To set the record straight: The Ecphorizer is a magazine of ideas. I recently got some second-hand feedback indicating that I might have confused or scared off potential contributors with my editorials about "little magazines." Let me reemphasize that you needn't be a professional writer or hopeful professional writer to contribute. I do intend to present your ideas in the style of a little magazine, and the kinds of topics that I hope you might find interesting are most like those found in The Atlantic or Harper's I say this only to offer you a hint of where I'm coming from. What ultimately appears in these pages, of course, depends largely upon what's coming from you.
While sharing some of his discoveries in the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage with us in the January issue, contributor and past Ecphorizer editor John Cumming took a slight swipe at yours truly. With regard to the serial (or series or Oxford) comma, he said, "If [the editors] had known, they could add...the editor of The Ecphorizer as [an] adherent to this antique and redundant usage of the comma."
Well, pshaw, folks, there's a reason I use the serial comma: the old biddy who taught it to me in my eighth grade English class at Washington Junior High School in Salinas, California. This gal, who spoke with a southern accent rare to those parts, didn't just pound grammar into her students, she put the fear of God into them. Henry, one of my classmates, was so acutely sensitive about his impending puberty that he balked at reading aloud the sentence "Italia longa et bona est" in our Latin class because "bona" sounded too much to him like "boner," the then-current euphemism for an erection. Henry took to cutting up in the English class one day. The teacher fixed an iron eye on him and drawled softly, "Wah, Henry, if you're goin' to act like a baby, maybe I should fix you a sugar-tit." None of us had ever heard of a sugar-tit before, but the effect on Henry was remarkable. He quieted down immediately and blushed a shade of red I never saw equaled during the rest of my hyper teens.
Eighth grade grammar aside, we mustn't forget that the written language is only an approximation of speech. In speaking, when we string a series of things together, we pause slightly between them–including the one before the and. Thus, if I see a series written "red, white and blue," In my mind's ear it comes out "red, whiteandblue." John (and, presumably, the editors of the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage offer as some justification for not using the serial comma the fact that newspaper copyeditors have dropped it. I don't believe I would ever offer journalism as a model of good writing.
And I was appalled that so many people appeared to be confused about the use of "which" and "that." I infer from contemporary usage that many people think that "which" is an elegant "that." Not so, and the distinction is simple: that is restrictive; which is not. Consider these two sentences:
The cows that were standing under the tree were struck by lightning.
The cows, which were standing under the tree, were struck by lightning.
If you don't see the difference, it is that in the first sentence, only the cows that were standing under the tree were struck by lightning. In the second sentence, all the cows were struck by lightning. They just happened to be standing under the tree at the time. Believe me, it made a difference to the cows.
The distinction is very clear in my mind. A which without a comma in front of it grates on my ear like fingernails on an eighth-grade blackboard.
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