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Dave, an 8th grader, asks:

Let's say you are making a list. Would you, or would you not put a comma before the “and”?

 

Good question. What Dave is referring to here is the Oxford comma, sometimes also called the “serial comma.” We know that we should put a comma between each item in a list to avoid confusion, but there is some debate over whether there should be a comma after the second-to-last item.

For example:

“Today we went to the store and bought milk, bread, eggs, and apples.”

The comma after the word “eggs” is an example of the Oxford comma. Some say that this is unnecessary, because the word “and” indicates the almost-end of the list and serves the same function as a comma.

Those opposed to the Oxford comma would write that sentence this way:

“Today we went to the store and bought milk, bread, eggs and apples.”

 

Now, the addition of an Oxford comma may not seem like a big deal in a short sentence like this. But the longer the sentence gets, the more useful it can be. And I don’t mean “longer” in the sense of more items in the list, but more complex “items,” such as phrases rather than single words.

For example:

“When interviewing potential new employees, Richard was careful to pay attention to each candidate’s sense of confidence in their abilities, attitude toward their previous education and employment and their ability to express themselves in a succinct manner.”

That’s a pretty long sentence, and each item is much longer than in our previous sentences. Do you see how the section “education and employment and their ability” could be confusing upon first reading? Without the Oxford comma here, that last segment is a lot longer and starts to feel like a run-on sentence.

 Let’s look at this sentence again with the Oxford comma:

“When interviewing potential new employees, Richard was careful to pay attention to each candidate’s sense of confidence in their abilities, attitude toward their previous education and employment, and their ability to express themselves in a succinct manner.”

By using the Oxford comma, we help to avoid confusion about whether the word “and” is being used as a part of one of the list items, or indicating the last item of the list.

 

Those who recommend the use of the Oxford comma will also use sentences similar to the following one, as an example for why we need that extra comma:

“I’m grateful to my sisters, Jan and Devon.”

What is the speaker saying here? Are they grateful for their two sisters who are named Jan and Devon, or are they grateful to their sisters and two other people named Jan and Devon? In other words, does the comma introduce the first item in a list, or does it introduce an elaboration upon that first item?

So that's an explanation of the Oxford comma.

But that’s not what this question is asking. The question is asking whether the Oxford comma should be used in general.

Well, first I’ll tell you what a couple style guides recommend.

The Chicago Manual of Style says the following:

“When a conjunction joins the last two elements in a series of three or more, a comma—known as the serial or series comma or the Oxford comma—should appear before the conjunction. Chicago strongly recommends this widely practiced usage … since it prevents ambiguity.” (6.18)

The AP Stylebook, on the other hand, says to omit the Oxford comma in a simple series, but recommends it for a longer, more complex series (like the second pair of sentence examples above).

Personally, I use the Oxford comma even in a simple series, following Chicago’s recommendation. For one thing, consistency is important, and rather than trying to determine how “complex” a complex sentence must be before it merits a serial comma, I think it’s best to use it in every series. When we are able to expect the Oxford comma to be used, we don’t have to wonder while reading whether an “and” is a conclusion of a series or part of a series element. (For example, “For breakfast we had eggs, bacon, toast and jam.” One might expect “toast and jam” to be a combined element, and so without the Oxford comma, you have to finish the sentence before you figure out what the “and” is doing.)

The role of punctuation is to make our words easy to understand, and having the consistent structure of an Oxford comma in place aids in understanding. The more consistent we can be with punctuation, the more attention we can focus on the words themselves, and the more quickly and easily we’ll be able to read and understand another’s writing.

Lately I've been getting a spate of questions about meter in poetry. These question range from "Is this poem iambic pentameter?" to "How do you tell if a syllable is stressed or not?"

Let's start with the second question: How do you tell if a syllable is stressed or not?

If it's trembling uncontrollably, or hiding under the blankets, it's probably a stressed syllable.

Okay, serious answer. A stressed syllable is a syllable that has emphasis within a word (or within a line of poetry). So the best way to tell is to say the word in an overly dramatic way, choosing different syllables to emphasize. For example, let's say we have the word "emphasize," and we want to figure out which syllable is stressed. So we try saying it a few different ways. Try reading the following line, and SHOUT whenever you see a capitalized syllable (or, if you're in a library, whisper when you see a lower-case syllable).

EM-pha-size, em-PHA-size, em-pha-SIZE.

Clearly the middle one sounds WRONG! So we know that the middle syllable is unstressed. But the first and last ones, neither of them sounds horrible, but EM-pha-size definitely sounds better than em-pha-SIZE. EM is the stressed syllable in the word, and the other two are unstressed.  You could argue that SIZE has a secondary stress, but the general rule is, only one syllable in a word has the primary stress.

When I was a little kid I could never say the word "aluminum" properly. Let's see if we can work it out by syllables. Get ready to SHOUT again!

A-lu-min-um, a-LU-min-um, a-lu-MIN-um, a-lu-min-UM.

Clearly the one that sounds correct is the second one. Thus, LU is the stressed syllable.

The interesting thing is that if you put multiple words together, we may start hearing some of those "secondary" stresses more clearly:

EM-pha-SIZE a-LU-min-UM.

Those two words sound really great together, because we hear it as alternating stressed and unstressed all the way through. If we switch the order, though, it doesn't sound right to say it that way:

a-LU-min-UM EM-pha-SIZE.

Somehow, those two stressed syllables next to each other sound awkward and cumbersome. However, if we let the UM and SIZE get "swallowed up" and treat them as unstressed syllables:

a-LU-min-um EM-pha-size.

Now it sounds more relaxed and natural. Read this way, the two words sound natural together, because we have a stress every three syllables. It's important to remember that the context of words affects how they are stressed.

Another example of stress being affected by context is the word "present." This word will be pronounced pre-SENT if it is a verb, but PRE-sent if it is a noun. So you always have to think about the meanings of words to determine how they should be read.

So how do you tell if a poem is in a particular meter? Well, to answer that, you need to know what the meters are. For example, anapestic tetrameter means that you have two syllables unstressed, followed by a stressed syllable, and that is repeated four times in a line of poetry. So, for example, if you wanted to know if Robert Frost's "The Road not Taken" is anapestic, you could write it out with the stress on every third syllable:

two roads DI-verged in A yel-low WOOD.

Okay, that sounds just plain silly. I'd say Frost's poem is not anapestic.

What about "The Night Before Christmas"?

'twas the NIGHT be-fore CHRIST-mas and ALL through the HOUSE.

Hey! That sounds nice! That's the way it's supposed to be read! So yes, that is an anapestic poem.

Then there's iambic poetry. A poem is iambic if you start with an unstressed syllable, and then alternate stressed and unstressed. So let's try Shakespeare's famous line "It is the star to every wandering bark." We'll try writing that out with alternating stress:

it IS the STAR to EV-ery WAN-der-ING bark.

Uh oh...that doesn't sound quite right. It worked well until we got to the word "wandering." Then things went screwy. But you know, lots of times, when we say wandering, we don't actually pronounce that middle syllable; we say "wandring." So let's try it that way:

it IS the STAR to EV-ery WAN-dring BARK.

Ah...now it sounds good! So yes, that line from Shakespeare's sonnet 116 is iambic.
 
Sometimes poets take a little bit of liberty with their rhythm, because they have practiced enough that they have a really good sense for what they can get away with. Let's go back to Robert Frost's poem, and try to put that in iambic form:
 
Two ROADS di-VERGED in A yel-LOW wood.
 

Again, this starts out sounding right, but about the time we get to the word "A," it goes south on us. Who wants to emphasize the word "a" in a poem? Well, that's the thing; Robert Frost knew that if people read his poem naturally, without thinking about meter, the words "in" and "a" would both kind of get swallowed up - almost as though they were one syllable:

Two ROADS di-VERGED (in a) YEL-low WOOD.
 
And now it works. So yes, this poem is iambic. Each line of the first stanza has little "glitches" in the meter, but if you read it naturally, without paying attention to the meter, it sounds nice:

Two ROADS di-VERGED (in a) YEL-low WOOD,
and SOR-(ry i) COULD not TRAV-el BOTH
and BE one TRAV'ler, LONG i STOOD
and LOOKED down ONE as FAR (as i) COULD
To WHERE it BENT (in the) UN-der-GROWTH.

Okay, now stop yelling, and go read that stanza in your natural voice. Isn't it beautiful? That's poetry for you!

Related post: How does context affect stress of syllables?

"Where does the apostrophe go in Presidents Day? Is it before the 's,' after the 's,' or nowhere?"

This is a fun question to look at for the month of February. In a couple weeks students across the country will be on vacation for a week, and their vacation will begin with the federal holiday called...

Presidents Day?
President's Day?
Presidents' Day?

Which is it? The surprising answer is: None of the above!

That's right - there is no federal holiday named any of those variations on "Presidents Day." The actual federal holiday is named "Washington's Birthday," with the apostrophe before the 's,' because we're only celebrating one Washington. If we were celebrating George Washington and George Washington Carver, we would call it "Washingtons' Birthdays" or something like that.

But if the holiday is officially known as "Washington's Birthday," why do we call it "Presidents Day"?

The answer to that stems from the fact that Lincoln's birthday is near Washington's birthday, and there was a push to make the holiday a celebration of both birthdays. And there was also a push to make it a celebration of all presidents.

Who made this push? Various states. You see, even though the holiday is officially called "Washington's Birthday" by the federal government, many states have implemented their own names for the holiday.

Which brings us back to the original question, with the qualification that now we're talking about state holidays. And the answer is: ALL THREE.

That's right; since each state gets to implement their own state holidays, and none of them agree, exactly, on how to implement it, the holiday gets named differently depending on how the state intends it to be celebrated.

For example, if you live in New Jersey (and a few other states), you celebrate the day without any apostrophes. Congratulations, New Jersians - you don't have to worry about where that apostrophe belongs!

If you live in Texas, you are celebrating multiple presidents, so you celebrate "Presidents' Day."

If you live in Maine, you are either celebrating a single president (presumably Washington) or you are celebrating the office of president, because you celebrate the singular "President's Day."

Some states choose not to use the word "President" at all, calling the holiday things like "Washington's Birthday" or "Lincoln's Birthday" or the somewhat convoluted title "Washington's and Lincoln's Birthday." 

Montana seems to prefer Lincoln over Washington, since they reverse it to "Lincoln's and Washington's Birthday"

Interestingly, a couple southern states eliminate Lincoln altogether from the holiday; Alabama replaces him with Thomas Jefferson, and Arkansas replaces him with civil rights activist Daisy Bates.

Did your state not get mentioned in this post? Head on over to Wikipedia and search for "Washington's Birthday" and you'll get a more detailed analysis.

And enjoy your holiday, whatever you might call it!
Professor Puzzler

Angelika from the Philippines wants to know "How to locate the topic sentence."

Well, Angelika, first we need to determine what a "topic sentence" is. A topic sentence is a sentence that summarizes what a paragraph (or essay) is about. In theory, every paragraph is about a single topic; a change in topic is how we recognize that we should have a change in paragraph.

So if you want to find the topic sentence, you need to be asking yourself, "What is this paragraph about?" Then you look for a sentence that summarizes that idea. Once you've found that sentence, you've found the topic sentence. More importantly, though, you know what the paragraph is about, which is the main goal!

Where is the topic paragraph usually found? Well, that depends on the type of writing. If you are reading a technical document or a persuasive essay, you are more likely to find the topic sentence at the beginning. But there's no guarantee that you'll find it in any one location. Let's look at a couple example paragraphs.

Dishwasher repair is a complicated process. Before you can begin your repairs, you need to take the dishwasher apart. Then you need to understand which part is broken. Once you've found the broken part you need to decide if it can be fixed, or if you need to order a replacement part. Then comes the process of removing the broken part and installing the new one, which might require you to remove other parts as well, just to get at the broken part. Now you have to remember where those parts go so you can put them back in the right place after installing the replacement part. Then you have to put the whole assemblage back into positiion and test it out.

So, what is this paragraph about? It's about repairing a dishwasher. But, to be more precise, it's about the challenges you'll face while doing the job. Which sentence indicates that repairing a dishwasher is challenging? The very first sentence! That's your topic sentence.

Here's another example.

Every morning the alarm went off at 4:30, and John mumbled and stumbled and grumbled out of bed to start his work day. But getting out of bed wasn't the worst part of the job. John's co-workers were even crankier than he was at 5:00 when they arrived to open up the store. Early morning was always a hassle because nobody ever did cleanup properly the night before when the store was closed for the night. A spilled soda on aisle seven, a meat freezer that was left open, a container of broken light bulbs in aisle twenty-two; if it wasn't one thing it was another. And all that was before the customers even arrived - at 7:30 a mob of demanding, insulting, greedy, snarling people stormed through doors, and the day just went downhill from there. John really hated his job.

Do you feel like you have a good sense for what this paragraph is about? If we look at the first sentence, we see that it's about John getting up in the morning. Is that what the entire paragraph is about? No, of course not! It's also about what happens when he gets to work, and what happens when the customers arrive. So that first sentence is probably not the topic sentence.

So what is the paragraph really about? It sounds like it's mostly about how miserable John is in his job. Do we have a sentence that says this? Sure! It's the last sentence in the paragraph: "John really hated his job." Does that sentence do a good job describing what the paragraph is about? It sure does!

Does every paragraph have a topic sentence? That depends on the type of writing you're doing. If you're doing a persuasive essay or thesis, then probably yes. If you're writing a narrative like the one above, not necessarily. For example, suppose the writer of the "John" paragraph had left out the sentence "John really hated his job." That wouldn't have changed the meaning of the paragraph much; the reader would probably have inferred that the topic of the paragraph is how miserable John is in his job. However, the paragraph never explicitly states the topic in a sentence.

And that's okay...for that type of writing.

Wanshika from SriLanka asks, how to "identify stressed and unstressed vowels without pronouncing them loudly?"

That's a good question, Wanshika, and both Mr. and Mrs. Puzzler have an answer for you.

Mrs. Puzzler says, "Tap your hand on a desk for each stressed syllable." (Or, if you're trying to be extra quiet, tap on your leg!). What you'll find is that it's almost impossible to tap on the unstressed syllables; your brain somehow pushes you into doing the tap whenever your vocal chords are forming a strong syllable.

Mr. Puzzler says, "Tap on your leg with your thumb and your forefinger. If you're like me, you'll find that you gravitate toward tapping with your thumb on the stressed syllables, and the unstressed syllables with your forefinger." Mr. Puzzler's suggestion is really better for checking rhythms of poetry, if you already know where the accents are supposed to be.

If you try to tap this sentence out on thumb and index finger, then you'll find it has a perfect meter from the start to ending syllable.

[Note: the sentence above is written so that the first syllable is accented, and then it alternates between stressed and unstressed].

Related post: How context affects the way we stress syllables.

 

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