The Serial Comma: Blood or Brains

Serial Comma ComicA serial comma, also known as an Oxford comma, is something that causes fairly heated debates between readers and writers alike. Journalists generally despise it, and old-fashioned writers adore it.

If you aren’t familiar with what a serial comma is, then I’ll give you a quick overview:

1) I had eggs, toast, and orange juice for breakfast.

2) I had eggs, toast and orange juice for breakfast.

The first uses a serial comma. The second does not. The serial comma is the second comma in the first example and it is used to separate and distinguish different items in a list. I use them in my own writing, but a colleague of mine, who I collaborate with on almost every writing project that we undertake, does not. We both have our reasons, and although I regard her opinions highly, I like to think that I am correct (insert stubbornness here).

Those against the serial comma argue that it is pointless, takes up unnecessary space, and adds antiquity to the writing. Those for it argue that without it, readers become confused. For an example, take a look at the picture featured in this post and give me a virtual high five if you agree.

I’ve been thinking about the serial comma lately as it tends to be something that all writers have an opinion about. Whether they follow a style guide, or they simply grew up using it one way or another. Then it got me to thinking, perhaps it’s not a matter of opinion alone, but a matter of how each individual reads.

When I read, I appreciate that serial commas let me know when something is either “this and this” together, or if it’s “this, and this” separately. It adds an element of readability to the text and it lets me know exactly what the writer is saying. I can’t confuse it because the meaning is obvious.

So, just as the nature vs nurture argument goes, I think that instead of being something that we grow up either using or not using, the serial comma’s necessity is in our minds. It would be extremely difficult to prove, and I don’t even know how you would begin to study how an individual processes words personally while reading, but it makes sense when you think about it.

I require clean and easy to follow writing to really get involved in a story. My definition of that could be very different from someone else’s. Another person may prefer thick and heavy literature that involves a more intensive process. All of the aspects that go into that work effect how we read them silently. That’s why punctuation was created.

If it were simply that we were used to using an Oxford comma or not, I don’t believe that the debates between those that practice using them and those that don’t would be so forceful. It’s one of the biggest and longest style arguments out there, and every writer, and many readers, have an opinion on it, even if they don’t know its proper name. Both sides make sense, although I hate to admit it.

To imply that readers won’t be able to differentiate between three list items that are supposed to be separated instead of one and then a separate combined, is to say that readers aren’t all that smart, when really, in general, the opposite is true. Reading has forever been a sign of intelligence, and so we should believe that a reader can divide a simple list without too much trouble.

On the other hand, it is up to writers to make the reading experience flow smoothly and efficiently. If we don’t use the proper punctuation and take pains to ensure that the reader can understand us, they may get the wrong idea and stop reading or lose interest.

We can be taught to read, but we aren’t taught what that’s like inside of our own heads, so I think that when we look over a piece of writing and hear the words, we create our own style. An extremely big part of that style is derived from punctuation alone. That style defines what our reading experiences are like personally, as opposed to what we think others should get from the book or article.

It’s easier to think that we are raised to either love or hate the serial comma, but I think the issue is a little deeper than that. It’s part of how we read that defines our preferences in terms of punctuation, varied spelling, the usefulness of chapters, aversions to short fiction or non-fiction, and so on. That “inside of your head” reading, that you teach yourself, is, I imagine, a wonderful and virtually unexplored territory of immense depths that could teach us a lot about language and how reading effects us. Therefore, the argument is in our brains, not our blood.

Either way,  I’m pro-serial comma and proud of it.

Which side of the debate are you on and why?

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What Makes a Reader Read?

Painting of Woman ReadingReading is something that I have always done. I remember hiding in corners as a child with a pile of books beside me and a couple of juice packs so that I could read in peace and ignore my grandmother’s constant suggestion that I go outside and play. It’s not that I didn’t like to go outside, it’s more that I could go outside in a book just as easily. But not just outside—I could go to a completely different world altogether.

I could fight dragons and wear armor and ride eagles and defeat sinister sorcerers. I could turn myself into someone else, or turn someone else into myself. The draw of books for me was strong, and it has never left. I continue to read now so that I can immerse myself into the most intimate thoughts and dealings of another person, even though they usually aren’t real. I like to question their actions and compare them to what I would have done instead. I like to smell flowers when there aren’t any around, and I like to feel the wind pull at my hair even when I’m sitting on the couch with the windows closed.

Reading teaches me about many things, but it mostly teaches me about myself. I’m sure that you’ve all read the article about how reading fiction can change your brain (if not, you can read it here). Who knows what sort of intricate web mine is after reading fiction exhaustively for the last many years.

I read because of the personal benefits I find in it. I read because it expands my mind and tests the limits of my thoughts. It empowers me and it humbles me. I’m an addict and if reading weren’t such a positive thing I’d be in trouble.

I think that there are differences between casual readers and constant ones. I know people who read on occasion and who really enjoy it, although they would probably choose to be stranded on an island with music instead of literature. I know people who can read articles and studies like there’s no tomorrow, but hand them a book and they feel as if it weighs a thousand pounds.

But, humans read, whether they like it or not. It is, at least for me, the easiest form of communication, the most straightforward. You read signs that point you to your destination, you read text messages and social media statuses, you read blogs and articles and news stories. You read because it has become part of human nature, but you enjoy it because it is a part of your soul.

I would choose books over movies, music, parties, and almost any other kind of entertainment, and I think that goes beyond the human instinct of communication. Readers read because it sparks a fire in them, just like dancing or cars do in others. So why do we read instead of pursuing another hobby? I read because as much as I can experience new things in the world, books will always take me a few steps farther. I’m not much of an adventurer at this point, but I can tell you I’ll probably never come across an Ent or a talking polar bear no matter how many roads I travel in person.

I’m a reader because books can sometimes speak truer than anything else, even if they’re fiction. Readers read because that’s what they’re wired for, either psychologically or socially.

So, what makes you read, reader?

Books and Their Movies

35mm_movie_negativeThere are tons and tons of movies based on books. Actually, a good percentage of the time, you will find that a movie was at least inspired by a book, if not completely based on it. Once a book becomes popular, it’s likely that it will turn into a movie. It’s practically inevitable. Sometimes they’re really well done, other times they’re just plain garbage. In this post, I’m going to explore some of my favourites, and some of the ones that I wish didn’t exist at all.

1) LOTR & The Hobbit: These books, and their movies, are some of the best that I have seen. I remember seeing The Fellowship of the Ring after reading the book a few times at quite a young age. It felt like Peter Jackson had peered into my brain and recreated exactly what I had pictured while reading. The LOTR trilogy (books and movies) were magnificent. The Hobbit follows the book less than the other Tolkien-based movies, but they still encompass that tone, style, and feeling that I felt they should.

2) Harry Potter: All of these books were absolutely amazing. They’re books that I will continue to read for my whole life, and that I will encourage everyone I know to read. The movies are just as brilliant. The captured the magic and imagery and sentiment so well, and it was a bonus that they had (almost) all the same actors for the entire series. These followed the books very well and also recreated the depth and feel of the books without any trouble.

3) GOT: True, this is a show, not a movie, but they really captured the irony, political drama, and emotion of the books so well. I watched the first season of the show before reading the books, only because I didn’t realize that there actually were books until later on and I was pleasantly surprised at how well the show followed the story. The only thing that bothers me is that it took so long for G.R.R.M. to be recognized and for his work to receive its due.

4) Pillars of the Earth: This was an excellent book and an excellent mini-series. They could have made the show longer, but I felt that they kept enough of the story to make the points understand and to include all of the best aspects of the book.

5) The Hunger Games: These were books that I had a really hard time putting down up until the last one. I was less interested in some of the repetitiveness of the story, however, it had such dark undertones that I had to keep reading. The last movie hasn’t been made yet, but I was quite pleased with the first two. Teen fiction isn’t usually my piece of cake, but these had so much intelligence and intrigue hidden deep inside that I was drawn to them.

Others include Of Mice and Men, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, The Reader, and The Green Mile.

 

There are also quite a few movies based on books that I have not enjoyed. Actually, now that I think of it, there are more that didn’t turn out quite as well as their originals. Under the Dome,  Queen of the Damned, and even The Book Thief were lacking in their box office counterparts, although I loved the books. Let’s not forget World War Z or The Other Boelyn Girl, either.

Still, there are a number of stories that I would love to see on screen, and done well. These include Children of Hurin, the other two books in the His Dark Materials trilogy, and The Crystal Cave series.

On the other hand, there are many movies and shows that I wish would be turned into books. I’d love to read a series on The Borgias, Rome, Vikings, Boardwalk Empire, Lost, or countless others.

I suppose the main difference between books and movies is that while a book can contain so many subtle descriptions, it is much harder to simply show someone. Words can hint, create, destroy, and holler while being completely silent and private. Movies and shows cannot.

What are the best book to movie recreations that you have seen? What have been the worst? What would you like to see become a movie or show someday?