.

You might notice the root νίκ as in nike, victory.

2013/05/22
12:16am
RobertB
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Hence the ancient  adage ‘It’s all Greek to me.’
Still, by that tittle, do you mean to say that the comma is vindicated somehow- that when put in there it will tip the scale for noun and make those words look definitely noun?
 
Comma or no, those  nouns can only be noun if appearing like this:
My mother gave me a safe, a stable and …
My mother gave me the safe, the stable and …
 
 ‘a safe, stable…’ will always make them look adjective.
2013/05/22
5:02am
Glenn
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Plenty of folks don’t repeat the article in a series of nouns. The examples are as countless as the stars and planets. The length, breadth, and height of the universe cannot contain them.

2013/05/22
7:08am
Dick
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RobertB said

 
 ‘a safe, stable…’ will always make them look adjective.

 

If you mean a stable (n) with no danger, the comma is wrong.   If the comma is present they must be two nouns.

2013/05/22
7:12am
RobertB
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The problem with ‘a safe, stable’ is not in the article being omitted; it’s the inconsistency- so much so one has to think those words must be adjective.
 
But people might say this just as often as not, just not sounding good, not at all:
Give me a fork, knife, a plate, and napkin.
 
In any case a comma is not going to make a word.
2013/05/22
7:28am
Glenn
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So you would have a problem with the following sentence:
A safe, stable, and garage are all means to keep ones possessions secure.

The Corpus of Contemporary American provides lots of examples of common noun series with elisions of either the or a. To name a few of the many, many:
… a knife, fork, and spoon …
… a man, woman, and child …
… a ball, bat, and glove …
… a suit, shirt, and tie …
… a beginning, middle, and end …
… a computer, printer, and scanner …
… a father, mother, and daughter …
… a bedroom, kitchen, and bathroom …
… the blood, sweat, and tears …
… the sights, sounds, and smells …
… the women, infants, and children …
… the life, death, and resurrection …
… the mind, body and spirit …
… the art, science, and practice …
… the names, addresses, and phone numbers …
… the days, weeks, and months …

2013/05/22
8:00am
RobertB
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In your example at top, no amount of commas can a noun make.  
In this example, (A safe, stable, and garage are all means to keep ones possessions secure), the nounhood is not conferred by the comma, but only helped by ‘garage are all means…’, albeit just barely, like an after thought, or might I say something forced-fed there  just for making the argument.  In fact it darn near suggests that garage is adjective.
 
The rest of the examples present no problem. Only the one at top if you claim that comma can make noun out of adjective, except only humorously.

 

2013/05/22
9:22am
Glenn
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I’m not sure what your objection is to stable as a noun. Stable is a perfectly good noun, with or without an article, with or without garage. Here are some sentences from the Wiki page
A stable is a building in which livestock, especially horses, are kept. … There are many different types of stables in use today …
Stable

Here’s the entry in online Merriam-Webster, which lists the noun definitions first:
Stable

2013/05/22
9:29am
RobertB
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The objection comes from the context. In this case ‘A safe,’ sets it off for me that both words are adjective. The 2 meanings being so closed is part of it.

2013/05/22
9:56am
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If I may be permitted to jump into this discussion, it seems to me this argument is being driven less by style, and more by the fact that “safe” and “stable”   are both nouns and adjectives. Not so with, say, “computer” “printer” “scanner.”

I was taught to use the articles “a” “an” “the” (and the serial comma) as needed to remove potential ambiguities. I think that’s where RobertB is coming from. If no ambiguity exists, then the punctuation advocated by Glenn works just fine. Concise and efficient writing/speaking is almost always better when it can be done without introducing ambiguities.

Have either of you read the book “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” by Lynne Truss?

2013/05/22
10:33am
Glenn
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OK. I acknowledge an objection on the basis of ambiguity and expectation. But that is the spring from which the humor flows! Language is ambiguous. I admit that even in the sentence
A safe, stable, and garage are all means to keep ones possessions secure.
I expect that a reader will have to reevaluate safe and stable when the reader comes upon garage. But isn’t that the fun of it? That doesn’t make the sentence wrong. Isn’t that a paraprosdokian? (Or a garden-path sentence?) Grant and Martha talk about this kind of word play in the episode “Too Much Sugar For a Dime.” and in “Going All-City.”
Too Much Sugar
Going All-City

“If I am reading this graph correctly, I’d be very surprised.” Stephen Colbert
“You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing, after they have tried everything else.” Winston Churchill
“On his feet he wore blisters.” Aristotle
“I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it.” Groucho Marx
“I sleep eight hours a day and at least ten at night.” Bill Hicks
“I don’t belong to an organized political party. I’m a Democrat.” Will Rogers
“The difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits.” Einstein
“Marriage is a great institution, but I’m not ready for an institution.” Mae West

[edit: added the following}
As a lovely bookend to the Colbert paraprosdokian:
“If all the girls attending [the Yale prom] were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.” Dorothy Parker, as recorded in While Rome Burns

2013/05/22
11:38am
New River, AZ, USA
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Glenn said: OK. I acknowledge an objection on the basis of ambiguity and expectation. But that is the spring from which the humor flows! Language is ambiguous.

I totally agree, and really enjoy that type of word play. I guess my bias is driven by the fact that most of my writing is technical and tries to avoid ambiguity. But I’ll add one more paraprosdokian to your list, also by Groucho, and one of my all-time favorites:

Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.

And here’s one of my own, which is kind of a rip off or Dorothy Parker’s, but I wrote it back in the 70s when I did a humor column for my college newspaper:

If you took all the people in China and laid them end to end, they’d be a helluva lot more comfortable.

2013/05/22
7:31pm
Dick
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The original sentence from Glenn, “My mother gave me a safe, stable and loving environment”, is ambiguous because loving is an adjective and it is hard to tell if safe and stable are part of a list of adjectives or part of a list of nouns, environment being the only one modified by an adjective.

The more recent sentence being discussed, “A safe, stable, and garage are all means to keep one’s possessions secure”, is not ambiguous at all because the list does not end with an adjective modifying a noun, it ends simply with a noun demanding that stable be a noun. If the comma after safe were gone, it would have a different meaning, “a secure animal shelter along with a garage.” But the comma is there and in this case the comma makes safe a noun so there is a list of nouns.

If you moved the conjunction, and, you could also change the meaning as well as make it ambiguous. “A safe and stable garage are means to keep one’s possessions secure”   No comma is called for with either meaning but it is unclear whether the sentence means two nouns with the second one being modified or a list of two modifiers in front of only one noun. (note that I removed the word all   because that would have helped clarify the sentence. Come to think of it, the word all   in the original sentence lends one to believe that there are three nouns. If you remove the comma from after safe, making only two nouns, all should have been replaced by both or else eliminated.

2013/05/24
12:20am
RobertB
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In all constructions like one below , a comma inserted or omitted here or there will seem to fork the meaning this way or that, but never unequivocally without a context:  
 
‘My friend, Dr Jekyll, and Mr Hyde’
 
(  As is, there is no stopping it being 1, 2, or 3 persons. And if 2, there are 2 choices for which 2. )
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