Contentious Commas, at Length

Of all the heated topics that arose at this year’s Town Meeting, the one that entertained me most was the question of commas — a perennial subject of discussion among editors, grammarians, and language enthusiasts through the ages. Max amended one article so that it added four commas. In legal matters, commas can be crucial; court cases have turned on the presence or absence of a comma. Scholars of the American Constitution have written tomes over the placement of commas in constitutional articles and amendments.

Here in Tuftonboro, we are not writing the founding document of a new nation (or are we?), but we still take our punctuation seriously. Commas usage over time has greatly changed, which adds to the fun and mayhem.

Max’s amendment passed, narrowly. Many of the “library crowd” boisterously voted “No!” on the four added commas.

The amended article now reads, in part:

“ . . . gifts, legacies, and devises” rather than “gifts, legacies and devises.”

This is the first comma Max added (after “legacies”). It’s the “Oxford comma,” also known as the serial comma. As the name suggests, it’s the comma in a series. Is it “red, white and blue” or “red, white, and blue”? We’re Americans, though some grumpy people now refer to us as Murican, to make a political point about how awful we are. I don’t think we’re so bad, and, in any case, we’re not Britons, so I prefer the term “serial comma.”

In Maine, a missing comma in state law recently cost Oakhurst Dairy $5 million. In 2014, drivers for the company sued, alleging they were owed overtime pay. The Portland Press Herald reported last month:

A Maine federal court initially ruled that the drivers weren’t entitled to overtime under a state law that says overtime is not required for employees engaged in “the canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of” a handful of products, including perishable products such as milk, cheese and other dairy goods.

The drivers appealed to the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, where a three-judge panel unanimously overturned the lower court’s ruling in a 29-page decision written by Judge David Barron that explored the use of the Oxford, or serial, comma:

The lower court judge had ruled that the law exempted the drivers from overtime because they were involved in the shipment and distribution of the products. But Barron said the lack of a comma between “shipment” and “or distribution of” meant both phrases referred back to “packing for”—as in “packing for shipment or packing for distribution.” Because the drivers deliver the products but don’t pack them, they weren’t covered by the Maine exemption to overtime pay.

Grammarians have long debated, sometimes with great passion, whether to use the serial comma, and people who learned punctuation years ago probably were taught to avoid using it, except on rare occasions for clarity. Some publications, such as the New York Times, still hew to this style. When I worked for the New York Times, I did not use the serial comma.

Most of the publications and book publishers for whom I’ve worked—running the gamut from Time to National Review to Parents to The Week to Commentary to the now-defunct (and probably for good reason) Vibe—now do use the serial comma. Book publishers today generally use it. Chicago Manual of Style is the basic style bible for most book publishers, and here is what its 17th edition, published in 2017, says about the serial comma:

When a conjunction joins the last two elements in a series of three or more, a comma—known as the serial or series comma or the Oxford comma—should appear before the conjunction. Chicago strongly recommends this widely practiced usage, blessed by Fowler and other authorities . . . since it prevents ambiguity. If the last element consists of a pair joined by and, the pair should still be preceded by a serial comma and the first and (as in the last two examples below).

  • She posted pictures of her parents, the president, and the vice president.
  • Before heading out the door, he took note of the typical outlines of sweet gum, ginkgo, and elm leaves.
  • I want no ifs, ands, or buts.
  • Paul put the kettle on, Don fetched the teapot, and I made tea.
  • Their wartime rations included cabbage, turnips, and bread and butter.
  • Ahmed was configuring updates, Jean was installing new hardware, and Alan was running errands and furnishing food.

By the way, the Fowler referred to above, Henry Watson Fowler, is an early-20th-century Oxford scholar who wrote the classic style guide A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, published in 1926. It’s been updated many times and is still a standard reference guide in publishing houses. Before he wrote this guide, he and his brother wrote The King’s English, in 1906. Probably the kind of Americans who relish the term “Muricans” would condemn this latter guide as the work of imperialists.

Back to Max! He added a second and third comma to set off a “which” clause:

“ . . . gifts, legacies, and devises, which shall be invested and accounted for separately from, . . .”

Clauses that begin with “which” should generally be set off by a comma on either side; these clauses give supplemental info. Clauses that begin with “that” generally should not be set off by commas. See the entry for the word “that” in Garner’s Modern English Usage, 4th Edition for a clear, elegant discussion of the distinction between “that” and “which” clauses. The great writer David Foster Wallace — author of Infinite Jest, “Consider the Lobster,” and many sparkling essays, including “Tense Present,” a superb essay on our current language-usage wars — considered Bryan Garner a genius when it comes to language usage. I tend to agree.

An interesting side note (or another one): Wallace introduced Bryan Garner to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. They bonded over their shared preference for the second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary, and their friendship nearly ended over a disagreement about the use of contractions. Wallace—whose sentences minutely map the meanderings of inner mental landscapes, including side routes, associations, and reversals—liked contractions. He found them lifelike. Scalia, who wrote Supreme Court opinions meant to stand the test of time, thought them beneath the dignity of the Court.

Back to Max! Here is the fourth comma Max added, to set off the appositive phrase “paragraph 1”:

“RSA 31:19-a, paragraph 1, and . . . ”

As originally written, this clause had the first comma but was missing the second.

Of the four commas added by the vote at Town Meeting, the three to properly set off parenthetical clauses were grammatically necessary. The serial comma was optional, but, following Chicago, I’d recommend it.

Serial commas get people very agitated; one petite older lady, whom I’ve never met, chewed me out and instructed me that they are simply wrong and that my grammar was subpar. “You’re wrong! You’re wrong!” she proclaimed, shaking her head in disgust and scowling furiously at me as she harrumphed away. I understand her fervor.

What are people arguing about when they argue about punctuation? That’s a topic for another day.

Town Meeting came to a raucous close, and a good time was had by (almost) all.


The library trustees met this morning at 8AM for a “work session.” I had not seen the meeting posted over the weekend so I did not go.

What did the trustees decide to do about the library article debacle, which surely was the topic of their meeting? I hope they will let us know soon. I will update this post with new information, if I get it.

If you know anything, please leave a comment.

Update from Mark Howard, in a comment below:

Max, I heard about the meeting but did not attend. According to an email I received from Christie Sarles…

The Trustees voted unanimously this morning to table the addition/renovation project for this Town Meeting.

Christie, for anyone who doesn’t know, is the librarian. Mark is the chairman of the Zoning Board of Adjustment, and involved in various other ways in town, such as the conservation commission and the Tuftonboro Association.

Update from Paul Matlock, library trustee:

Draft minutes from this morning’s library trustees meeting.

Special Meeting Not a Legal Option in Library Vote

The selectmen are saying they will call a special Town Meeting in April to “ratify” the vote on the library addition at Town Meeting. This would not be a legal option. The relevant language below is clear.

Please read the following statute:

31:5-b Legalization of Meetings. –
I. In the past, irregularities and procedural defects in actions of municipal legislative bodies have been cured by actions of the general court. The procedure in this section is an alternative approach which enables municipalities to effect legalization by local action.

II. Whenever the legislative body of a municipality has voted by the requisite majority, by written ballot or in any other manner legally authorized, to take any legal actions and the vote is subsequently discovered to be procedurally defective, such defects may be cured and legalized by a vote at a special meeting called for the purpose of ratifying the procedurally defective action. Procedurally defective actions shall mean minor procedural irregularities such as failure to comply with statutory requirements regarding time or place of notice, vote, hearing, or wording, or with any procedural act not contrary to the spirit or intent of the law. The ratification of the procedurally defective action shall be subject to the following requirements:
(a) The municipality may, on the authority of the governing body, call a special town meeting for the exclusive purpose of curing such defect.
(b) The special town meeting called for that purpose may not take place less than 21 calendar days after the original vote.
(c) Not less than 7 calendar days prior to the special town meeting, not counting the day of the special town meeting, the governing body shall conduct a public hearing at which the reasons for the special town meeting shall be explained.
(d) The municipality shall comply with all statutory notice and procedural requirements for holding special town meetings.
(e) The necessary majority required to cure the defects shall be the same as the majority as required for passage of the original article.

III. When any procedural defect has been cured under this section, actions of the voters shall be valid as if all statutorily required proceedings had been complied with.

Obviously, the “defect” in the library-addition article — the selectmen failed to hold a public hearing — has been discovered not subsequently but prior to the vote. So, that’s that. The selectmen cannot use 31:5-b to “ratify” the defective vote that they know now, before Town Meeting, to be defective.

But for the sake of argument, let’s pretend that the “defect” had been discovered after the vote. It is not a “minor procedural irregularity” to not have a public hearing. A minor procedural irregularity would be to post the notice 6 days before the hearing instead of 7, for instance.

Any way you look at it, the selectmen have failed the library crowd. The library-addition article, with the roughly $1 million loan, is not happening this year, because of the selectmen’s failure to hold a public hearing on the loan.

I would hope that the library crowd remembers this significant mistake when voting on Tuesday for the position of selectman.

Skip Hurt, who was going to vote for the library addition, has said that he will be voting for Bob McWhirter even though Skip and Bob disagree about the library addition. Skip wrote on the Tuftonboro Free Speech Forum, “I’m not afraid to have someone with an opposing view from mine if they are competent. In fact I think the town will be better off.”

The Logic of a Special Meeting

Let’s play out the logic of what the Selectmen appear to be recommending at this point.

  1. Let’s say that 600 people attend Town Meeting, and 2/3 of them vote yes on the proposed million-dollar loan for the library addition. The vote passes.
  2. The Selectmen post and then hold a public hearing on the proposed million-dollar loan for the library.
  3. On April 14, the Selectmen hold a second, “special” Town Meeting, at which they ask voters to “ratify” the yes vote recorded on March 14. 300 voters show up this time. 199 vote to ratify, and 101 of them vote not to ratify. The ratification requires 2/3 approval, so it fails because it falls 1 vote short. The 101 people who voted “no” have now overturned the will of the 400 voters on March 14 who voted yes.

What’s key here is that, in having the special Town Meeting, the Selectmen are asking voters merely to “ratify” the earlier vote, because NH law (RSA 31:5) states that money articles cannot be voted on at special meetings unless at least half the registered voters cast ballots at that special Town Meeting.

What is legally dubious is the Selectmen’s contention that the library vote on March 14 would, in fact, be an appropriations vote, and that the later vote in April would merely be ratification. But the town cannot legally hold an appropriations vote for an amount in excess of $100,000 unless the town has held a prior public hearing on the matter.

It appears that the Selectmen have not yet received legal advice from the state — the New Hampshire Municipal Association is not a state body. I believe they are getting legal advice Monday, and I hope they will share that, as far as possible, with Tuftonboro residents.

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‘Mistakes Are Made’

I’m about ready to propose a new law urging all elected officials to dispense with the phrases “mistakes are made” and “mistakes were made.”

At the 2PM meeting Friday at the Town Office, to discuss the current mess over the library-loan proposal, Carla Lootens said, “Mistakes are made.” This is not the first time Carla has used the passive voice when discussing mistakes that town officials have made. The question is: WHO made the mistake? If I may put on my grammar-nerd hat for a minute: The passive construction is a “tell” signifying that the speaker prefers to obfuscate who did what. Didn’t many of us learn in English class to generally steer clear of the passive voice, precisely because it’s often vague and confusing? (I still enjoy my Strunk and White style guide.)

For me, the problem is not that people make mistakes. Carla is right: Of course we all do. It’s a given. What matters is how we own up to them, apologize, course-correct, and move on. The first step is saying, “Man, I messed up. Darn. Sorry! Let me try to make amends.” Maybe you could even say, “Wow, thanks for catching what we overlooked. You’ve probably spared us some headache later.”

Forgetting to have a public hearing to discuss the proposed million-dollar loan, as the law requires, is not a minor glitch; that loan for the library is by far the biggest issue to come under discussion at Town Meeting this year. The library renovation (or replacement) has been a contentious issue for more than a decade, generating diverse and heated opinions. I believe that the Selectmen simply forgot to schedule and post a hearing, and that their error was not malicious or intentional.

But I’m troubled that they seem to be spinning it as no big deal — fixed in just a few easy-peasy steps. Even yesterday, Lloyd said, “We followed the RSA’s.” NO: The Selectmen did NOT follow the RSA’s. The law requires a public bond hearing, held in the presence of the governing board (i.e., the Selectmen), before the Town Meeting votes on the proposed million-dollar bond.

I get the sense that a number of people at the Friday-afternoon meeting, as well as a number of concerned Tuftonboro residents, are not quite processing this. The prior hearing is not optional. Chip said that he’d been thinking that it made more sense to have a the public hearing after the vote, when the Selectmen  could provide more details about interest rates, which bank the town will use, etc. Carla agreed that this made perfect sense. But it doesn’t matter that Chip and Carla think this makes perfect sense: It does not comply with the law. Which is why, Wolfeboro for instance, on January 4 of this year, had a properly noticed public hearing on its library article.

p.s. I’d never actually support any law that banned the phrase “mistakes were made,” because I highly value free speech. People are free to talk like buck-passing bureaucrats if they wish to do so.

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Library-Addition Would Require Almost 1,000 Yea Votes at Special Meeting

We’re in a pickle here in town because the Selectmen failed to hold a statutorily required public hearing on the $1 million bond/note (i.e., loan) that is needed for the library renovation project.

If, on March 14 at Town Meeting, the Selectmen and Town Moderator hold a vote on the library-addition article, that vote will have no legal bearing. It cannot, because there has been no prior public hearing. Without a prior, public hearing on the bond — WHICH IS REQUIRED  BY LAW — the vote on the bond is not actionable.

The selectmen want to hold the public hearing on the loan after Town Meeting, even though the law requires the hearing to be held “at least 15 days, but not more than 60 days prior” to Town Meeting. Then they want to convene a special Town Meeting in April to vote — for real this time — on the library-addition article.

What the Selectmen didn’t say during this afternoon’s meeting is that a special, second Town Meeting cannot appropriate (i.e., decide to spend) any money unless the total number of ballots cast at the special Town Meeting is at least 1/2 the number of registered voters at the most recent, previous annual election. Perhaps the selectmen didn’t mention this because they don’t know about it.

Here is the relevant statute (emphasis added):

RSA 31:5 At Special Meetings. –
I. (a) No money shall be raised or appropriated or shall any appropriation previously made be reduced or rescinded at any special town meeting except by vote by ballot, nor unless the ballots cast at such meeting shall be equal in number to at least 1/2 of the number of legal voters borne on the checklist of the town entitled to vote at the annual or biennial election next preceding such special meeting; and such checklist, corrected according to law, shall be used at any meeting upon the request of 10 legal voters of the town. This section shall not apply to money to be raised for the public defense or any military purpose in time of war.

The phrase, “election next preceding such special meeting” is a little confusing at first. Does it mean “the next” election or the “preceding” election? What it means is the most recent — the closest — election that preceded the special election.

There were 1,973 registered voters at last year’s town election, according to the supervisors of the checklist.  For the sake of argument, let us say that the same number of voters are on the checklist (i.e., voter roll) this year.

In order to pass the library-addition article at a special Town Meeting, at least 987 ballots would have to be cast.

Note that the requirement is 1/2 ballots cast, not voters in attendance.

I can tell you right now that I would attend such a special Town Meeting, but I would not cast a ballot, and I would implore anyone else in attendance who opposed the the library addition to also not cast a ballot.

So, practically speaking, if all of the Nay voters withheld their ballots, then 987 votes would have to be cast in favor in order for the article to pass.

It’s quite obvious why a special Town Meeting cannot legally raise or appropriate amounts of money  (or reduce or rescind already appropriated money) unless the total ballots cast are at least equal to 1/2 the number of registered voters.

Absent that requirement, a very small number of voters could show up at the special Town Meeting and completely subvert the will of the regular Town Meeting. For instance, if 3o people showed up; it would take only 21 of them to reverse what 350 voters had decided the month before at the regular Town Meeting.

At the regular Town Meeting in 2015, the last time there was a warrant article for a new, $2.3 million library, there were 536 total ballots cast on the library article.¹

It is not realistic to believe that nearly a thousand ballots — almost twice as many as in 2015 — would be cast at a special Town Meeting.


  1. For that warrant article, there was a public bond/note hearing prior to Town Meeting, as required by law, on February 9, 2015.

Selectmen, Moderator Double Down: CHAOS Continues

At a packed emergency meeting with the Town Moderator, Dan Barnard, the Selectmen (Lloyd Wood, Bill Marcussen, and Chip Albee) declared their intention to plow forward on the library-addition warrant article even though they failed to hold a statutorily required public hearing on the library bond before Town Meeting. Because they failed to hold this hearing, the vote on the library-warrant article will have no legal effect and will not empower the selectmen to take out the roughly $1 million loan that will be required to complete the project.

If the library-addition article receives a vote of more than 2/3 of those present at Town Meeting, the Selectmen intend to call a second, so-called “special” Town Meeting in April to “ratify” the vote taken at the first Town Meeting. At the second Town Meeting,  the voters could vote to “ratify,” or they could vote “no” and decline to ratify.

In the interim, the selectmen will hold a public hearing on the the issue of the roughly $1 million loan  — this is the hearing that, by law, they should have held at least 15 days before the March 14th Town Meeting.