Susan Rice, Comma Queen

President Biden's domestic policy chief is a stickler for grammar.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki looks on as Domestic Policy Advisor Susan Rice delivers remarks during a briefing Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2021, in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Chandler West)
Official White House Photo by Chandler West

I found this, from POLITICO‘s West Wing Playbook (“Susan Rice needs those TPS reports“) mildly amusing:

When people applied to join SUSAN RICE‘s staff at the White House Domestic Policy Council (DPC) this year, some were surprised at a particular request: a writing sample.

Those who got the job soon discovered why. Inside a West Wing already stuffed with briefing papers, Rice stands out for requesting, devouring, and deploying an incredible number of memos, White House officials say.

Briefing memos, information memos, decision memos — she prints most of them out and sticks them in a hefty binder to review. Aides have to prepare extra for Mondays because they know Rice will have spent her weekend reading through the binder and will have follow-up questions.

When other parts of the administration want her to participate in an event, Rice’s team often requests a memo before she says “yes.” If she does agree to take part, she usually asks for another memo to prepare for the event, according to two White House officials.

Aides have had to step-up their writing game as wordiness, along with improper grammar and punctuation, are quickly spotted and marked up. Rice, a veteran foreign policy wonk who’s taken on an entirely new policy portfolio in the Biden White House, is adamant that nothing sloppy should ever end up on the president’s desk.

“A stickler for proper grammar and punctuation, I have a particular pet peeve about proper comma usage,” she wrote in her memoir “Tough Love.” At one point, her chief of staff at the United Nations had to stop Rice from giving an all-staff seminar on the comma, as Rice self-deprecatingly recalled in her book. A White House aide also noted she’s a firm defender of the Oxford comma.

While I suppose this could get old and pedantic, I admire the work ethic and absolutely agree with her that the President should never be subjected to sloppy staff product. I suppose it’s only fitting that a Rhodes Scholar with a PhD from New College should be a stickler for the Oxford comma.

I was rather skeptical when Rice, a career national security professional, was chosen to head Biden’s domestic policy portfolio. It’s not fully clear from the outside how well she’s doing in the post, although navigating the current toxic political and information climate with razor-thin majorities in Congress has to be graded on a curve.

FILED UNDER: US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Kylopod says:

    I remember a Trump tweetstorm last year that I’m firmly convinced was ghostwritten by someone else–despite having his trademark random capitalization–and one of the big tells was its repeated use of the Oxford comma (as well as an overall formal style), something Trump almost never does. Here it was:

    “I want to thank Emily Murphy at GSA for her steadfast dedication and loyalty to our Country. She has been harassed, threatened, and abused — and I do not want to see this happen to her, her family, or employees of GSA. Our case STRONGLY continues, we will keep up the good fight, and I believe we will prevail! Nevertheless, in the best interest of our Country, I am recommending that Emily and her team do what needs to be done with regard to initial protocols, and have told my team to do the same.”

    Just as a reminder, Emily Murphy was furthering the presidential transition–and thus implicitly acknowledging Biden’s victory–in late Nov. 2020. Despite the above tweetstorm allegedly written by Trump, he was clearly not happy about what Murphy was doing.

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  2. CSK says:

    Three cheers for Susan Rice’s insistence on using the Oxford comma.

    My favorite book dedication: “I’d like to thank my parents, George Bush and God.”

    That’s some lineage.

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  3. Michael Cain says:

    When I worked on my state legislature’s budget staff, and all of us had to write hundreds of pages of briefing material each session, we were trained to use not just the Oxford comma, but also semicolons as list item delimiters in order to avoid confusion.

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  4. MarkedMan says:

    @Michael Cain:

    we were trained to use not just the Oxford comma, but also semicolons as list item delimiters in order to avoid confusion

    I simply cannot understand why there is any debate about this. I’ve seen the lack of both Oxford commas and the semi-colon lead to confusion, and I’ve seen the lack of that comma lead to a mis-ordering of a time critical part. On the one hand, the elimination of confusion. On the other hand, what, prettiness?

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  5. James Joyner says:

    @Michael Cain: @MarkedMan: What’s really odd is that a lot of major spell-checking programs will actually flag the Oxford comma for deletion.

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  6. Kylopod says:

    @MarkedMan: I’ve noticed that British writing uses the comma in general (not just the Oxford comma) a lot less than in American writing, and there have been times when I have found a British passage confusing for this reason. For example, I’ve seen professional, even scholarly, British writing omit a comma from a restrictive clause, thus failing to distinguish between, say, “I hate plumbers who charge exorbitant fees” and “I hate plumbers, who charge exorbitant fees.”

    Of course all this is a matter of convention, not intrinsic right or wrong, but there are some conventions I find more useful than others.

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  7. Andy says:

    I am on team Oxford Comma. Also, I’m a big fan of written material in the way Rice uses it. She is a brilliant person with a sharp kind. It’s too bad that she’s a warmongering hawk, but thankfully she’s working in domestic policy instead.

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  8. Jen says:

    I am a firm devotee of the Oxford comma, but AP Style book (which is the “bible” for PR types) says it should only be used if confusion exists.

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  9. Jen says:

    @James Joyner: Ugh, don’t even get me started on spell-checking programs.

    Word fairly frequently recommends using the incorrect form of “it’s/its”–makes me absolutely nuts.

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  10. Michael Cain says:

    @Jen:

    says it should only be used if confusion exists.

    If you got a bunch of us staffers together and some alcohol into us, we would probably have agreed on something like, “It’s members of the General Assembly. Best to assume at least one of them is always confused.”

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  11. Mu Yixiao says:

    Team OC all the way!

    Now… if we could just defeat the Grocers’ Apostrophe!

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  12. MarkedMan says:

    @Jen: My spelling has always been terrible, both in the “I don’t know how that word is spelled” way and in the “randomly use their when I mean there” way. And it’s been getting worse, despite my best efforts. Or has it? I noticed recently that iOS changed my correct “were” to an incorrect “we’re”, but not right away. It was only after I had completed the sentence. An abomination! How long has this been going on!

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  13. gVOR08 says:

    @CSK:

    My favorite book dedication: “I’d like to thank my parents, George Bush and God.”

    Whuh?! Was the writer implying God is female? Or that George Bush is (was? Which George Bush?) gay?

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  14. CSK says:

    @gVOR08:
    Beats me. But the Oakhurst Dairy in Maine lost a $10 million lawsuit because of a missing Oxford comma.

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  15. Michael Reynolds says:

    I make up my own punctuation rules along somewhat different lines. I punctuate they way I want the reader to ‘hear’ it, because I want people to ‘read out loud in their heads.’ So I try to punctuate for the rhythms of natural speech rather than concerning myself with silly rules – that I generally don’t know, anyway. That em-dash could have been a comma or nothing, but with an em-dash I’ll signal that I want you to take a beat and sense that a punch line is coming. Punctuation for comic effect.

    Also, you may notice that punctuation for comic effect is not actually a sentence. Noun, preposition, modifier, noun. Oops, no verb! Doesn’t matter. Could have used an em-dash after ‘coming’ but you don’t want to repeat the same moves in too close proximity.

    If I want you to be rushing along out of breath I might add lots of short words and minimize punctuation making a long run-on sentence that if you are reading aloud in your head will cause you to feel rushed like where the fuck is the period I need to breathe. If I want you frustrated, trying to push ahead, trying to get to the point, and feeling, perhaps, impeded, I’ll toss in a comma or two as stumbling blocks.

    If it’s important that the reader pay close attention to detail I might shorten paragraphs.

    Sometimes not even an actual sentence. (Fuck! Again no verb!) BTW, parentheses? Fun for seeming to break the fourth wall and creating a sense of intimacy.

    Roughly 30,000 published pages and I still had to look up what part of speech the word ‘for’ is. Turns out it’s a preposition.

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  16. CSK says:

    @Jen:
    When I taught freshman comp, I wanted to get a stamp that read ‘”it’s” means “it is.”‘

    @Mu Yixiao:
    You mean like those signs imploring me to buy some “apple’s”?

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  17. Mu Yixiao says:

    @CSK:

    You mean like those signs imploring me to buy some “apple’s”?

    Yep!

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  18. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @CSK: I can’t even remember the last time I saw a hand-lettered sign in a grocery store. I assume it’s because butcher paper is coated on the back side now and too expensive to waste making signs.-

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  19. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: Or maybe, because stores don’t have broad tip Sharpies in the back room anymore.

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  20. Stormy Dragon says:

    One thing that needs to be remembered is that most punctuation originally developed when literacy was low and written materials were rare, so most information would end up being read allowed to other people. The punctuation were intended as guides to someone reading allowed on where to pause and how long to pause.

    As literacy and printing spread, the usage became standardized more about designating the grammatical structure of a sentence. What seems to be happening today is that as media is increasingly becoming based on audio and video, and what written media still exists tends to be less long form, is that we’re seeing a return to a more “performative” use of the comma rather than a “structural” use of it.

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  21. CSK says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:
    Best sign I ever saw was one in the window of a greengrocer’s in Edinburgh that advertised “Cocking apples.”

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  22. Mu Yixiao says:

    @CSK:

    The best I’ve seen was in China. “Dried” (as in “dried apples”) is 干 (gān) . The same character with the descending tone (gàn) means “vulgar form of ‘to have sex with'”. So in the middle of Wal-Mart there would be giant signs saying “FUCK APPLES”.

    😀

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  23. CSK says:

    @Mu Yixiao:
    That could be taken as an imperative. 😀

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  24. grumpy realist says:

    Oxford comma all the way. There’s also the “I saw a dead squirrel walking up the road” problem, where the modifying clause is attached to the wrong noun. Dunno what grammarians call it–it’s not a dangling participle problem. I run into this All The Time Now with patent claims.

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  25. Kylopod says:

    @grumpy realist: One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I’ll never know.

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  26. Mu Yixiao says:

    @grumpy realist:

    There’s also the “I saw a dead squirrel walking up the road” problem,

    No kidding… regular squirrels are bad enough, let alone zombie squirrels!

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  27. grumpy realist says:

    @Kylopod: @Mu Yixiao: I do feel somewhat sympathetic to patent claim writers, since each claim must be only one sentence. Hence the long lists of different elements, separated by semi-colons. Just make sure that there are no modifying clauses with a dead squirrel problem….

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  28. CSK says:

    The late Arthur Miller–the playwright, not the lawyer–once committed a fearful literary faux pas by writing: “Eating a sandwich, the sun rose.”

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  29. Kylopod says:

    @CSK: Shakespeare committed one of the prime literary faux pas, the mixed metaphor, in one of his most-quoted lines ever: “to take arms against a sea of troubles.”

    For some weird reason, almost nobody seems to notice this, or they explain it away by saying it reveals Hamlet’s addled mindset.

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  30. JohnMcC says:

    Obviously Ms Rice does not hire anyone who eats, shoots and runs.

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  31. CSK says:

    @Kylopod:
    Solid/sullied.

    I go with “solid.”

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  32. @MarkedMan:

    I think there’s actually an argument against the case of the Oxford comma in the case of print newspapers beyond prettiness: column space. I don’t agree with the argument but it’s a reasonable argument. It’s unreasonable for online.

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  33. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Kylopod:
    Or maybe ‘mixed metaphor’ is an unimportant concern, so long as the reader understands what is meant. Grammar and punctuation are tools meant to aid communication, they’re the tail, not the dog. Sorry, I meant to say that they’re the baster not the turkey. Thanksgiving! I’m making pies.

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  34. Kathy says:

    There’s an anecdote that Oscar Wilde kept on working while on vacation. When he came down for lunch, some guests asked him how his morning was.

    “Very productive,” he replied. “I inserted a comma.”

    Later at dinner he’s asked, “How did your afternoon go, Mr. Wilde? Did you insert another comma?”

    “No. I removed the one I’d inserted in the morning.”

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  35. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Kylopod:

    Shakespeare committed one of the prime literary faux pas, the mixed metaphor, in one of his most-quoted lines ever: “to take arms against a sea of troubles.”

    Are you sure about that? We often use ocean-like metaphors to describe other things–such as “wave after wave of soldiers” (against which you can take up arms). Or an entertainer may look out on an ocean of smiling faces.

    To me, the Shakespeare line has always come across as having to prepare to “do battle” with the “weapons” he has at hand (wit, perseverance, courage) against a great number of troubles which which crash upon him like waves of the ocean. And… like trying to battle the ocean, it’s essentially a fruitless, never-ending task.

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  36. Kylopod says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Or maybe ‘mixed metaphor’ is an unimportant concern

    But how many are ready to admit that? The only reason Shakespeare gets a pass on this is that he’s Shakespeare, and I suspect you know it.

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  37. Sleeping Dog says:

    @grumpy realist: @Kylopod: @Mu Yixiao:

    Just goes the prove Grammar: The difference between knowing your sh!t and knowing you’re sh!t.

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  38. wr says:

    @Mu Yixiao: “The best I’ve seen was in China. “Dried” (as in “dried apples”) is 干 (gān) . The same character with the descending tone (gàn) means “vulgar form of ‘to have sex with’”.”

    The two things I learned about Mandarin during my abortive attempt to learn a little of it were that 1) one of the four tones for any character will always be an obscenity and 2) whatever I try to say, it will come out as that one.

    Oh, and a third — Mandarin for Venti Latte is Venti Latte. Now that was useful in Beijing!

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  39. wr says:

    @Kylopod: “For some weird reason, almost nobody seems to notice this, or they explain it away by saying it reveals Hamlet’s addled mindset.”

    I’m not so sure of that. They may well be admiring the phrase, understanding that its poetic force outweighs the mismatch of its literal meaning.

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  40. Mu Yixiao says:

    @wr:

    One word for you: Alpaca (cao ni ma)

    “grass-mud horse” or… “F your mother”

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  41. wr says:

    @Kylopod: “The only reason Shakespeare gets a pass on this is that he’s Shakespeare, and I suspect you know it.”

    Well, yeah. When you’re that good, you get away with shit no one else can. That’s just how art works.

    I always tell my students — not one of whom has yet turned out to be Shakespeare, although many are working in the biz — that you learn the rules so you know what people expect and you know what it’s going to cost you if you break them. Then you weigh that against what you hope to gain by breaking them and choose your adventure…

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  42. Mu Yixiao says:

    @wr:

    Finding Forrester: Breaking the “rules”.

    https://youtu.be/FxX0Gu8ZNws

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  43. dazedandconfused says:

    @JohnMcC:

    Obviously Ms Rice does not hire anyone who eats, shoots and runs.

    True. Ernest Hemmingway would’ve been banned from building.

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  44. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @grumpy realist: I used to just call it unclear and ask the student to add “no, seriously, there really was a dead squirrel walking up the road.”And the topic really calls for one of my all time favorite songs (with a banjo for Jax).

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  45. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Kathy:

    “Very productive,” he replied. “I inserted a comma.”

    That’s my wife when we aren’t writing together on something. I’d have something snarky to say about it, but she’s hitting the NYT list regularly, and it’s not wise to tease one who is financing your semi-retirement.

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  46. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    “so most information would end up being read allowed to other people.”

    Does anyone know the penalty for reading unallowed to other people back then?

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  47. grumpy realist says:

    ….just ran into another dead squirrel clause in the specification I was reading. Le sigh.

    (I still haven’t figured out how much of this sort of stuff is due to laziness/lack of knowledge of English on the part of applicants and how much is a deliberate strategy to include ambiguity in an attempt to grab as much patent landscape as they can. There’s a reason why one of our boilerplate paragraphs is “take this away and rewrite it in proper English.”)

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  48. Kathy says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    All true. However, if she can laugh at her own peculiarities, you can tell her the Wilde anecdote. She may like it.

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  49. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kylopod: I’m with Mu on this one. I’m not seeing any disconnect to understanding what the writer means. And at least in functional grammar, that’s the dividing line. Grammar faults are what they are because they disconnect the speaker and listener.

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  50. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Mu Yixiao: Yeah. The “rule” about not starting a sentence with a conjunction was created by some middle school language arts teacher who was trying to get her students to stop putting a period every time they took a breath while they were writing what they say. He* probably was teaching his students sentence combining skills.

    *Not a typo. At one point, we were trying alternating gender by sentence or paragraph to avoid the whole “s/he” “his or her” procedures that were part of avoiding the use of “singular they.” (My example shows why the alternating gender tactic didn’t work out well. I still used it in my Master’s thesis in one part though because it was the most approved convention at that moment.)

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  51. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: (And if I’d read my comment more closely before hitting “post comment,” I’d have probably changed “took a breath” to “took breaths” for better subject-verb agreement. 😐 )

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  52. Jax says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: Did I ever tell you guys about The Dreadful Winter of 2017, when an entire family of skunks dug under my house and took up residence? It didn’t seem too terribly bad….until it became mating season in February. I can tell you with some authority that skunk mating habits sound VERY violent, particularly when you’re sound asleep at 2 AM and hear the squealing under the floor…..AND THERE IS NOTHING YOU CAN DO. You are trapped, just waiting for the smell to invade your entire house and the pores of your skin.

    My kids got “skunk days”, that year. Where we had to take a day to de-stench the house, clothing and backpacks.

    Ha!!! And I forgot this part, I took a delivery of eggs in to the elementary school teachers, not even thinking about the fact that the egg cartons had absorbed the stench. Suffice to say, the whole school smelled like good Colorado weed. 😛

    I trapped 29 skunks, total, that year.

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  53. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Jax:

    …skunk mating habits sound VERY violent,…

    Sounds like neighbors that I once had.

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  54. Moosebreath says:

    @Kathy:

    “I inserted a comma.”

    Knowing Mr. Wilde, I think he spent the rest of his time comma-tose.

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  55. de stijl says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I write like you. Sometimes.

    Write like people speak. Sometimes.

    But, sometimes, I am quite formal in my writing. (And I like my commas like I like my dress shoes – Oxford style.)

    I have a construction I use a lot almost automatically. I write “x and y and z” with no commas at all.

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  56. James Joyner says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: @de stijl: Writing for the Web has radically transformed my approach to something much closer to @Michael Reynolds‘s than conventional academic style. The Shrunk & White rules are arbitrary and awkward. And the eye likes more white space and variation.

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  57. JohnMcC says:

    @dazedandconfused: Red-faced JohnMcC this morning. Didja ever wake up and discover your brain had solved a problem while you slept?

    That comment was a reference to the book “Eats, shoots and Leaves”. I said eats shoots and runs. Didn’t see the discrepancy. Woke up this morning and instantly was aware I’d got it wrong.

    Brains are funny things.

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  58. Zachriel says:

    @Kylopod: Shakespeare committed one of the prime literary faux pas, the mixed metaphor, in one of his most-quoted lines ever: “to take arms against a sea of troubles.”

    “Arms” meaning weapons long predates Shakespeare. While both meanings share a common root, they arrived in English separately; the meaning of upper limb from the Germanic, the meaning of weapon from the Latin.

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  59. Kylopod says:

    @Zachriel: I’m a little confused about what point it is you’re making.

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  60. Zachriel says:

    @Kylopod: I’m a little confused about what point it is you’re making.

    What mixed metaphor? “to take {weapons} against a sea of troubles.”

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  61. Zachriel says:

    @Kylopod: I’m a little confused about what point it is you’re making.

    Perhaps you consider “arms” a metaphor, but the meaning of arms to mean weapons long predates Shakespeare, coming from the Latin arma, while the meaning of arms to refer to upper limbs comes from the Germanic armaz. They share a common root in Proto-Indo-European, but are far removed from being a metaphor.

    https://www.etymonline.com/word/arm

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  62. dazedandconfused says:

    @JohnMcC:

    Quite. Something about that comment of yours brought to mind Hemmingway, who had his own opinions about commas.

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  63. Kylopod says:

    @Zachriel:

    What mixed metaphor? “to take {weapons} against a sea of troubles.”

    I wasn’t aware people were in the habit of firing cannons at tidal waves.

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  64. Zachriel says:

    @Kylopod,

    K. Thanks.

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  65. DrDaveT says:

    President Biden’s domestic policy chief is a stickler for grammar.

    Real sticklers know that comma usage (or any other punctuation convention) is just that — usage — and has nothing to do with grammar, either descriptive or prescriptive.

    Actual linguists will generally dismiss the whole issue because language means “speech” to them, and how it gets written down isn’t generally interesting unless they happen to be one of the tiny minority of linguists who study how writing influences speech.

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