Comma Controversy Continued

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:

TITLE III
TOWNS, CITIES, VILLAGE DISTRICTS, AND UNINCORPORATED PLACES
CHAPTER 31


 POWERS AND DUTIES OF TOWNS
Trust Funds
Section 31:19-a

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Shall the Town vote to authorize until rescinded the acceptance of privately donated gifts, legacies, and devises, which shall be invested and accounted for separately from, and not commingled with, amounts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.

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 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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Impossible to Cut Spending?

Helen Hartshorn is running for reelection to the Budget Committee. At last week’s Candidates’ Night, she said:

A couple of years ago, we did talk on the Budget Committee . . . about keeping the spending flat, and it just didn’t work, because with inflation, with salary increases… Then there was also the salary consultation that was done. It just didn’t work to keep these things flat. And I just don’t think that’s a realistic approach to it.

Tyler Philips, a former member of the budget committee, asked: “Are you committed to controlling those costs that are controllable?” Many costs are not within the control of the town, given that “we get more and more costs pushed at us from Concord,” he noted. “But would you be agreeable to keeping a cap on controllable costs?”

I added to his question, by asking: “What are the controllable costs?”

Helen replied: “That’s just too broad a question.”

I tried again: “Can you name an area in which we do have controllable costs where you would be willing to make them level?”

Helen: “I will work to keep things as reasonable as possible, and that’s about all I can pledge you.”

I emailed Helen today to ask her again, “What are the controllable costs, the areas where the town can keep spending level or even reduce spending?”

If she replies and gives me permission to post her words, I will share them with you.