Merle Haggard’s ex-wives

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Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden are long-time collectors of arguments for the final serial comma. They’re responsible for publicizing the most famous (if probably apocryphal) example, “This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God”, as well as the equally remarkable (and apparently real) “The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector”.

Now Patrick Nielsen Hayden (“The return of the final serial comma’s vital necessity“, Making Light 10/21/2010) has posted another, describing the recent documentary about Merle Haggard: “Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall”.

This time there’s a newspaper scan:

And in response to Patrick’s post, Jo Walton created what may be the first instance of the genre “grammatical slash” (though ethelmay suggests that it should be called a comma-dy).

The cited caption was posted here on August 14, which is about a month after the documentary aired. I don’t know where and when it was originally published, or who originally scanned the newspaper item and submitted it to the memepool.

In 2010, no discussion of this topic would be complete without a reference to Vampire Weekend’s 2008 hit “Oxford Comma“:

[Update — a LexisNexis search reveals that the photo caption was published in the Los Angeles Times on July 21, 2010.]



40 Comments

  1. George said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 8:43 am

    Regarding “…Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector”, I would have thought that the ‘a’ before ‘dildo collector’ pretty much got rid of the ambiguity in what is, nonetheless, a wonderful bunch of words.

    [(myl) I don’t think that the repeated indefinite article cancels the ambiguity: a conjunction of appositives, each with its own indefinite article, is certainly possible. Here’s a real-world example, from Clyde MacKenzie, “Biographic Memoir of Ernest Ingersoll”, Marine Fisheries Review 53(3), 1991:

    The newspaper sought to increase its readership by including a column devoted to natural history and hired Ingersoll, a well-known authority and a proven, capable writer on such subjects, to write it.

    Here’s another example, from the transcript of a 1995 CBS story about Christoph Eschenbach:

    His father, a noted musicologist and an outspoken opponent of the Nazis, was killed on the Russian front during World War II.

    Compare “Soviet Union: The Edge of Darkness”, Time Magazine, 1991:

    In a 30-min. exchange of machine-gun and rifle fire, they killed two Latvian militiamen, a well-known filmmaker and a bystander.

    ]

  2. Twitter Trackbacks for Language Log » Merle Haggard’s ex-wives [upenn.edu] on Topsy.com said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 8:46 am

    […] Language Log » Merle Haggard’s ex-wives languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2730 – view page – cached Patrick and Theresa Nielsen Hayden are long-time collectors of arguments for the final serial comma. They’re responsible for publicizing the most famous (if probably apocryphal) example, “This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God”, as well as the equally remarkable (and apparently real) “The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod… Read morePatrick and Theresa Nielsen Hayden are long-time collectors of arguments for the final serial comma. They’re responsible for publicizing the most famous (if probably apocryphal) example, “This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God”, as well as the equally remarkable (and apparently real) “The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector”. View page Tweets about this link […]

  3. Brett R said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 9:00 am

    The 1964 book, Electromagnetic slow wave systems by R. M. Bevensee contains this dedication: “This Book Is Dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand, and the glory of GOD.”

  4. Dick Margulis said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 9:35 am

    A careful and thoughtful editor can work equally well with a style that requires the Oxford comma, one that eschews it, and one that admits of exceptions. The key is in choice of sequence:

    This book is dedicated to God, Ayn Rand and my parents.

    Among those interviewed were Kris Kristofferson, Robert Duvall and Haggard’s two ex-wives.

    The highlights of his global tour include encounters with an 800-year-old demigod, a dildo collector and Nelson Mandela.

    As the Wikipedia article on the subject points out, you can construct ambiguous sentences with the Oxford comma as easily as without.

  5. KCinDC said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 9:55 am

    Dick Margulis, an editor really shouldn’t be changing the order of names in a dedication, any more than they should change the order of authors in a byline.

  6. Josh said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 10:18 am

    I tend to treat commas in lists the way I treat parenthesis in equations: optional most of the time, but mandatory whenever there is ambiguity. This is just another example in the long list of awkward creations caused by blind adherence to a grammatical “rule”.

  7. Yerushalmi said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 11:04 am

    KCinDC: A simple solution, then. “This book is dedicated to my parents, to Ayn Rand, and to God.”

  8. Tim Silverman said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 12:04 pm

    I see from google books that the phrases “my parents”, “Ayn Rand” and “and the glory of GOD” appear on separate lines on the dedication page of the book Electromagnetic Slow Wave Systems mentioned above by Brett R, which eliminates any possibility ambiguity (at least for me). I have no idea whether it was the author or someone at the publisher who came up with this idea, but it does the job.

  9. George said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 12:28 pm

    @myl: True, the repeated indefinite article doesn’t completely cancel the ambiguity, which is why I wrote ‘pretty much’ but I think that in the context of that particular sentence few people would go down the wrong path.

    The examples you give are interesting. In the first, is it the two adjectives before ‘writer’ that make the indefinite article feel right? And in the second, we have (1) ‘was’ to tell us that it’s one person who’s being referred to, (2) the fact that “a noted musicologist and an outspoken opponent of the Nazis” is cordoned off, so to speak, by a comma at each end and (3) the fact that nobody is likely to want to tell us something as uninformative as that an outspoken opponent of the Nazis was killed on the Russian front without giving us a bit more to go on. Your third example kind of makes my point.

  10. Chandra said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 2:05 pm

    In the Mandela example, even with the addition of the final comma the phrase “an 800- year-old demigod” could still be read as an appositive for “Nelson Mandela”.

  11. GeorgeW said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 3:06 pm

    @George (another): “I think that in the context of that particular sentence few people would go down the wrong path.”

    Yes, in all three examples in the post, the context would disambiguate for most readers. Most people would not think the author is claiming a virgin birth although some do consider Ayn Rand divine.

    Most people would realize that ‘Robert’ Duvall is not an ex-wife even if they were unclear on sex of Kris Kristofferson.

    Nelson Mandela is one of the best known persons on earth. And he is aging, but 800 years old?

  12. Adrian Bailey said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 4:51 pm

    There is, of course, no ambiguity in the Merle Haggard example. Collecting such examples is classic peevology, pure and simple. The comma has several roles (for example the one in the previous sentence) but we’re able to distinguish between them without getting our knickers in a twist.

    If one did want to make a purely logical argument regarding punctuation, wouldn’t one propose using a colon in place of the appositional comma? e.g. Nelson Mandela: a former SA president and humanitarian

  13. Ellen K. said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 5:14 pm

    The only reason there’s no ambiguity in the Merle Haggard example is because we know those people are not his ex-wives. Grammatically, it’s ambiguous.

  14. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 5:39 pm

    As Ellen K says: there’s no ambiguity in these cases because the facts are well-known. That is why these cases are useful as examples – although the construction is potentially deceptive, we can tell that here the alternative reading is obviously wrong. But someone who writes like that might also write ‘my parents, Alice Smith and Harry Jones’ (where Alice Smith and Harry Jones are not her parents), or ‘his ex-wives, Jane Robinson and Mary Brown’ (where Jane Robinson and Mary Brown are not his ex-wives); and in that case there would be no way of telling what was really meant.

  15. The Ridger said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 5:57 pm

    @Yerushalmi: Why the extra “tos” when the comma (which you use) does the necessary work?

    The serial comma should be regarded as neither required nor forbidden. It should be used when it’s needed.

  16. Rubrick said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 6:14 pm

    I think those who contend that such examples are mere peevology because it’s clear from context or prior knowledge what was meant are missing a point. The question isn’t whether the reader can figure it out; it’s whether doing so requires extra mental processing cycles. I’d place a substantial wager that a carefully designed study would indeed show a price to paid in milliseconds, even if all participants could successfully answer “T/F: Robert Duvall is an ex-wife of Merle Haggard”.

    And of course, as Andrew (not the same one) points out, it’s trivial to construct truly ambiguous examples exactly parallel to the ones cited. “The highlights of this tour include encounters with Daniel Blake, a 50-year-old dentist and a recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor.”

  17. GeorgeW said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 6:20 pm

    @Andrew (not the same one):

    When context doesn’t disambiguate, as several commenters have suggested, it can be reworded: “. . . Kris Kristofferson, Robert Duvall and his two ex-wives.”

  18. bread & roses said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 10:34 pm

    @GeorgeW,

    couldn’t that imply interviews with four people:
    Kris Kristofferson
    Robert Duvall
    and
    Robert Duvall’s two ex-wives?

  19. Teresa Nielsen Hayden said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 10:36 pm

    Whence this sublime belief that “it can be reworded”? In some of the cited cases, you’re tampering with the author’s dedication. That’s not a light undertaking.

    If we have to choose one over the other — which ought not be necessary, but some indeterminate large number of schoolteachers out there apparently believe it is — I choose the serial comma. It doesn’t force an undue intimacy upon Ted and Alice, Ayn Rand and God, or Merle Haggard and Robert Duvall. It also makes it easier to handle lists that contain complex elements.

  20. Yerushalmi said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 5:50 am

    @The Ridger: apologies. I meant to leave the comma off (“to my parents, to Ayn Rand and to God”) in order to demonstrate that one can solve the problem without abandoning one’s opposition to the serial comma and without “tampering with the author’s dedications”. Unfortunately, I’m rather a strong proponent of the serial comma and am so used to using it that my fingers typed it in there without me thinking about it.

  21. GeorgeW said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 7:34 am

    @bread & roses: Good point. How about, ‘Kris Kristofferson, Robert Duvall and Haggard’s two ex-wives?’

    Much of our speech and writing depend on context and shared background information for meaning. To make no assumptions about these would require great, and often superfluous, verbosity.

    I would be very surprised if someone in the target audience of the documentary was confused by this statement.

  22. MattF said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 10:16 am

    I don’t understand the logic of leaving out the final serial comma. Is ‘reduce the number of commas’ a constraint on sentence production?

  23. Ellen K. said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 10:27 am

    @bread & roses: For me, that would require an extra “and”: “. . . Kris Kristofferson, and Robert Duvall and his two ex-wives.” But, also requires the serial comma to properly indicate the pause before the first “and”.

  24. Ellen K. said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 10:30 am

    @MattF: I suspect the logic may be “that’s what I was taught”. With perhaps somewhere behind that a now lost “remove unnecessary punctuation”.

  25. Liz said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 12:00 pm

    As a teacher struggling to teach adults who don’t appear to have EVER received much in the way of instruction concerning grammar or punctuation, I have developed a real dislike of commas. “Sentences” that go on for half a page, thick with commas, are pretty much the norm. I particularly dislike the commas that regularly pop up between subject and verb – and if I encourage the serial comma in lists, I get a comma in front of every “and” ” Fish, and chips” for instance.

    Not naturally prescriptive myself, nor a linguise, I find students are desperate for “rules” – whether they make any sense or not. They seem to prefer them to thinking..

  26. Chandra said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 12:12 pm

    Even with the sentences that seem obvious in context, I think it’s important not to assume that ALL readers will be able to understand them correctly. An ESL learner with little knowledge of Western culture and entertainment, and/or unfamiliar with English names, might well misinterpret the sentence about Merle Haggard.

    I use the Oxford comma when it helps to make things clearer, and leave it off when it doesn’t. Sometimes there will still be ambiguity regardless; such is the nature of the English language. I don’t lose any sleep over it.

  27. GeorgeW said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 2:20 pm

    @Chandra: You are right about the possible difficulty for ESL learners. However, generally, the target audience for most written material is first-language speakers. And, to modify material sufficient for an ESL audience with little cultural knowledge might cause first-language speakers to tune out –

    “Merle Haggard is a white, male, professional American singer with a colorful past. He has been married several times . In America, marriage is generally between one man and one woman at a time with separation possible through a legal process called divorce. Robert Duvall and Kris Kristofferson are famous, male American motion-picture actors who are acquainted with Haggard. Among those interviewed for the documentary were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.”

  28. Chandra said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 2:50 pm

    @GeorgeW: Thank you but I’m pretty sure I didn’t assert anywhere that we should modify material for an ESL audience. Furthermore, I’d say there is quite a difference between a diminutive extra comma, and the ridiculously exaggerated paragraph you provided.

    My point is simply that people should not always assume something is obvious to everyone – there may well be readers who don’t interpret things the same way, for a wide variety of possible reasons. If we have perfectly simple, grammatical, acceptable ways of clarifying meaning at our disposal, there is no reason not to use them.

  29. Teresa Nielsen Hayden said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 2:54 pm

    The funny thing about all those proposed fixes is that the simplest and most unobtrusive one would be to put a comma after “Kris Kristofferson.” If you’ve cultivated small, tidy handwriting, the author might not even notice it.

    Liz, I know students are desperate for rules. Back when I used to handle Tor’s copyediting, my heart would sink when a manuscript came back with a memo listing all the elaborate rules of comma use the copy editor had imposed throughout. It was a sure sign that I had a terrible copy edit to deal with.

    The freelancers were so self-confident about at it that they had to have been consistently taught that these were The Rules. I could never understand how they’d failed to notice how often classic English prose disagreed with them. Comma setting off direct address? Commas separating items in a list? Necessary. Comma setting off appositive? Sometimes essential, other times dreadful. Comma separating any two successive adjectives? Shoot me now.

    Commas group and separate meaning. They’re the duct tape of written English. No set of rules based on form rather than content can adequately describe their habits and activities.

  30. Adrian Bailey said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 4:42 pm

    @Ellen K: Grammatical ambiguity is of no consequence.

  31. Ellen K. said,

    October 25, 2010 @ 8:22 pm

    Adrian, I guess you missed the first sentence of my short two sentence reply to you.

  32. Miles Davis » Merle Haggard’s ex-wives said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 6:42 pm

    […] almost always use a serial comma, and some of the examples of what happens when you don’t are hilarious, like “highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, […]

  33. Jim said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 8:57 pm

    They arrived both singly and as couples: Bob, Carol and Alice and Ted.

    Are Carol and Alice lesbians? Can’t be sure without that comma.

  34. Andrew said,

    October 28, 2010 @ 12:46 am

    Lucky for the Oxford comma crowd Haggard had two ex-wives and not one. Otherwise, the choice (barring rewrites) would have been between: “Among those interviewed were his ex-wife, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall” and “Among those interviewed were his ex-wife, Kris Kristofferson, and Robert Duvall”.

  35. John said,

    September 19, 2011 @ 12:53 pm

    It seems ridiculous to point out that these examples can be slightly edited to remove the ambiguity – the whole point is that they can be *very* slightly edited by adding a single comma.

    “In a 30-min. exchange of machine-gun and rifle fire, they killed two Latvian militiamen, a well-known filmmaker and a bystander.” – this is a particularly interesting example in that it’s only the fact that one cannot simultaneously be a “bystander” and a “militiaman” that removes the ambiguity (and even then only if you think about it for a moment). Since anyone could feasibly be a militiaman, almost any other description would make an ambiguous sentence.

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    September 19, 2011 @ 5:35 pm

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  37. Acilius said,

    September 20, 2011 @ 5:41 pm

    I must admit to bewilderment at the fact that there are people in the world who are passionately opposed to the use of the final serial comma. I would find it equally bewildering to encounter people who were passionately opposed to the omission of the final serial comma, but since that group does not seem to be represented in this forum I am thankful to suffer only one bewilderment at the moment.

  38. Cherie said,

    September 21, 2011 @ 1:27 am

    I can’t resist weighing in, if only because no one here has mentioned the explanation I was given, many years ago, for not using the Oxford comma: items in a list are connected either by a coordinating conjunction or by punctuation–so, when you omit the word ‘and’, you use a comma, and when you include it, the comma is superfluous. After a lifetime of omitting the final serial comma, I find that it causes a mental stutter step when I read it.

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