Serial commas, Moriarty, and another convert

Arika Okrent rounds up “The Best Shots Fired in the Oxford Comma Wars.”

It’s a nice reminder that the Oxford insistence on always including a serial comma can lead to absurdities just as easily as never including it can.

Comma police, arrest this man …

This creates a problem for fundamentalist partisans in the Oxford Comma Wars, but isn’t really a big deal for everyone else. Style books lean toward sweeping rules — they like to say “always” or “never.” But always will always get you in trouble eventually, and never will never keep you perfectly safe from ambiguity.

So use the Oxford comma in a sentence like “She took a photograph of her parents, the president, and the vice president,” because without it the sentence is ambiguous and potentially misleading. Enjoy a chuckle over “the strippers, JFK and Stalin,” but do so as a reminder of why a serial comma is needed in sentences like that one, not in all sentences, everywhere, because rule.

If you shove an Oxford comma into a simple list that doesn’t need one — “red, white, and blue” — the only thing you’re communicating to readers is that you have a rule and you’re going to follow it no matter what it does to the rhythm of a sentence.

Well, that, and that you should never be allowed to sing “Stars and Stripes Forever” or “Scarborough Fair.”

* * * * * * * * *

Dave Lartigue describes what has started to bug him about Sherlock and Elementary, and in so doing makes me realize that something bugs me about Sherlock and Elementary too. “I’d Prefer Less Moriarty,” he writes:

In the stories we don’t marvel at [Sherlock Holmes] stalking Jack the Ripper or D.B. Cooper or Dr. Moriarty, we look at him taking interest in an oddball case involving a dude “hired” to copy pages from a dictionary, or about a guy who gets orange seeds in the mail. These are the cases that interest Holmes, and then us as he uncovers the plots behind them.

Moriarty was no part of this until he was clumsily introduced in a story specifically to kill off Holmes. Suddenly this diabolus ex machina was wheeled in, awkwardly retconned as the man behind all the crime, and then dispatched. Never mentioned before, barely mentioned afterwards. Now he’s the third most important character in the Holmesiverse, and I don’t know how he got there.

The thing that bothers me about Moriarty, and especially when it came to Sherlock and now Elementary is that not only does he come in as the big bad, he also brings with him the old personal vendetta. He’s not The Napoleon of Crime, he’s The Guy Who Really Effin Hates Sherlock Holmes, and he doesn’t just do crimes, he has it in for Holmes specifically. Once he walks on stage, Holmes stops solving crimes and starts a deadly game of cat and mouse where this time it’s personal. What we tuned in to see is cast aside: we know who the bad guys is (Moriarty) and what the endgame is (defeat Holmes).

It also bugs me at this point because it turns the plot into exactly the kind of plot I hate, the one where the good guy and the bad guy just have a giant pissing contest around the city and usually a bunch of faceless innocent nobodies get caught in-between. I hate this story. I don’t like it when the hero is in a situation where, honestly, we’d be better off without him.

If I had to give a name to what he describes in that last paragraph, I think I’d call it The Joker Problem.

* * * * * * * * *

We have another convert. Sarah Bessey confesses:

I heard about it forever but I don’t like sci-fi or alien stuff. But I grabbed the first season (starting with the ninth doctor) and decided to give it a go. After the first episode, I thought it was a horrible show with cheap special effects. … All of a sudden, right around episode 9, I lost my mind and became completely addicted. I’ve blasted through Series 1 and I’m halfway through Series 2. I’m a converted New Whovian, drinking from a firehose.

One of us, gabba gabba. …


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  • Nenya

    Hey, if there’s ever an easy (read: not $40 a pop for a VHS version without subtitles) way to get *ahold* of the pre-Eight Doctors, I’ll be there in an instant. Don’t blame me for my lack of access/accessibility, eh. (I suspect quite a lot of the Nine/Ten/Eleven-only fans would be a lot more interested in the earlier ones if they were as easy to get one’s hands on as the current stuff is.) 

  • vsm

    There’s always BitTorrent.

  • Also there *are* DVD collections available. I saw a picture of someone’s bookshelf just PACKED with every last DW episode they could get their mitts on. Netflix, perhaps? (^_^)


    What baffles me is when having an arch-enemy became de rigeur for
    everyday detectives. Profiler, Women’s Murder Club, NCIS Rizzoli and
    Isles as well as Mentalist all involve having some sort of super-villain
    adversary to the good guys.  I find Moriarty much less annoying.

    Was Hoyt in Rizzoli & Isles really a “super-villain adversary,” though? He was a recurring bad guy who had established an interest in one of the heroes, but that was pretty much it, pretty much the opposite of, say, Red John from The Mentalist.

    That and the fact that (rot13) Wnar xvyyrq uvz va whfg uvf guveq nccrnenapr.

  • Nenya

    Hoyt in R&I bugged me for exactly that “arch-nemesis” reason, and I was SO relieved when Jane got her birthday present. Especially since he’d been so fucking skeevy and sexualizing of her in his creepitude. 

  • Nenya

    There is always BitTorrent, to which I’ve few moral objections (none that stop me, anyway), but I can’t seem to find subtitles online. Alas. :( 

  •  A lot, albeit not all, of the old episodes are on Netflix Instant now.  Almost all of them are on Netflix through the mail.  The Netflix Instant ones have been on there for a while, but they were labeled really weirdly, so they were hard to find.  Now they are all labeled “New Who.”

    As for Old Who episodes to check out, here are some of my favorites (all from Netflix Instant):
    – 2nd Doctor: The Mind Robber
    – 4th Doctor: The Ark in Space; The Horror of Fang Rock; City of Death
    – 7th Doctor: The Curse of Fenric

    Also, for those who are interested in the cultural and social implications of Doctor Who, TARDIS Erudorium is an awesome blog:

  • Between subtitleseeker and addic7ed I usually manage to snag subs for things <_<

  • Nenya

    *blinks* *checks* Dude! It has things for “Doctor Who (1963)”! Lots of them! :D

    Thank you! :D

  • Hoyt in R&I bugged me for exactly that “arch-nemesis” reason, and I was SO relieved when Jane got her birthday present. Especially since
    he’d been so fucking skeevy and sexualizing of her in his creepitude.

    Michael Massee excels at playing skeevy. I was also relieved because the show is so much better when the case of the week is just an excuse for the characters to bicker like the proverbial Old Married Couple.

  • Nenya

    Hoyt seriously made my skin crawl. Yarrghhh. *shudders*

    Jane and Maura, though–*totally* married, OMG. And Jane’s mother basically considers Maura an extra one of her kids. Alllll the lesbian subtext, hurray!

  • Diona the Lurker

    Yes, I agree, which is part of the reason I think Eleven is more like the classic Doctors, who did have that personal connection to the universe. I would have like Ten more if he’d slowly been made to reconnect again to the universe on that level, but it never happened.

  • Diona the Lurker

    Being severely deaf myself and unable to watch things without subtitles, I sympathise.

  • LC

     As a 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th (especially 5th), and 7th Doctor fan, so do I.

  • vsm

    What’s wrong with the sixth?

  • I would have like Ten more if he’d slowly been made to reconnect again to the universe on that level, but it never happened.

    Ten’s arc was almost the exact opposite of that. From the moment he regenerates, he’s moved firmly into being thoroughly smitten with Rose, then he loses her, and every attempt he makes to connect on a personal level with someone ends up with someone’s life in shambles and the Doctor retreating into “Lonely God” mode. And thus, the final and thematically appropriate ending for his character is that he saves first the Earth, then the Multiverse, then Physical Existence itself, and he gets away with it. But the thing that ultimately kills him is saving *one man* who is emphatically *no more or less important than any other ordinary man*. And his “reward” is that he gets a chance to go back and see the *specific individual people* who have cared about him.

    (This is one of those emergent recurring themes in Doctor Who, as it turns out. The First Doctor, whose approach was to try to run away from trouble and failing that, to try to reason with the bad guys and talk them into compromising, dies because of his encounter with Mondas and the Cybermen, who, importantly, *make a better logical and moral argument* for their way of life — and he emerges as a man who believes that there are things in this universe that must be fought. The second Doctor is an inveterate anarchist who shows up, smashes existing social structures, then leaves, and he dies because he ends up in a scenario where, having smashed down the villains’ plot, he can’t just walk away and leave thousands of abducted humans on an alien planet — and he comes out of it as a man who is willing to work for the military and stay in one place where he’ll have to deal with the consequences of his actions. Later, the fourth Doctor, who basically made the show work for seven years largely through the sheer dominating force of his personality, gets saddled with a companion set that is, essentially, a bunch of distracting children, and the man who basically stole every scene he was in gets destroyed by the only thing that could stop the man: the impending heat-death of the universe. He emerges as an unassuming, unintimidating, “smaller” sort of man, and he doesn’t die from some bold and brave adventure — he spends four episodes dying from something small that happens back in episode one. And likewise, the seventh Doctor, the master manipulator, gets randomly shot because he happend to randomly crash in the wrong alley.)

  • The sixth doctor starts his tenure by trying to strangle a woman to death with his bare hands. And not an evil woman or anything: his sidekick.

    Colin Baker is as it turns out a perfectly competent actor who could have played a perfectly fine Doctor. But instead, the production team decided to produce highly distilled “Everything that has gone wrong with this show” for two years. (It’s seriously not without its occasional nice bits, but even those are tainted by a sort of ugly rot at the core of the show)

  • DavidCheatham

    Wow, I have never read an article that made such a clear argument _for_ the Oxford comma before, and find it astonishing that Fred apparently thinks it makes the opposite point.

    I mean, seriously, the example given in favor of it is: Those at the ceremony were the commodore, the fleet captain, the donor of the cup, Mr. Smith, and Mr. Jones.

    Except, uh, that’s an absurdly contrived example, because under the ‘logic’ of that sentence being confusing, almost any _other_ order of the sentence is confusing regardless of the Oxford comma: Those at the ceremony were Mr. Smith, the commodore, Mr. Jones, the fleet captain and the donor of the cup.

    In fact, that sentence is ‘confusing’ _as is_. On the original sentence, how do we know that ‘the fleet captain’ isn’t an appositive phrases explaining who the commodore is? That is perfectly valid grammar under the dubious logic we’re operating in, and is completely untouched by the Oxford comma or lack thereof.

    Of course, in reality, that sentence is not confusing at all, either way. This is because you don’t put noun phrases with a comma in the middle of a comma-delimited list. Um, DUH? This is a rule that is in effect regardless of the Oxford comma, because doing so is _always_ confusing. If you wish to write things with a comma in such a list (Not just appositive phrases but anything at all with commas in it.) you use _semicolons_ to delimit it.

    So, apparently, the article has conceded that there are no actual places where there are _legitimately_ two interpretations of a sentence using Oxford commas, and so it is forced to venture to dumbass land where people don’t know about semicolons. While failing to notice that pretty much _all_ comma-delimited lists of any sorts, regardless of Oxford comma, are subject to multiple interpretations in dumbass land. Which is why we don’t _allow_ commas in such a list.

    I actually can think of some sentences that sound odd for a split second if you’re expecting Oxford commas, like ‘I went to see Frank, my friend, and Bill had left us some run so we got drunk’, where you misinterpret ‘Frank, my friend, and Bill’ as a list while scanning it. But this just causes the sentence to sound odd and make you reread it to realize what it actually said. You can’t actually read an Oxford comma sentence _wrong_, because no one says ‘noun, apposite phrase, and unrelated noun’.

    Meanwhile, leaving it off produces so many absurd sentences it’s not funny. People say ‘noun, apposite phrase containing and’ all the time, which reads exactly like a non-Oxford comma list.

  • Diona the Lurker

    Hmm… I see your point, and I agree with it in theory, but in practice… well, I just wasn’t very impressed with Ten’s behaviour in regard to Wilf. I really can’t see any other Doctor refusing to die to save someone like that, and throwing a hissy fit over it to boot. Yes, Ten won his internal battle and sacrificed himself, but his behaviour before that was so appalling for me that it didn’t really change my opinion of him. And his seeing all his past companions -both those from New Who and the classic series – seemed a symptom of his weird, mistaken belief that he’d somehow no longer be him when he regenerated. I suppose that, when it came down to it, he just didn’t seem any more sincere in his change of heart than he had in most of his previous behaviour. In fairness to him, Eleven’s behaviour does suggest that he learned his lesson, but I’m left with the feeling that if Ten had found a way to save himself without regenerating after saving Wilf, he would have reverted back to his bad habits very quickly.

  •  I’m one of the few people who really liked the way Ten went out. The last thing in the world I wanted to see was another “The Doctor nobly sacrifices himself, with a stiff upper lip in true british tradition, because after all it’s not like he’s a real person, not even a real fictional person, he’s just a custodian of a role that will continue after this actor regenerates.”  FOr me, it was exactly perfect — the thing that I’d been wanting to see for DECADES — that when his time came, he faced it like a real person who was really facing real death. Not “Oh, I’ll just change,” but “Everything that makes me me, everything that makes up my sense of self is going to die, painfully and while a man will walk away from this calling himself “The Doctor”, that man won’t be ME anymore.” 

    There is never any doubt that he’s going to sacrifice himself to save Wilf. Not for a second, and that’s not the point. The point is that, even though he’s going to do it, he’s still *pissed* because he’s going to *die*.

    And at the very end, his last words aren’t some uplifting speech about life going on, or some noble sentiment about his brave and bold self-sacrifice, no, because in the end, there’s no one there for him to reassure: he’s alone. So he tells the truth, at that last moment: he is going to die, and he doesn’t want to.

  • Being also hearing impaired and loving subs, the one thing I’d love to vote for is more comprehensive recaptioning of older movies, especially more obscure ones. I have a Sherlock Holmes collection from the set produced in the 1930s and 1940s and they’re basically unwatchable because I can’t understand the thick English accents AND there are no closed captions.

    Also, what really gets on my tits is when there are oodles of non English subs for a movie and no English subs. What, do they think people who hear English are all 100% possessed of crystal-clear hearing?

  • Nenya

    Also, what really gets on my tits is when there are oodles of non English subs for a movie and no English subs. What, do they think people who hear English are all 100% possessed of crystal-clear hearing?

    Oh, God, yes, this. I don’t begrudge speakers of other languages their subtitles–God knows I’ve watched enough foreign movies subtitled in English–but it’s like whoever makes the subs has a complete blank in their minds sometimes on the issue of using subs for reasons other than not speaking the language. 

    See also, special features on DVDs not being subtitled even when the main movie is. My girlfriend’s watching the new Sinbad show right now, and we’re all, “We have to watch the special features even though they are very silly, because they have subs, oh frabjous day!” 

  • See also, special features on DVDs not being subtitled even when the main movie is.

    OMFG instant angrycakes. (>_<)

  • Diona the Lurker

    Not all Doctors regenerated nobly. The First Doctor went out protesting, making it clear that he’d been trying to delay his regeneration for ages. Two’s behaviour was similar. Four arguably committed suicide. Seven begged and pleaded as well, although admittedly he was more concerned about the Master than himself.
    As for realism – well, that’s fair enough. The thing is, though, the Doctor’s never not felt ‘real’ to me. He has faults and flaws enough to ensure that. As such, any ‘stiff upper lip’ behaviour on his behalf just seems… well, as utterly necessary, to stop the character from becoming unlikeable. Yes, maybe complaints and whining are more realistic; but uncomplaining noble sacrifices are so much part of what the Doctor is, that Ten’s ranting and such didn’t make me feel the sympathy – or at least empathy – that it seemed intended to.

  • Diona the Lurker

    Yes, older movies without subtitling are really annoying. It doesn’t seem to occur to people that if a DVD carries subtitles, it’s more likely to be sold. I can’t understand what’s on screen without the subtitles, so I won’t be buying a DVD if it doesn’t carry them.

  • Nenya

    Same here–if it doesn’t have subs, it doesn’t get watched. Though the advent of subtitle sites on the Internet has absolutely revolutionized my movie-watching. The first time I realized that I could make words happen on my screen even if the version I had didn’t come with subs, if another version did and had been uploaded–that was a landmark day in my life. Joy and relief!

    High-fives to all the other hearing-impaired folk on this thread, btw. You all Get It. <3

  • Makhno

    Sometimes also in a different language. I bought Chimes at Midnight back when the only DVD available was the Spanish one – an English-language movie, with a variety of available subs, but all the bonuses were in unsubbed Spanish.