Wayward comma toggles Haggard’s exes’ sexes

Hey, while we’re on the subject of persnickety language (see the previous post), here’s another good one from the Language Log. The topic is that mischievous creature, the so-called Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma. Which comma is that? It’s the second comma in this phrase: Dewey, Cheatham, and Howe. Should it be there, or should it instead be pitched into a dark hole never to be seen again? Without getting into the question of whether or not God smiles on the serial comma (She does), watch what can happen when the spawn of Oxford goes missing.

The first example is this possibly invented but nevertheless funny inscription: “This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” This is clearly wrong, if only because there can be no distinction between the two.

More verifiable is this beauty from an article about Merle Haggard: “Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.”

Now that’s what I call fun with punctuation!

It got me thinking about the most mischief that can be caused by the least ink. Just how much can you subvert a serious phrase with a misplaced jot? Here’s my favorite. With the help of a wandering apostrophe, Operation Just Cause, the U.S. invasion of Panama that removed Manuel Noriega from power, becomes Operation Just ‘Cause. Can you do better?

10 thoughts on “Wayward comma toggles Haggard’s exes’ sexes”

  1. I saw a story on Fark a while ago about someone graffiting the wording in front of a courthouse from: Department of Justice to: Department of “Justice”.
    Took a week or so for people to notice.

  2. Benny Hill did a bit about this. Spoken, rather than written, but same same.

    “What is *this* thing called, love?” and so on.

  3. This is probably an urban legend/myth, but…

    Maria Fedorovna, Empress of Russia and wife of Tsar Alexander III, was known for her charitable works. In fact, she once saved a comdemned man from exile in Siberia by changing a single comma in the warrant signed by her husband. Instead of reading: “Pardon impossible, to be sent to Siberia,” she changed the document to read: “Pardon, impossible to be sent to Siberia.” The man was thus saved and released.

  4. Remember this one:

    Woman! Without her, man would be lost.
    Woman, without her man, would be lost.

  5. Vampire Weekend, a band which formed at Columbia U. and has become popular among a certain young hipster set (despite being awfully derivative of Paul Simon) actually had a song called “Oxford Comma” which was a hit in the UK.
    Here it is, for the curious:

  6. I’m appalled that Oxford University Press has given its name to the “Oxford comma” (or Harvard, I notice) especially as the University of Oxford itself is against weird american commas (except to avoid ambiguity) in here: “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serial_comma#Style_guides_opposing_mandatory_use”

    They upset me every time my US editors insist on them.
    Those examples are funny though!

  7. Department of Justice to: Department of ‘Justice’.
    Took a week or so for people to notice

    In their defense, it should be noted that, since at least the time of AG John Ashcroft (and arguably much further; AG Ed Meese and “acting AG” Robert Bork come to mind), and clearly up through the present-day AG Eric Holder, it really is more accurate to refer to the Department of “Justice.”
    In fact, any reference to this generation’s Department of Justice without the scare quotes would be a solecism.

  8. I wish I could upload this picture .. I have a screenshot of Yahoo! News from maybe six or seven years ago, where the headline of one of the news articles reads

    “Video Games Make Kids Fat, Violent, Swedish

    Experts Say”

    I tried to hold the line against my now eight-year-old son playing video games, but it’s a losing battle. He hasn’t turned fat or violent yet, but I’m starting to see the funny diacriticals sprouting on his vowels … he must be turning Swedish.

    N.B.: if you Google “fat violent swedish” right now, the first link that comes back is just as funny: “Prevent Disease.com – Video Games Make Kids Fat, Violent, Swedish …”

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