The Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma, seems to be less in evidence every year. It’s difficult to understand why many people don’t like to use it, and it may be that they simply don’t understand what punctuation is all about. Punctuation is like musical notation, or at least the parts of it that indicate to the players where the rests are and indicate the rhythm in a piece of music. The players are the readers. If there were no commas or periods in writing, readers would not know where to take a break. Imagine listening to a piece of music played that way. For that matter, imagine listening to someone who runs on and on without a pause!
If it’s confusing trying to sort out punctuation marks on the written page, try differentiating all the butterflies named for commas and question marks. This one is an Eastern Comma butterfly, Polygonia comma, from Chippewa County, Wisconsin. Photo by Aaron Carlson.
Take the title of the 1966 Italian movieThe Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which in the original is rendered as Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo (the order of the nouns in the original Italian is good, ugly, bad). Never mind the difference in capitalization conventions for titles between English and Italian, and the change in word order from Italian to English, the key point is the inclusion of the serial comma in the original Italian and its absence in the English translation. It’s a simple thing, that comma. Why leave it out? Perhaps the translator was thrown off by the missing conjunction “and” in the Italian, which would have been rendered “e”, as in Il buono, il brutto, e il cattivo. In English, we are used to “and” coming before the last item in a series. It would not sound quite right to our ears if the title were translated as The Good, the Bad, the Ugly. That sounds choppy and abrupt. Throw in “and” before “the Ugly” and we have a rhythm that sounds right to the ears of English speakers. Except for one little thing.
The Danish National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sarah Hicks, perform a suite of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (main title)” and “The Ecstasy of Gold”, a piece from near the end of the film.
What happened to the last comma? Without it, not only the rhythm, but also the sense of the film title is off. Are we to rush through when we speak the last part of it? Instead of saying “The Good [pause] the Bad [pause] and the Ugly [full stop]”, are we meant to say “The Good [pause] the Bad and the Ugly [full stop]”? No one talks in the rhythm given in the second example. Does the phrase “the Bad and the Ugly” refer to one person only, in the same way that “the Good” refers to one person? Is that person both bad and ugly? Absolutely not, as is clear from the original Italian title and from the movie itself. There are three separate characters referenced in the movie’s title, and each is named by his outstanding characteristic.
In another rendition of the same suite, the composer himself, the great Ennio Morricone, conducts the Munich Radio Orchestra. The soprano soloist is Susanna Rigacci. The musical notes are the same in both renditions, but it’s interesting to hear the differences in their presentation.
It must be the “and” that throws people off when they write out a series. They must think “and” stands in for the serial comma, making it unnecessary. But it doesn’t. Listen to the music: TheGoodtheBadandtheUgly slowed down a bit is The Good the Bad and the Ugly, and slowed down a bit more in the right places, rendered in the way we actually speak, becomes The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. That wasn’t very hard, was it? We speak in words, and the words are like music, with rhythm and tempo. When we write down the words we speak, we need a way to convey to readers, to listeners, that rhythm and tempo, and that’s where punctuation comes in. That’s all it is. There’s nothing greatly mysterious about it, though semi-colons befuddle many, and the novelist and essayist Kurt Vonnegut disdained their use, remarking of them “All they do is show you’ve been to college.” Homer, who of course spoke his poetry for listeners and never wrote it down himself, would probably have agreed.
In this scene from Sergio Leone’s film The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Eli Wallach’s character, Tuco, encounters an adversary and ends up succinctly admonishing him that it takes too long to speak, shoot, and leave.