Facebook, grammar, and sisterly love

Back in 2010, I wrote a blog post about how although my sister and I took very different career paths, we’ve ended up with similar kinds of job. I am sad to have to report that since then, we have discovered a gaping chasm between us that threatens to destroy this new-found unity…


and then:


Naturally, every birthday and Christmas card I send her for the rest of our lives will be signed “love, hugs, and kisses”, just to piss her off…

About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
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30 Responses to Facebook, grammar, and sisterly love

  1. Chall says:

    Oh you 🙂

    (I’ve smiled through the whole post and ended in a laugh. It’s so sweet! Esp since I’m not having sibling drama over it 😀 )

    • Oh, this isn’t drama – it’s a fun argument! We had lots of non-fun ones when we were kids (she’s two years younger than me but could always hit harder), so I know the difference!

  2. Crystal Voodoo says:

    I desperately needed that laugh tonight.

    You should tell your sister that science writing can’t function without the Oxford comma because there are too many “lists within lists” scenarios that could easily change the sentence’s intent or make it unintelligible. However unending strings of nested prepositional phrases should be beaten like the ugly step-children that they are IMHO.

    • thanks for the tip – see the fresh comment I just sent her (pasted in below) 🙂

      Clearly, ugly dense scientific writing has warped my mind so much that it is now affecting familial relationships. I wonder if I can get some kind of worker’s compensation for that?

      • Crystal Voodoo says:

        We certainly deserve some worker’s comp.

        I just had to explain to a PI that he shouldn’t use the sentence (*censored for content) “X interacts in a *chemistry term* manner with the C beta of Leu *#* of the *cancer-related activity* domain of isoform *roman numeral* of *BFD overblown-ase* of *insert species here* similar to the interaction of the C delta of Ile *different #* of the *similar but slightly different cancer-related activity* of isoform *another Roman numeral* in *Buzzword-laden glamormag-ase* in humans.”

        To quote the lady from Reasoning with Vampires “Sentences are not minivans.”

  3. Beth says:

    If she continues to refuse to accept the Oxford comma, you can be my sister instead!

  4. rpg says:

    Heh, very funny.

    I hate indiscriminate use of the Oxford comma (it seems to be beloved by Americans, for some reason)—it’s generally unnecessary.

    Except when it isn’t.

    Can’t the two of you just realize that you’re both right?

    • But do you loathe, revile, and despise it, too?

      Yes, it was interesting to look into the history – given the name, I’d always assumed that the Oxford comma is a British preference, but apparently Oxford’s is the only British style guide that includes it as standard – it’s more of an American thing.

  5. Grant says:

    Have to admit I’m with rpg. Sorry, sorry. I avoid Oxford commas myself.

    In the end neither one really matters, I guess. One thing you do want is to be consistent with whatever house style you adopt.

    (One thing I am confusing myself no end with is different quoting styles and how the different styles cope with nested quotations. Hmm. Let’s hope that doesn’t start another round…)

    • The consistency thing really resonated, Grant, although probably not in the way you intended – see the comment below that I just sent back to my sister!

      I can actually never remember which way around the British/US divide on quoting styles goes, so when writing for work I just use whatever’s on the funding agency’s or journal’s website, and when writing for fun I use what my favourite high school English teacher taught me. Now, you’d think she would have taught me the British way, but apparently the way kids my age were taught is actually either American in origin or is an updated and somewhat different British version of what my parents were taught… I think this is why I’m confused, because I’ve heard both versions from irate older people who’ve seen my work 😀

  6. Thanks, everyone – your comments have been so useful that they led me to leave the following comment on the second Facebook post just now:

    “OK [sister’s name, tagged so she’ll see it], I have had an “AHA!” moment!

    There are times, as you say, when the Oxford Comma is necessary for clarity. I suspect this is true more often in scientific writing than in other types of text – especially in grant proposals, which have strict length limits and are therefore very densely written. The “lists within a list” structure is particularly common. Due to deadlines and professorly procrastination, I also usually get handed such documents a few hours before the grant submission deadline, and don’t have enough time to find a way to elegantly rewrite to avoid a grammatical controversy, at least not while staying within the page limit. We do therefore both *need* to use the Oxford comma sometimes, but I think I probably need it more often than you do.

    Now, one thing I was always taught about writing is “be consistent”. If there are alternative spellings of a word, or alternative uses of punctuation, such that both versions are acceptable, “pick one and be consistent” is something I’ve had drummed into me since school. My undergraduate profs, PhD supervisor, postdoc supervisor, and bosses at [industry job] were all also extremely adamant on this point. Proper editors such as yourself may have been taught that consistency is not as important as I think it is – but for me, inconsistency is anathema (there may be some inconsistencies in this comment, due to commenting at 7am and before caffeine. I’d find them if I printed this out and proofed it though so leave me alone 🙂 )

    SO: I use the Oxford comma all the time, because for me, using it only when necessary for clarity creates inconsistency within a single document, which drives me bonkers. You use it only when necessary for clarity, because for you, seeing unnecessary commas drives you bonkers and you’re not bothered about the inconsistency.

    Does that sound about right?”

    I will report back!

    Oh, and don’t feel too bad that I recruited my readers to help me in this argument… she’s already tried to talk our parents around to her side!

  7. Oxford comma FTW. I was taught in school *not* to use it, as in:

    The meal consisted of apples, pears and spam.

    Whereas I prefer to use it. It just reads better to me, thinking about the spoken word. I didn’t eat a meal that consisted of two courses (apples, and some combined dish of pears and spam) and that’s not how I would say this out loud. Apples [pause] pears [pause] and spam. To my mind, each [pause] rates a comma.

    I realize this is a near-religious argument, however, and I place it firmly in the same category as meaningless pissing contents about Canon vs. Nikon, Mac vs. Windows, and Kirk vs. Picard. Only worth arguing about if you don’t have anything better to do… which, to bring this full circle, is pretty much what Facebook is for, isn’t it?

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      that would be a strange meal however you divide it, but it is definitely a nice example of why we need the Oxford comma! You need it even if you’re ordering spam, spam, baked beans, spam, spam, spam, sausage, spam, spam, and spam.

      (I used to work on a gene called SPAM1 – sperm adhesion molecule 1 – and put that joke in a presentation. Only about a quarter of the audience got it, but their giggles drowned out what I was saying about the next slide)

      p.s. Mac, and Picard. No opinion on the cameras.

      • Pike. Linux (not really). And Voigtländer, or maybe Contax.

        Did anyone mention the circumstance in which the Oxford comma is absolutely necessary? Lists where each item is more than one thing, viz:

        We invited Henry and his colon, rpg and Jenny, Cath and Mr. E Man, and an elephant.

        Without that Oxford comma, you and your hubby are bringing your elephant. With it, you’re off the hook.

  8. cromercrox says:

    The Oxford comma? Pshaw. You haven’t met the Cromer colon.

  9. Crystal Voodoo says:

    If she is this adamant about the Oxford comma I wonder how she feels about the trend in modern writing to disregard comma splices.

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