Meg’s Column

I got home and found a stack of mail on my desk.

Most of it was bills, bank statements, or catalogs for J. Crew, which advertised a stunning new summer collection specifically tailored for ordinary men and women. And by “ordinary men and women,” I mean people who are college age, over six foot, and weigh approximately 29 pounds.

So you can imagine my surprise when I tore open one envelope to find a type-written letter produced by a manual typewriter. Single spaced.

Moreover, this letter contained perfect grammar, flawless punctuation, and was written by a brilliant 14-year-old girl named Meg.

A girl who not only writes well, but also uses the Oxford comma.

See, Meg, I have a long history with the Oxford comma (also known as the Harvard comma, the serial comma, the final comma, or the comma that is smoking crack). I love this comma.

For the unbaptized, the Oxford comma is placed before the conjunction at the end of any list.

Here is an example sentence:

Whenever you come to Mrs. Biderbecke’s class, please bring a notebook, pencil, eraser, a protractor, and a compass which students will never use except to carve bad words into desks.

The last comma in the previous sentence is an Oxford comma. Personally, I use this comma all the time because this habit was beaten into me from an early age.

My grade-school teacher, Mrs. Biderbecke, was a Pentecostal preacher’s wife with a 14-foot tall beehive hairdo. She taught our class with a King James Bible in one hand and a riding crop in the other. She compelled all God’s children to use Oxford commas.

And it was good advice, too. Because the Oxford comma is so lithe, functional, and cute. It works so well that it’s nearly invisible. It is the Jan Brady of the punctuation world.

It is, however, easy to go overboard when using commas. When I was a kid, for instance, I fell in with the wrong crowd who listened to loud music, wore long hair, and overused commas. I’m not proud of this, Meg, but I became a comma abuser.

I started using so many commas that, sometimes, I didn’t even know, technically, which day of the week, specifically, it was, because writing one solitary run-on sentence, often riddled with thousands of commas, could take, literally, almost four, maybe five, weeks to finish writing.

My comma dependency all started with my friend’s older sister, Rachel. One time she suggestively said, “Using commas is fun. Everyone is doing it. Whenever you feel like pausing in a sentence, just use a comma.”

I downward spiraled after that. I started, adding commas, between all, sorts of, words, and sometimes, between, the lett, ers, of, wor, ds, them, sel, ves.

But getting back to the Oxford comma. When I attended college, I was pleased to find that the academic world believes strongly in Oxford commas. So life was good. The Oxford comma became pretty natural to me.

But then something happened.

I started writing for newspapers, which adhere to the AP style of English. Which is manner of writing that doesn’t require news writers to use things like Oxford commas, italics, research, or accuracy.

Things got even worse when I started writing books and working with literary editors. Suddenly, I was even more confused. Because many non-newspaper editors despise the Oxford comma, and some just hate commas in general.

To give you an example: The first draft of my first novel contained approximately 223,184,992,123 commas. But after my editor returned my manuscript, there were only four. Also the plot had been altered and the publishers changed my name from Sean Dietrich to Merman Hellville.

So now I don’t know what to do anymore about Oxford commas. In many of my current columns I use no Oxford commas, but newspaper editors liberally add them to my work anyway.

Subsequently, other editors remove all Oxford commas. Heaven only knows what the editors will do with this column. Probably douse it in kerosene.

I bring all this up to get to this:

In your letter, Meg, you called me a good writer. Then you encouraged me to keep writing even though some readers leave me nasty comments, or write ugly emails.

Your words uplifted me and touched me profoundly. Maybe more than you will ever know.

And each time I come back to your letter I am struck by your mastery of the English language. You are a way better righter than I is.

I also loved reading about how you started writing your own column entitled “Meg’s Column,” and about how you write this column each Monday for your mom.

My favorite part of your letter, however, is where you asked what kind of typewriter I own. Because I have three typewriters, Meg. I have a Lettera 32, a Remington No. 12 model, and a 1970s Smith Corona electric portable.

One of which will soon be arriving in your mailbox.

Your comma dependent friend,
—Sean

71 comments

  1. Tawanah Fagan Bagwell - July 23, 2022 7:09 am

    I have just been listening to some of your older podcasts. When will you make us some news ones?

    Reply
  2. Bonnie - July 23, 2022 7:43 am

    This is really funny, Sean!
    (From a new fan of your writings)
    Bonnie

    Reply
  3. Ed (Bear) - July 23, 2022 8:49 am

    LOL – good one brother! And I learned something from you again!

    I didn’t know commas had names. But in all fairness, while I did attend a few college classes, I didn’t finish high school. So my educational awareness’s have been somewhat limited to what I can piece together… mostly on the Internet. Last I heard from my English teacher was that using a comma after the last list entry before the conjunction was optional, like you pointed out. But I can see the Oxford comma merit.

    So it’s called an Oxford comma huh! I looked up Oxford on the internet and discovered that it’s a small town in central England where Oxford University resides and also a USA town in north central Mississippi where the University of Mississippi resides. I suppose that England is most likely the place of origin since it’s way older than the University of Mississippi. And Oxford University in Oxford, England was affiliated with building the Oxford English Dictionary… plus it being England, root location country of English, and all. (Notice that I used an Oxford comma.) Yes, I’m just showing off my newly learned English awareness’s thingy.

    There are so many things that I have yet to learn. I’m full of a lot more questions than I have answers. Like, do cowboys use saddle Oxford commas? And what other grammatical punctuation has more to reveal? For example, I’ve always wondered if the dot, dot, dot has a more awareness’s and proper name…?

    Reply
    • Suellen - July 23, 2022 1:16 pm

      Ellipsis
      The ellipsis… is a series of dots that indicates an intentional omission of a word, sentence, or whole section from a text without altering its original meaning. The plural is ellipses. The term originates from the Ancient Greek: ἔλλειψις, élleipsis meaning “leave out”.Wikipedia

      Reply
  4. Ann Thompson - July 23, 2022 9:11 am

    Loved reading this essay, immensely. Giggled, chuckled, and rolled my eyes. Not easy to do, while reading. But, I persevered.

    Reply
  5. Keith Hudgins - July 23, 2022 10:16 am

    We are all, now, performing a web search, to find Meg’s column. Well done essay, sir.

    Reply
  6. Holly Rabalais - July 23, 2022 10:28 am

    The LA Times once wrote a piece called “Goodbye, Oxford comma? Hello, Shatner comma!” I reference it often. And now I’ll reference this one–especially the fact that Meg is 14 and hasn’t succumbed to writing in texting language. I once managed lots of student workers at a college that shall not be named, especially in the presence of someone from Alabama. They sent me emails in texting language. I scolded them. We never even made it to the Oxford comma lesson.
    Meg is one smart young woman, and you are one helluva guy for sending her one of your typewriters.

    Reply
  7. Barbara - July 23, 2022 10:35 am

    Sean, you’re the best!

    Reply
  8. Lander - July 23, 2022 10:46 am

    Sweet, Sean.

    Reply
  9. Dee - July 23, 2022 10:48 am

    Just love this and love you! You brighten my day👏👏👏.

    Reply
  10. Te - July 23, 2022 11:01 am

    I love your readers! They are the sweetest bunch, kind and darn good writers themselves! I hate the Oxford comma as Miz Butler, a formidable English teacher, hated it, too. Her hate was based on logic: adding a 3rd item to a list of 2 items does not alter the logic of the two items. Miz Butler’s class was universally dreaded but I got good at memorizing Shakespear. Tell Ed it’s called an ellipsis or 3-ten rida. Go figure. My computer calls it dot leaders. Blame Miz Butler.

    Reply
    • Ed (Bear) - July 23, 2022 1:40 pm

      Thank you Te!

      So ellipsis indicates that we are leaving something out. (I looked it up on the internet) I may have used it properly before but I’m mostly guilty of abusing and misusing the English language… If you’ve read any of my website you will have probably noticed, so don’t put anything past me. I might even be correct sometimes!

      Thanks for continuing my lesson. I appreciate that you shared “ellipsis” with me! Between you and Sean, I may be done for the day!!

      Reply
  11. Rhett Talbert - July 23, 2022 11:16 am

    Me too – I’m all about the Oxford comma. When I used to write prayers for our church bulletins, I had to explain to most of the secretaries who had to put up with me as their preacher, friend, and boss, that the Oxford comma (as well as the Davidson comma and the Gamecock comma) was essential for showing people where they could inhale enough air to finish reading The Prayer of Confession, The Prayer of Thanksgiving, and The Prayer That The Preacher Would Wrap-it-the-Hell-up-So We Can Get Home To Sunday Dinner. Some folks even circled the Oxford commas in each prayer before worship began, just to give themselves peace, busywork, love of their younger siblings, and, well, … hope.
    I should also mention that I’m Sarah Lane’s neighbor in Murrells Inlet, SC, and we’re all looking forward to future visits from you when you next need to smell fried shrimp, Mac-&-cheese, and pluff mud. In fact, I’ve already stocked up on PBR.

    Reply
  12. Paul McCutchen - July 23, 2022 11:36 am

    Takes me back to my younger years when Mrs. Rogers, my English teacher, used a red pen to, not only insert the comma, but to circle the comma, to remind me where to use it next time and also where to insert a period.

    Reply
  13. Nan Williams - July 23, 2022 12:14 pm

    My feelings, exactly.
    I didn’t know there was a name to the final comma until my super smart mensa cousin said to me, one day about 30 years ago, “I believe in the Oxford comma.”
    It had never occurred to me that anyone, genius IQ or not, would not use the final comma. It was like not abiding by the 10 commandments or not believing that the earth was round.
    As I have aged (80 now), I have learned that some people will take anything to task, including English grammar, even the lowly comma, when there are people starving and children who are not taught to write cursive.
    I love you, Sean!

    Reply
  14. Cindy - July 23, 2022 12:22 pm

    You are a fun guy and a kind one too! This article is a perfect example of why I find your work so interesting and enjoyable.

    Reply
  15. sjhl7 - July 23, 2022 12:27 pm

    Awesome!

    Reply
  16. Ron M - July 23, 2022 12:30 pm

    My Admin Ass’t. and I go round and round on the use of that additional comma … don’t say anything but I plan to give her a copy of Kate Turabian’s Manuel for Christmas this year. Ah for the days when the rules for English Comp were truly the backbone of English comp!

    Reply
  17. Donna Terry - July 23, 2022 12:37 pm

    I LOVE the Oxford comma. I, too, was taught to use it in my public school days in South Georgia back in the ‘60s but never dreamed it had a name. Its use can make all the difference in understanding the written word. Like Meg I think you’re an awesome writer!

    Reply
  18. Harriet White - July 23, 2022 12:48 pm

    I can’t love this one enough!!! I think it’s your best!
    I was glued to your column about the Oxford comma, and I am an exclamation point person!!
    You are my favorite writer.

    Reply
  19. Linda - July 23, 2022 12:53 pm

    Welcome to the Oxford Comma Club! Some of my former students and I drink coffee from Oxford Comma Club mugs while making fun of those who call our comma optional!

    Reply
  20. AlaRedClayGirl - July 23, 2022 12:54 pm

    For years I have felt like a relic because I use the Oxford comma; I’m so happy to discover that there are others like me out there!

    Reply
  21. Brenda Turner-Griffin - July 23, 2022 12:56 pm

    Each day you always inspire, make me laugh or cry, and remind me how great it is to be a member of your circle. Today is the first time I have used an Oxford comma. Thanks for the lesson!

    Reply
  22. Kay Quinton - July 23, 2022 12:57 pm

    HaHaHa….Merman Hellville!!!
    Another great one! Keep them coming, Sean!

    Reply
  23. Pingback: Sean of the South: Meg’s Column | The Trussville Tribune

  24. MR - July 23, 2022 1:32 pm

    Only Sean Dietrich can take something like a comma and make the world laugh about it! You are a master wordsmith!

    Reply
  25. MR - July 23, 2022 1:52 pm

    Only Sean Dietrich can take something like a comma and make it an enjoyable read! You are a master wordsmith, Sean.

    Reply
  26. virginia westlake - July 23, 2022 1:52 pm

    I was laughing so hard! This is one of your great columns! Please don’t stop!

    Reply
  27. Linda Jessen - July 23, 2022 1:58 pm

    Here’s to the Oxford comma! Long may it live in spite of ignorant newspaper editors.

    Reply
  28. Billy Moore - July 23, 2022 2:23 pm

    Think how much printer ink would be saved if everyone in the English-writing world would abandon the Oxford comma! I had no idea their was an official term for the final, optional comma.

    Reply
  29. Kathy Smith - July 23, 2022 2:29 pm

    Your gift to Meg is quite touching. Good for you. Wish I could see her reaction when she receives it.

    Reply
  30. Michelle Stewart Walsh - July 23, 2022 2:32 pm

    Bless you, Sean

    Reply
  31. Carter Anthony - July 23, 2022 2:33 pm

    No, no, no, no Oxford comma. Redundant! Waste of time.

    Reply
  32. Lynda Phillippi - July 23, 2022 2:35 pm

    Love the Oxford comma! 💖

    Reply
  33. Justin - July 23, 2022 2:46 pm

    If you love commas of any type, try reading Jose Saramago, the undisputed king of commas. His commas substitute for periods, and they outnumber periods at least a hundred to one. Some passages go on for several pages without a period … but with tons of commas. It takes some getting used to when reading his works, but despite this he is was one of the best and most imaginative story tellers I know of.

    Reply
  34. Sheila G - July 23, 2022 2:48 pm

    This column is pure genius. And ‘Merman Hellville’? I actually snorted, out loud…and before breakfast!!!

    Reply
  35. JonDragonfly - July 23, 2022 3:17 pm

    Well! Today’s column has been fun and educational. I knew about the Oxford comma and the ellipsis, but had to look up 3-ten rida and pluff mud, as well as, Davidson comma, Gamecock comma, and Kate Turabian’s Manual . A nice discussion of the Oxford comma is found at: https://www.neboagency.com/blog/a-comma-misconception/

    Reply
  36. Carol - July 23, 2022 3:23 pm

    I too am a grammar geek. I was raised by a teacher! My FAVORITE Oxford Comma “cartoon” is this … (I hate to send a link but it is the only way I could get it to you) https://imgur.com/gallery/fycHx

    Reply
  37. niobrarariverrat - July 23, 2022 3:25 pm

    Love this, Sean! I also love the Oxford comma.

    Reply
  38. David Britnell - July 23, 2022 3:54 pm

    I too have always used the Oxford comma but didn’t know it had a name. Thanks for that extra tidbit of info to remember!

    Reply
  39. Debbie Carter - July 23, 2022 4:03 pm

    How have I gotten this old and not known about you?

    Reply
  40. Cathy Meintjes - July 23, 2022 4:04 pm

    I had no idea the comma had a name! Loved it! Thanks for making my day!

    Reply
  41. Kay Williams - July 23, 2022 4:27 pm

    I love the Oxford Comma. Didn’t know it had an official name until several years ago but it can change the meaning of a sentence entirely. “She bequeathed her fortune to John and Mary, Bill and Sue, and Jack and Jill.” Putting the Oxford Comma in place – “..and Jack, and Jill.” Jack and Jill are now not one entity and each has a share rather than splitting one share as the others will have to do. It’s folks such as John and Mary, Bill and Sue that are against this.

    Reply
  42. Gloria Van Nostrand - July 23, 2022 4:43 pm

    Love the Oxford comma. Was taught to use it even though it wasn’t called that, way back then! Please continue to use it even if the dopey Ed’s don’t like it!

    Reply
  43. Anne Arthur - July 23, 2022 4:43 pm

    This letter this hilarious, smile provoking, and the best I’ve ever read about Oxford Comma, or commas in general. You are speaking to a comma-lover, or rathèr, comma abuser. Editors are a pain, they don’t know what we are trying to do wirh our texts, don’t they? Write on, Sean, the girl is right, you are a great writer.

    Reply
  44. Katie - July 23, 2022 4:56 pm

    Hi, Sean. I enjoyed this column. As an old English teacher (emphasis on “old”), I learned that is not correct to use commas for restrictive appositives (or “close appositives” as they were called 60 years ago). So it is not necessary to use a comma in “my friend’s sister Rachel.” Just so you know….

    Reply
  45. Terry Ley - July 23, 2022 6:15 pm

    I loved this column, Sean! I have taught English for fifty years, and I can’t imagine how many pieces of student writing I have read and often “marked” and evaluated. (A gazillion?) I giveth and I taketh away: I remove unnecessary commas and deposit them in an imaginary charity box, for those who need them for Oxford positions, for instance–sort of like those little dishes by cash registers where we can deposit spare pennies for those who need them later to pay the sales tax. I will send a link to this column to the seasoned adults in my memoir-writing class at Auburn, many of whom need to witness your passion for the Oxford comma. (By the way, I have shared several of your columns with them as examples of effective writing.)

    Reply
  46. MAM - July 23, 2022 7:03 pm

    I LOVED this one. I’m a grammar nerd, sometimes called a grammar Nazi. But, I do “overcommanate,” a word I made up just for occasions like this. And I had the Oxford comma “beaten” out of me by an AP style Nazi. She would not let me use it as a new reporter. So I fear that now that I am an editor, I sadly never use an Oxford comma. However, I generally do not take them out of other individuals’ writings. Now should I have put the apostrophe before or after the s in individuals’? Was I talking about one person or many persons? In this particular case, more than one individual. See. I’m obsessed! But, Sean, never fear! I totally enjoy your playing with grammar rules and breaking them. It’s entertaining and makes me chuckle!

    Reply
  47. Karen Snyder - July 23, 2022 7:21 pm

    Oxford commas, two spaces at the end of a sentence, so many small things that ease the eye’s passage through the printed page, and aid our immediate comprehension of the writer’s intent. Why folks want to spoil that is beyond me.

    What a wonderful and encouraging message you have sent to young Meg with this column, to say nothing of the chuckles for your followers. The fact that you are following up with a gift is icing on the cake.🧡

    Reply
  48. Karen - July 23, 2022 8:05 pm

    You will leave a lasting impression on this young writer.

    Reply
  49. Judy - July 23, 2022 8:20 pm

    I so love your play with words. And the description you gave about some forms of attempts to write as “ writing that doesn’t require news writers to use things like Oxford commas, italics, research, or accuracy.” made me smile. So much truth can be shared with tongue in cheek. Welcome home! Press on! 🌻

    Reply
  50. Mary McNeil - July 23, 2022 8:43 pm

    Oh is THAT what an Oxfor comma is ? All I know is we learned it in Journalism 101 at Kent State in 1966. I don’t think any newspapers have used it since.

    Reply
  51. Linda Moon - July 23, 2022 9:34 pm

    A type-written letter. Wow. I like Mrs. Biderdeck’s teaching. I’ve taught that comma rule but never knew the official name for it: Oxford. And I like Jan Brady, too. I agree with Meg’s description of you, writer. If you ever need more uplifting words, let me know. I’ll send you a bunch of ’em..a very Brady Bunch (yuk yuk!)

    Reply
  52. Pod Hamp - July 23, 2022 9:57 pm

    Now that you have written about the Oxford Comma, I am looking forward to your post about the Greengrocer’s Apostrophe.

    Reply
    • Elizabeth - July 25, 2022 1:16 pm

      I’d like to hear about dashes, too, please!

      Reply
  53. Kay Quinton - July 24, 2022 1:29 am

    Oxford Comma Examples
    Without it, however, meanings of sentences can change completely. For example:
    Amanda found herself in the Winnebago with her ex-boyfriend, an herbalist and a pet detective.
    Amanda found herself in the Winnebago with her ex-boyfriend, an herbalist, and a pet detective.
    One comma makes the difference between an awkward road trip with two people and a potentially hilarious road trip with four people. Make sure you’re punctuating the story you want people to read.

    Reply
  54. Slimpicker - July 24, 2022 3:01 am

    Newspaper editors may hate the Oxford comma, but they sure love their colons!

    Reply
  55. Gordon Walden - July 24, 2022 9:05 am

    I have never laughed so hard at so many wonderful commas! Thanks again.

    Reply
  56. Nana - July 24, 2022 12:36 pm

    Love the Oxford comma and YOU! ♥️

    Reply
  57. Barbara Assell - July 24, 2022 12:40 pm

    I read once about a court case that involved the estate of three adult heirs, John, Jane and Mary. A judge had to determine how to divide the estate and it came down to the comma. The way the judge read it, John got half of the estate, and Jane and Mary shared the other half. Had there been an Oxford comma after Jane, the estate would have been divided three ways.
    Barbara

    Reply
  58. Barbara - July 24, 2022 12:56 pm

    I read once about a court case that was settled over a comma. There were three heirs to a family estate. They were John, James and Joseph. John’s attorney argued that he should get half because James and John were grouped together without a comma. They would share the other half. The judge agreed. Hail the power of the Oxford comma.

    Reply
  59. NancyB. - July 24, 2022 6:22 pm

    First, thank goodness for students like Meg! She is awesome! Thank you for sending her the typewriter. You are awesome! There are times I miss my green Selectric. But don’t really want to go backwards full time to typewriters rather than computers. Just know I keyed more accurately and at faster speeds with a typewriter.

    Second, I was a high school business teacher for 31 years and punctuation was an integral part of all our classes. Here are a few punctuation rules that are related to the discussions here and that I still find myself following. It has been a few years years since I taught so, as with all things, I know changes have probably been made. But it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks! 🙂
    1. If you use an ellipsis in the middle of a sentence, you use three periods with spaces before, after, and between each.
    2. If the ellipsis is at the end of a sentence, you use four periods with spacing the same as in #1. The last one is the period at the end of a sentence.
    3. If you need a ? or a ! at the end of a sentence with an ellipsis, use three periods followed by the ? or !. Spacing same as above.
    4. Yes, use a comma after the item before the conjunction. (I have a cat, a dog, a parakeet, and a rabbit.) The name I knew it by was “comma conjunction” because when I, as a student, and then when I had students, students read outloud from each lesson, and read the comma and its purpose. (Comma conjunction; Comma if, Comma when–sentences beginning with a phrases starting with a specific preposition; etc.)

    I had a journalism student tell me once, “I wish business teachers and English teachers would talk and decide how to use commas so I didn’t have to remember what to do when!”)

    In my last few years of teaching, I had a few students who insisted on using texting language in written papers turned in for grading. I insisted on red circles around each texting used. 🙂

    Looking back, it is amazing the way things have changed in the last several years. How will society ever keep up?!

    Reply
  60. Suzanne Cahill - July 24, 2022 10:19 pm

    I love this story. I wish I could see the look on Meg’s face when she opens up her package and finds the typewriter.

    Reply
  61. Patti A. Culp - July 25, 2022 12:33 am

    Sean, I love the Oxford Comma!! Even Grammarly recommends it!! Hug Jamie for me, and WELCOME TO ALABAMA!!!

    Reply
  62. Robin - July 25, 2022 1:44 pm

    Again, Sean, my day is brighter!

    Reply
  63. Arelene Mack - July 25, 2022 3:34 pm

    My favorite comma tale will always be “Let’s eat, Grandma.” as opposed to “Let’s eat Grandma.”

    Reply
  64. Kari L Greenaway - July 27, 2022 12:29 am

    Laughed, and laughed! (Es,pec,i,al,ly, that one 😂) I’m not particularly familiar with much grammar, as far as, proper English goes. But, my mind thinks up pauses, that aren’t truly there. I am, for all intents, and purposes, a comma lover. Thoroughly enjoyed this piece. Lots of humor, that I really appreciated. Thanks! (Now, to get off of, my comma high.)

    Reply
  65. Jim Rives - July 27, 2022 3:02 pm

    The Oxford… when in doubt, use it.
    …….
    The $10,000,000 Comma
    Oakmont Dairy- Portland ME
    03/16/2017
    (Note: 2 commas in the dollar amount.)

    Reply
  66. Kit - July 28, 2022 2:34 pm

    The Smith Corona Selectric II was the best typewriter ever created. I wish I still had one!

    Reply
  67. CHARALEEN WRIGHT - August 2, 2022 4:35 pm

    Reply

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