Numbered lists on the interwebs are fairly innocuous, but they vex me. It’s not just their prevalence or their arbitrary nature. It's not even their unnecessary exclamation points! Yes, I know, there are far more serious ills in our world. Emojis, for example. And texting acronyms that bleed into regular prose, IYKWIM. These irksome online trends all have one thing in common. They mark the end of civilization as we know it. O.K., maybe not that. But these nuisances share at least one corrosive trait. They are all inherently reductive.
The nature of a living language over time is to simplify itself, to make itself more efficient. In and of itself, that is not a bad thing. But this drive to reduce communication to a series of "likes", thumbs-up, emojis, tweets, and the like does have a dark side. It is, of course, the less-discussed-but-equally-scary-as-the-loss-of-privacy-nightmare of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The end of ambiguity. The demise of nuance. The death of language.
The sad part is that we are doing it to ourselves.
I happen to like words and their shadings of meaning. That's where art and intellect thrive. Reducing our language for political or marketing purposes takes us down a dark path. More on that in a future post. This is about how we as writers use our words. And our commas. For years, I edited publications that eschewed the serial comma. I have to say that I did not miss it. Everything felt a bit more streamlined—less cluttered. Truth be told, I never felt strongly about it one way or the other.
If there's one thing the French love more than fromage, it's their language.
That's why I smile when I see someone passionately championing the importance of the serial comma. Or arguing against it. For people who are more serious and talented than I, the serial comma is often a litmus test. 'Which side are you on? Your answer tells me everything I need to know about you.' In the past, my initial reaction to such people would have been "get a life." Now that I am back in the world of novels and short fiction, though, I have had to reassess the pesky little punctuation mark.
I like it. Sometimes, it still seems superfluous. In other cases, though, it is absolutely essential to provide clarity. I agree with Emerson that a "foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." A well-reasoned consistency, though, that provides clarity to a narrative? Yeah, that's a good thing. So the serial comma and I have reconciled. I will happily employ it to separate words that I hope will continue to have subtlety, ambiguity, and shades of meaning.
On a related topic, how about them French? I have never agreed with the Académie Française's attempts to keep the French language wrapped tightly in cheesecloth and stored in a cave. (Though I will trade "freedom fries" for "le hot dog.") So I found the recent outrage over the removal of the circumflex from certain words and simplification of others (about 2,400 in all) sort of refreshing. What would Flaubert think? Deleting that diacritic has produced a firestorm from both left and right. (Minor detail: The Académie unanimously approved the changes in 1990, the same year that Tim Berners-Lee published the very first page of the World Wide Web. Oh, and East and West Germany united and Nelson Mandela was freed and The Simpsons debuted.) If there's one thing the French love more than fromage, it's their language.
Maybe there is hope for humanity yet.