(Oops! Does it count as on-schedule if I wrote this entry but forgot to click “Publish” yesterday? ……)
If you know me at all, you probably know that I’m a linguaphile; I love learning new and interesting things about the ins and outs of language. On any other topic, there’s a good chance I’ll keep my opinions to myself, but when it comes to the English language, I will go on and on with the slightest provocation. (I’m not exclusively inclined towards English, but the fact that it’s the only language I can speak or read undercuts my appreciation of what makes other languages interesting.)
Yesterday saw just such a provocation. One of my regular reads, Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish blog, was looking at the necessity of the serial comma1 — the comma before the and in a compound noun phrase (so, as in the quote just below, “Mary, John, and Frank” vs. “Mary, John and Frank”) — and I had to weigh in:
Your reader’s example – "The $1 million was divided between Mary, John and Frank," is a lot different than "The $1 million was split between Mary, John, and Frank." – is completely nonsensical.
It suggests that, without the serial comma, it is necessary to read everything after the first (only) comma as a single noun phrase; so, "The $1 million was divided between [NP1], [NP2]." But substitute any single noun phrase into that, and you can see it’s ridiculous: "The $1 million was divided between Mary, John" is grammatically incorrect, and so can’t be a viable way to read the sentence. Whether or not the serial comma is there, the money is being divided three ways.
Weintraub’s example, as well as your reader’s "Ayn Rand and God" example, points to a very specific occurrence of a serial list: where the first noun phrase in the list ("his two ex-wives," "my parents") suggests a specific count of individuals equal to the number of noun phrases following in the list. If the apocryphal dedication had been "To God, my parents and Ayn Rand" or any order other than having "my parents" first, there would be no confusion regardless of the presence or absence of the serial comma.
A little pedantic, sure, but I like talking about this kind of thing, and it’s rare to get a receptive audience. Well, imagine my immense pleasure when, on opening up Sullivan’s blog this afternoon, I saw that my email response led off the next blog post on the topic!
I don’t really have anything more to say about this2; I just thought a little boasting on myself would be in order.
1 — Yes, I really am that much of a language geek that I have an opinion on the serial comma.3
2 — That’s not true at all; I could probably write a five-page essay on the strengths and weaknesses of the serial comma. I’m just trying to go a little easy on you, dear reader.
3 — I’m also that much of a geek that I use footnotes. Yup, this is what you’re in for with my blog.