Rules of Grammar: The Serial Comma and Chaos Theory
Rules of grammar exist. But personal writing styles provide special license to ignore or disobey
the rules. The serial comma provides a unique perspective on rules and style. The Oxford comma
is correct when used or not used consistently in any piece of writing. Certain types of writing
(poetry, creative prose, private notes, email, novels, vernacular, dialog, etc) can most often be
written in various (even truculent) styles which may transcend, ignore, or purposely violate
grammar rules for myriad purposes and ends.
Many imaginative writers and creative thinkers feel constrained by rules and inclined to rebel.
There is much to be said for thinking outside or underneath the box, or even for thinking without
consideration for boxes. Without lurid imagination, creative synthesis, and variable styles...
writing might be less interesting, pedantic, and shallow. Or not.
But after having said all of this, and for whatever reasons, the rules of grammar will still be written
on the board (whiteboard, blackboard, screen, or monitor) by imperious, surreptitious, clandestine,
or collaborative teachers (at least for as long as teachers continue to bother to learn the rules).
And this baseline of rules will continue to inspire rebellion. Many who are wont to rewrite the
rules or simply feel compelled to break them... might be well-advised to remember the admonitions
of George Orwell.
"In 1946, writer George Orwell wrote an impassioned essay, 'Politics and the English Language'.
He railed against dangers he saw in 'ugly and inaccurate' contemporary written English – particularly
in politics where 'pacification' can be used to mean "defenseless villages are bombarded from the air,
the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with
The baseline of grammar rules do matter. Many would not deign to rewrite them. Instead some look
upon the rules we have been provided as totemic mysteries. We continue to observe the rules when
this suits our fancy or is the most effective method for delivering a particular message to a clearly defined audience. And at other times... we choose to break the rules, deconstruct language, transcend tradition, and explode perceptions to embrace epiphany, translate chaos, and avoid confusion.
The bottom line of language, linguistics, and communication is this... while we may be captives...
constrained and restricted by the human condition... we are more than this. So much more than
can be expressed by commas... serial, Oxford, or otherwise. And much of this, who and what we are,
will in time be communicated beyond the realm of language, in a symbiosis of emotion, spiritual
underpinnings, and blossoming joys and delights as yet barely imagined, demurely suggested, or
lightly sketched. And when we arrive at this intersection... all of our language may fall away
into new beginnings.
So yes! "There is a spoon" (and a fork and knife): however pointless all three may be to one
who hungers. Rules, grammar, and syntax matter... but only for so long as we imagine some
need to translate chaos. But the day may arrive when we become enmeshed, and chaos:
harmonious, melodic, and compelling becomes us. And we become it.
If this point arrives, we may reinvent the rules. Are we there yet?
Tim Flanagan, Associate editor of The Portland Alliance