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Eating Your Relatives

April 21, 2020

Have you ever heard of the Oxford comma? It’s a bit of geeky grammar controversy. Seriously, if you want to see writers argue, just bring the Oxford comma. It’s the designated hitter of grammar.

You’ve seen it before. The Oxford comma is the difference between calling Kennedy and Stalin strippers or just inviting them all.

We invited the strippers, Kennedy and Stalin


We invited the strippers, Kennedy, and Stalin

Did you notice the difference?

The first sentence means that Kennedy and Stalin are the strippers. The second sentence (with the Oxford comma right there between “Kennedy” and the “and”) means that we invited the strippers and we invited Kennedy and Stalin. (Why this particular example has come to define the Oxford comma, I have no idea. But, I’m not the first to call JFK and Stalin strippers.)

The Oxford comma has even found its way into the legal field. A group of Dairy workers won a dispute about overtime because the state law failed to include an Oxford comma.

I was thinking about commas and grammar today as I drove down I-15. (It’s okay because I was going to fill a perscription. Stay Home. Stay Safe.) There was a billboard that said,

Is your network hacker safe?

What do you think they were asking? Because they either want you to protect your network from hackers, or they want you to protect your network hacker. I’ve seen the billboard before. I don’t think an Oxford comma would fix this one. Maybe a hyphen? I’m not totally sure.

Punctuation, and especially commas have the ability to completely change the meaning of a phrase. I don’t just mean in a “JFK and a pole” sort of way.

There is a passage in a Mormon book of scripture called “Doctrine And Covenants” called “A Word Of Wisdom.” If you’ve ever wondered why Mormons don’t drink or smoke, it’s in that Word of Wisdom scripture. But, there’s more to it than just alcohol and tobacco. There’s also a part that addresses eating meat, or “the flesh of beasts.” It says

It is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine

So, is the commandment to not eat meat except in times of winter, cold or famine? Or is it saying that they should not only be eaten in times of winter, cold or famine? As in, eat them all the other times too.

With the comma? Don’t eat a lot of meat. Without the comma? Eat lots of meat. (BTW, the official position is the comma was placed there by God. Don’t eat lots of meat. . .unless it’s winter. . .or cold. . .or a famine.) But, the meat requirement isn’t enforced like the tobacco and alcohol parts are.

Commas can also keep you from some really awkward family situations. For example, one of the all time classic comma situations. One is a call to dinner.

Let’s eat, Grandma

But, remove the comma and you’re not calling her to dinner, you’re calling her dinner.

Let’s eat Grandma

Hopefully she’s not a stipper.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren.

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