I am working through the 90th anniversary issue of the New Yorker, which is proving to be every bit the joy-filled exercise I hoped for. In particular, Mary Norris's "Holy Writ" makes me smile.
Norris has worked for the New Yorker since 1978, mostly as a copyeditor and proofreader. Her essay sparkles with humor--e.g., "Chances are that if you use the Oxford comma you brush the crumbs off your shirtfront before going out."
Norris hails from Cleveland. Obviously her fine humor derives from those Buckeye roots. Although that much is clear, how we use the English language is not.
An example. Norris reminds us that the aforementioned Oxford comma (or, more prosaically, the "serial comma") is the comma that comes before "and" in a list of three or more things. For example, "I like dogs, cats, and bunnies." Strike Oxford and that sentence becomes "I like dogs, cats and bunnies."
The second version looks better to my eye--less cluttered, and the meaning is clear. But any Oxford partisan reading now raised their eyebrows in alarm, ready to defend that which should not need defending.
Another example. Once the New Yorker published this sentence: "Before Atwater died, of brain cancer, in 1991, he expressed regret." Noted linguist Ben Yagoda teased, "No other publication would put a comma after 'died' or 'cancer.'" I am with Yagoda. Leave those commas out of it. That said, Norris makes a strong case for every one of these commas. To wit, "The point of the sentence Yagoda had chosen for mild ridicule, as I pointed out in an online response, is that Atwater expressed regret before he died. What he died of and when he died of it are both extra details that the author, Jane Mayer, provides only to satisfy the reader's curiosity. They aren't essential to the meaning of the sentence. They are nonrestrictive." [Norris had previously explained that, in the New Yorker, nonrestrictive clauses are marked off by commas.]
So there's the unresolved dispute in the matter of Yagoda v. Norris. In a similar vein, Norris details a fascinating correspondence between herself and the author James Horowitz (pseudonym James Salter). Norris finds several instances of errant commas in his novel Light Years, and sends a note to Horowitz seeking answers. Horowitz offers an explanation, for every case. These are not conclusive; Norris is not fully convinced. But at the very least Horowitz's explanations present plausible and defensible uses of language. It's a slippery fish, this English of ours, no matter how much we try tor reel it in.