I blame the pedants

When I feel the need for a bit of R&R, I sometimes pop over to the BBC Messageboards to see if there’s an opportunity to goad the Daily Mail sanctimoniati who tend to hang out there. Been having fun over the last day or two with a thread grammatical.

“st3ph3n” picks up the story:

There are some who say you should not use a comma before ‘and’ : for example in the phrase “Tom, Dick and Harry”.

Yes, that’s my rule as well. Similarly, not starting a sentence with “and” or “but” which are links between words or phrases, thus negating the need for a full-stop. (Except where “but” is not used as a link ….. “But for the airbag, he would have been badly injured” etc. )

I beg to differ:

Some Americans use a comma in Tom, Dick and Harry, for reasons only they could understand, but no true born Englishman ever would. As for the idea that there’s anything wrong with starting a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’, it’s a piece of archaic nonsense, fast going the same way as the absurd prohibition on splitting infinitives.In truth, there’s no reason not to begin a sentence with a conjunction. People do all the time – in speech as well as in written English. And why not?

“Ben Heneghan” enters the fray…

I’m a true-born Englishman, and I use a comma for “Tom, Dick, and Harry”, because otherwise the last two items of the list appear to be more strongly linked than the others, and that is not the intention here.Why is this important? Because it’s relatively common to embed a list within another list. If you mess up the commas, you have no idea of who is linked within one of these embedded lists, and who isn’t. For example:”Let’s check who’s coming on the coach trip: Jack, Rob, Bill and Diane, Fred, George, Will and Kate, and Hugh and Jenny.”If you habitually omit the comma between the last two items of a list, you’ll have no idea whether Hugh and Jenny are an item. But if you are scrupulous about where you place commas in lists, you’ll know immediately who on this sample list are couples and who aren’t.In other words, correct and logical use of commas in a list preserves the relationships of the list-members.

But we come to the rescue of common sense, armed only with a fruit bowl.

Interesting. And well-argued. Your example list is nearly persuasive. But not quite!

I’d also use commas carefully in such a long list, to clarify relationships. But I’d question your suggestion that what’s true for long, complex lists must therefore dictate what you ‘habitually’ do for short ones, as well as your “otherwise the last two items of the list appear to be more strongly linked than the others”.

If I say: ‘I like apples, oranges and bananas.’ does this really imply any kind of hierarchy in my fruit-affections? Do I really need to say ”I like apples, oranges, and bananas.’ for fear of upsetting the apples (or the bananas)? I think not. All I have done is to add a comma *which serves no function*. As ever with English, less is, if not more, better, other things being equal. As ever, if you can cut it without risk to clarity, you should.’I like apples, oranges and bananas.’ That’s a perfectly fine sentence. Clear, unambiguous, and fair to all fruits. Why clutter it?

Needless to say, battle rages on.