While mulling the perennial comma controversy, I came across a curious and relevant bit of data that I had overlooked.
Here is the current language of the actual New Hampshire State law, as written:
TOWNS, CITIES, VILLAGE DISTRICTS, AND UNINCORPORATED PLACES
POWERS AND DUTIES OF TOWNS
IV. The local legislative body may authorize the acceptance of privately donated gifts, legacies, and devises to be utilized for the same purposes as a trust fund created under this section; provided, however, that such gifts, legacies, or devises shall be invested and accounted for separately from, and not commingled with, amounts appropriated under paragraph I, and shall be subject to the custody and investment provisions applicable to trust funds accepted under RSA 31:19.
New Hampshire lawmakers, like Max, favor the serial comma and also correctly set off clauses with a comma on either side.
Here is the warrant article that Tuftonboro Town Meeting passed last week, which includes the four commas added by Max (one of which was a serial comma) and approved by a narrow majority of the voters:
Shall the Town vote to authorize until rescinded the acceptance of privately donated gifts, legacies, and devises, which shall be invested and accounted for separately from, and not commingled with, amounts appropriated for expendable trust funds created under RSA 31:19-a, paragraph 1, and shall be subject to the custody and investment provisions applicable to trust funds accepted under RSA 31:19.
The article as originally written on the town warrant did not match the state law on which it is based.
One thing on which we may agree: Legal language is not lovely, with or without commas. If you have read this far, perhaps you deserve some reward and also my thanks. So here is a snow-themed poem, from New England’s most famous poet, for those of us who love New England winters:
Dust of Snow
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.
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.
Board of Selectmen
- ✅ Lloyd Wood: 295
- Robert “Bob” McWhirter: 248
- ✅ Thomas J. Young: 289
- ✅ Helen Hartshorn: 278
- Chris Sawyer: 233
- Barry Ennis: 196
- ✅ Daniel F. Barnard: 498
Trustee of the Trust Funds
- ✅ Dave M. Braun: 466
- Write-in Votes: 4
- ✅ Susan H. Weeks: 412
- Write-in Votes: 17
- ✅ Gordon Hunt: 461
- Skip Hurt (Write-In): 28
- Total Write-ins: 41
- Fictitious Characters: 2
- Undervotes: 59
Supervisor of the Checklist
- ✅ William “Bill” Rollins: 495
- Write-in Votes: 8
- Undervotes: 60
- ✅Yes: 410
- No: 133
These numbers are accurate to the best of my knowledge.
Update 8:07 PM: The total number of zoning ordinance ballots is 562, while the number of town officer ballots is 563. The difference is due to an absentee voter who returned only the town officer ballot.
Update 7:10 PM: With the polls closed, the preliminary count is 563 ballots (including 71 absentee ballots and excluding two spoiled ballots).
Election volunteers divide ballots into piles of 50. Then the ballots are checked and if any discrepancies are discovered, the pile is rechecked.
A spoiled ballot is defined in statute:
659:22 Spoiled Ballots. – If any voter spoils a ballot, he may receive others, one at a time, not exceeding 3 in all, upon returning each spoiled one. The ballots thus returned shall be immediately marked “cancelled” by the moderator over his signature and, at the close of the polls, shall be preserved as provided in RSA 659:95.
Source. 1979, 436:1, eff. July 1, 1979.
Tuftonboro residents have been arriving at the Town House all day to vote in the town election. Only two of the races are contested, the selectman’s seat –between incumbent Lloyd Wood and challenger Bob McWhirter — and two budget committee positions — a four-way contest between incumbent Helen Hartshorn, Barry Ennis, Chris Sawyer, and Tom Young.
At 2PM this afternoon about 450 ballots had been cast in person, according to Heather Cubeddu, the town clerk. In addition, 70 absentee ballots had been received by yesterday’s 5PM deadline. That means the turnout this year is already larger than it was last year.
Last year 373 total votes were cast in the selectman’s race, which was held during what was called winter storm stella. Many residents in town lost electric power and some roads, such as Sodom Road, were closed due to downed trees and power lines.
Gordon Hunt, library trustees’ chairman, informed the selectmen this morning that the trustees had met yesterday and voted unanimously that the library-addition warrant article should be tabled at Town Meeting.
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:
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.”