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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  • Kadh2000

    Yea!! Whovians abound!

  • Probably not first by the time I finish writing.

    While I’m always pleased to hear others are jumping on the fan wagons I love, I confess myself bewildered by someone who would declare a show “horrible” from Ep 1 but stick around through Ep 9. If something about the ep intrigued me despite the horribleness, I might watch the 2nd and 3rd to see if the balance of intriguing to horribleness improved, but nine whole episodes? 9 eps times 45 minutes per episode while thinking “This is horrible” the whole way through? I’d be outta there, no matter what my FB friends were screaming.

    On the other hand, I don’t entirely understand “I know it sucks now, but stick with it ’cause it gets better” in the first place. What works for me is the advice, “Skip the first 8 episodes. They suck. Come back to them maybe after you’ve watched Ep 9 and gotten hooked.” It worked for me with Eureka, after all – my friends had me started at a point after Sheriff Carter stopped being quite so much of a chauvenist pig towards Alison Blake. I probably would have bailed otherwise, because my Gods was he annoying in the first handful of episodes.

  • I picked up Doctor Who right around the start of Matt Smith’s run.  I saw a few Tennant episodes here and there and maybe one Eccleston episode.  Last weekend I was sick, so I decided to watch Doctor Who on Netflix.  Between Friday at about 8 am and Saturday when I went to bed I watched, I think, 30 episodes.

  • Ross Thompson

    I have to admit, I don’t like Sherlock‘s  version of Moriarty, regardless of whether or not he deserves to be included. Hopefully, now that they’ve gotten the Reichenbach Falls out of the way he’ll be a minor character at best.

  • I’m confused, because the Oxford comma in “red, white, and blue” seems perfectly natural and appropriate. Ah, well.

    My biggest problem with Moriarty in Moffat’s Sherlock is that he’s a coward and a bully. I have no respect for him, so I’m not invested in whether Sherlock can defeat him.

  • B

    If I were to start watching Dr. Who, should I and could I indeed skip the first 8  episodes and still have things makes sense?  Because I agree, I really don’t feel like spending 6 hours of my life waiting for something to get good.

    (I’ve sometimes thought that if nothing else I should watch “Blink” so I understand my Facebook feed, but I’m not sure if that would make sense without watching the previous episodes, either.)

  • “red, white, and blue” seems fine to me, as well. Which perhaps just marks me as someone in the grip of a pernicious ideology. (shrug)

  • Jim Roberts

    And the change, by the way, came from the actor, not the writers. He’s a pretty swell guy.

    I think the “This is horrible,” is just what your forebrain thinks about a show. It’s your kneejerk, gut reaction, but there’s a part of you that’s really, really enjoying what’s going on.  The trick is, that part of you is subliminal at first – you’re aware that you’re continuing to watch, but you’re not sure why, until that subliminal part becomes . . . liminal? Is that a word.

    My theory on it is that when you’re in this state, you’re enjoying the mythos, but not the action. You like the setup and the possibilities that the setup gives you, but you’re let down by the actual thing itself. Eventually, either to action improves, or your love for the setup overwhelms your dislike of the action.

  • B

    As an aside, I do enjoy the storylines that the more serial nature of TV shows today make possible, but it actually discourages me from watching said TV shows.  With a movie I’m in for 1.5-3.5 hours, starting a TV show is much larger commitment.

  • Carstonio

    As a huge Holmes fan, I agree that Moriarty is a superfluous afterthought. But I wouldn’t label this the Joker Problem. The best examples of the character use him as an effective contrast to Batman, and my personal favorite is Alan Moore’s harrowing Killing Joke. Similarly, the tycoon version of Lex Luthor is perhaps the perfect villain for Superman. Just as Clark represents power used to inspire and to serve the common good, Lex represents power used to exploit and to serve only himself, aiding others only when it benefits him to do so. Doyle never gave Holmes an opponent with a long shelf life, and it’s disappointing that both modern TV series haven’t thought about what type of villain would contrast Holmes most.

  • B said: “If I were to start watching Dr. Who, should I and could I indeed skip the first 8  episodes and still have things makes sense?  Because I agree, I really don’t feel like spending 6 hours of my life waiting for something to get good.”

    “Blink” makes perfect sense standing alone. There’s nothing important to know about Who that the script doesn’t tell you.
    The stand-out episodes of Who’s first (new) season are episode six: “Dalek”, and the two-parter episode nine and ten, “The Empty Child” and “The Doctor Dances”. If you watch those four episodes, I think it will tell you whether you have an interest in watching any more.

  • fraser

    Well Sherlock’s idea of Moriarty as “consulting criminal” works for me. And Elementary really hasn’t (so far) used him too much for my taste–he’s solving other crimes, and his obsession has seriously hurt his relationship with Gregson.
    Of course, this isn’t unique to Holmes. Thoth-Amon was a minor background character in the Conan books but he got elevated to Big Bad in most later versions. And SPECTRE was never as big in the Bond novels as it is in the films.

  • flat

    I like the idea that the main hero and villain are stronger than the people who are allied with them.

  • dj_pomegranate

    I inhaled the Ninth and Tenth doctors–just loved them both– and now I
    am around the end of season 6 with Matt Smith and I just cannot keep my
    momentum up.  Eleven is so manic, and Amy is such a ham, and they keep
    starting sentences (and plot devices!) and not finishing them
    …watching Eleven just makes me tired.  Where before I could watch Who
    marathons, now I need long breaks between episodes. 

    When I bring this up, everyone says “No, I promise it gets better!  They’ll
    grow on you!” Plus, I feel an allegiance to it now, and, let’s be real, I
    will probably keep watching forever.

  • Magic_Cracker

    I felt that Holmes’s deduction of a single invisible spider at the center of England’s criminal web was a case of Tell, Don’t Show. Holmes just tells use he’s deduced the fact, but it’s one of the few cases where he doesn’t explain the deduction, step-by-step. Just what was Moriarty doing (wrong) that allowed Holmes to find a connect among , say, Whitechapel whores, Highland poachers, and Red-Headed Leagues? And why was he micromanaging the crimes rather than letting his the corrupt machine he’d created siphon off his cut from others’ enterprises?

    Also, how is it Moriarty come to be in a position to offer protection (from the police as well as rivals, I assume) for most of England’s criminal enterprises (I believe that was was the service he provided to justify his cut). Rogue police/government agent/official? Natural-born criminal mastermind who worked/wormed his way up through the underworld? Charismatic interloper who created a devoted criminal following? 

    So yeah, he smacks of Plot Device in his creation. As to why he’s being the third most important character in the Holmesiverse, perhaps it’s because those unanswered questions are just too enticing to leave alone.

  • Carstonio

    As to why he’s being the third most important character in the
    Holmesiverse, perhaps it’s because those unanswered questions are just
    too enticing to leave alone.

    That’s probably part of it. The other part may be the very long tradition of heroes and villains in fiction, compared with other traditions such as the hero against hirself.

  • Magic_Cracker

    My enthusiasm for 11 has definitely flagged. How many times has Amy (or Rory) Pond died now? I’ve lost count and stopped caring. In general, I’m tired of Very Special Companions. Why isn’t it good enough any more for the Doctor encounter someone who is clever and adventurous and leave it at that, you know, like they did from, oh, 1963-2007? No, for some reason we have the Sassy-Girl-Who-Waited (and waited and waited and hey, did we mention that she’s the girl who waited? Yes? Too bad, we’re going to mention it again), Reverse-Backwards-Meet-Cute-Redux-Tredux-Quadux-Time-Paradox-Sassy-Love-Interest, and now, apparently, (spoilers) The Sassy-Lost-In-Time-Girl-Who-Cannot-(Permanently)-Die! /rant


    But I wouldn’t label this the Joker Problem.

    FWIW, my understanding of “the Joker Problem” here is the problem of telling an ongoing story where the villain’s primary reason for existing within the fictional universe is to challenge the hero.

    Of course, we all understand that in the real world the primary reason for writing  a villain in the first place is to challenge the hero. But when that motivation slips into the fictional universe itself, rather than the villain having motives independent of the hero that the hero then thwarts, it creates the unfortunate implication that if the hero weren’t there, the villain wouldn’t be either. That if Batman didn’t exist, the Joker wouldn’t be killing anyone in the first place, and therefore all the Joker’s victims are in some sense the consequence of Batman’s existence. Which can be troubling.

    That said, I realize that you are looking at it from the POV of villain-as-narrative-tool, rather than what-would-the-implications-be-if-there-were-real-people-involved, which is also a perfectly legitimate stance.

  • Chris

    I personally like how Sherlock handled Moriarty, both in not making him a professor (which wouldn’t have fit with the show’s style) and not making him central to the plot of most episodes. He was big in both season finales, and had a minor role in episode 1 of the second season, but other than that Sherlock does what Sherlock does without the “looming specter” in the background. He is mentioned once, almost in passing, outside the episodes in which he appears.

    I think this has to do with the fact that the writers of the show have actually read the stories that the episodes are based upon. In the behind the scenes you get to see how much the creators of the show actually admire the source material and wanted to put their spin on it. Most of what they do is “paying homage” or plagiarizing depending how you look at it.

    I haven’t watched Elementary but I haven’t heard too many good things about it. I probably haven’t tuned in because “Elementary” is in “Elementary my dear Watson”, a phrase Sherlock has never said, and it bugs me when people say it.

  • dj_pomegranate

    Bwahaha!  Reverse-Backwards-Meet-Cute-Redux-Tredux-Quadux-Time-Paradox-Sassy-Love-Interest.   Right!?

    My other complaint is that Eleven is not very good at angst.  As mushy as they sometimes were, I really enjoyed Ten’s regular “Who am I and what am I doing!?” introspection where he actively struggled with fate and his role in, you know, war and unnecessary death and suffering.  Eleven often seems to be thinking, “Oh, it’s really sad that you all have to die…NEXT ADVENTURE!”

  • While I agree that use of the serial comma ought to be determined by context, I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make by bringing up Scarborough Fair. As far as I can tell, the commas are there between the relevant spices but don’t change the rhythm of the song noticeably. Also, Wikipedia seems to render it “Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.”

  • The Oxford comma debate is just silly because commas should be avoided for parenthetical information.  “A picture of her parents, the president and vice president” clearly includes four people and “A picture of her parents–the president and vice president” clearly includes two.

  • I also like that in Sherlock we didn’t get the name Moriarty immediately. We had a villain and then we learned who he was. Elementary has it backwards; we got the name first so now we know what’s going to happen.

  • B

    Thanks!  I think Netflix has Dr. Who streaming, I’ll check those out.

  • Magic_Cracker

    I haven’t watched Elementary but I haven’t heard too many good things about it. I probably haven’t tuned in because “Elementary” is in “Elementary my dear Watson”, a phrase Sherlock has never said, and it bugs me when people say it.

    Ms. Cracker and I both prefer Elementary to Sherlock. We find Sherlock to be pretentious and vapid, while Elementary is merely vapid, plus it has better, cleverer mysteries week-to-week. Also, I like Elementary‘s Watson more. She’s actually integral to solving several of the mysteries (because doctors are not dummies), whereas Sherlock‘s Watson is mostly there to be an Eyewitness to Genius.

    Anyway, I don’t think there’s any way to bring Sherlock Holmes into the modern day without shitting on the source material a little, but Moffat’s Sherlock demands that we pretend it’s chocolate mousse.

  • Gorgias

    What people often overlook is the fact that even in Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories about Holmes, Moriarty was a mere plot convenience.  Doyle invented him because he wanted to kill Sherlock off (mainly because he was sick of being famous only for the Sherlock Holmes series), and he needed some kind of ultimate criminal mastermind to be the one to bring it about rather than comparatively petty thieves or common murderers who happened to stumble onto a brilliant way of committing their crimes.  Hence Moriarty, this “big bad” who’s suddenly exists and is apparently the “Napoleon of Crime.” (“Napoleon of Crime?”  Really?  Why do I get the feeling that if Doyle wrote his books today, he would call Moriarty the “Hitler of Crime” or the “Bin Ladin of evildoer-ness?”)

    Point is, any depiction of Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes adaptations, both period and modern, are putting more effort into defining the character than Doyle, who literally intended Moriarty to be a franchise-killer.  And Moriarty couldn’t even get that job done!

  • Blink would make perfect sense without seeing anything else.

  • Carstonio

    When a story defines a villain as solely a challenge for a hero, it can be not only troubling but also limiting. I think of Batman/Joker and Clark/Lex as yin-yang dualities. Fans often say that Batman doesn’t represent order in contrast to the Joker’s madness, but instead a different type of madness, and in paraphrasing this I apologize for the slight to people afflicted with mental illness. Well-crafted heroes and villains can together evoke complementary or opposing aspects of the human personality.

  • Random_Lurker

     And for the love of all that is Wholy, do NOT watch “The Idiot’s Lantern.”  Ever.  Unless you want to know how low Who can sink.  Which can be amusing, actually.

    Who is amazing because it’s so free-form, which allows for amazing bursts of creativity and genius.  Unfortunately, it also allows for detestable bouts of pure schlock, so be prepared for both in equal measure and be willing to laugh a bit :P

  • Magic_Cracker

    I think the “Napoleon of Crime” refers to Napoleon’s genius as a general, not a politician, so even though the “Hitler of Crime” doesn’t work for me. For all the advances in military technology in the 20th century, I’m not sure there’s a single general  in the 20th or 21st century (so far) who had as much a revolutionary impact on how wars are fought as Napoleon had in his day. Vo Nguyen Giap maybe?

  • Magic_Cracker

    Blergh. Needs me some editing.

  •  A picture of her parents, the president, and vice president can be three individual pictures in total.

  • Magic_Cracker

    I agree re: angst. He also has this annoying habit of getting caught up by his own big, self-congratulatory speeches about how awesome he is and how he’s the “DOCK-TOR!” and how the villain doesn’t stand a chance, thereby giving the villain a chance.

  • *sigh* As a First Doctor fan, it makes me a little sad that there are so many people who not only have only seen Doctors Nine through Eleven, but are ONLY INTERESTED in those Doctors.

  • Magic_Cracker

    As a Second Doctor fan, I feel your pain.

  • @B  “it actually discourages me from watching said TV shows.”


    Every single series now seems to be what would have been referred to in my youth as a soap opera:  A continuing story that never ends.
    I have certainly watched some of these shows.  They are very good; well crafted and involving.
    But I don’t have the energy. 
    I want there to be a conclusion; an arc that goes somewhere; closure.
    Much as I enjoyed, for instance, teh first few episodes of ‘Game of Thrones’, I simply couldn’t bear the thought of watching it in bits and pieces essentially forever and never getting anywhere on the narrative treadmill.
    I own the box sets of HBO’s ‘Rome’, one of the orginators of this trend and love the show, but I can’t watch it unless I have a whole day to commit to it.
    And only because it does sort of end.

    YMMV.  Not judging, just speaking for me.
    I’ll take a movie any day.

  • walden

    Please — the Fourth Doctor is the one true doctor.

  •  I wouldn’t count on it. As far as most people are concerned, Sherlock Holmes as a story is about Moriarty. It’ll turn out that he’s not really dead or that was never really him or there was some other even secreter moriarty behind him.

  • I haven’t watched Elementary but I haven’t heard too many good things about it. I probably haven’t tuned in because “Elementary” is in “Elementary my dear Watson”, a phrase Sherlock has never said, and it bugs me when people say it.

    Holmes has said it many times. You probably mean that Doyle didn’t write it, which is true for that particular phrase, but Doyle did write Holmes saying “Elementary” in response to one of Watson’s exclamations, for example in “The Crooked Man.” So it seems to me a perfectly cromulent title.

    For me, Sherlock and Elementary both have strong and weak points, and they’re somewhat complementary. The big advantage I’d say Elementary has over Sherlock is that Elementary does a better job of portraying Holmes as the smartest guy in the room while preserving the basic competence of Watson and the police. In Sherlock, the mysteries Holmes solves are usually fairly obvious, but Holmes is portrayed as the only one with any clue what’s going on. In Elementary, the mysteries are bit more convoluted, and generally it’s clear the police would eventually figure it out, Holmes just gets there more quickly.

  • Elementary definitely has the better Watson, but the pacing is just too frenetic for me.  And I find Elementary’s Sherlock to be too empathetic — in Sherlock, you can really believe that Holmes acts the way he does because he’s got some cognitive limitation that keeps him from knowing better than to treat people like that. In Elementary, there’s quite a lot of moments that reveal that Holmes is entirely capable of empathy and just chooses to be a douchebag.  It’s like the difference between someone with asperger’s and an asshole on the internet who claims to be an undiagnosed aspie to excuse his being a jerk.

  • Magic_Cracker

    I won’t get into who the One True Doctor is, but I will note that Fourth Doctor is kind of a jerk. I’m not judging, mind you, just noticing.

  • walden

     “kind of a jerk”
    Actually, most of them fit this description — which is why it is always a mistake for companions to become attached to any of them….

  • >  Elementary has it backwards; we got the name first so now we know what’s going to happen.

    In a show with characters called “Sherlock Holmes” and “Watson”, that seems appropriate.

  • Magic_Cracker

    It is interesting to see how Sherlock and Elementary grapple with the source material’s portrayal of Holmes. My read on 1.0 is that he is quite empathetic — he’s quite interested in the well-being of his clients and is outraged by any injustice done to them — but he’s also a Victorian and the source material is Victorian, so it doesn’t show empathy in ways we readily recognize these days.  Somehow, that gets translated into the Aspergers or asshole? trope we see in modern incarnations (including  Dr. House). I think Gil Grissom from Original Recipe CSI comes closest to the source material — he’s empathetic but focused, and in fact, it’s his empathy that fuels his focus at the same time his focus makes it appear as if he lacks empathy.

  • Magic_Cracker

    In a show with characters called “Sherlock Holmes” and “Watson”, that seems appropriate.

    And inevitable.

  • This is why I’m so fond of The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. It’s the only explanation of Moriarty that ever worked for me. ;) 

  • I’ll second the “try-out episodes” of “Dalek”, “The Empty Child”, and “The Doctor Dances”.

    “The Girl in the Fireplace”, “Gridlock”, and “Blink” are strong standalone episodes as well. 

  • As for the “one true Doctor” debate, I’ll just punt with the same answer I give when asked about who was the best Bond, or whether I’m a Mike or Joel fan:

    “You always remember your first, and they’ll always have a special place for you.”

  • 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.

    Funny. I put the comma there precisely because, to me, not having it throws off the rhythm of the sentence, running together the last two items. It’s certainly not because I’m following some “rule” that I only heard about some 30 years after learning how to write.

    If there’s any arbitrary punctuation rule that I consciously follow simply because I was told to a long time ago, it’s not putting hyphens after words that end in “ly”.

  • That’s a feature, not a bug. Different Doctors have different personalities. If all Doctors from now on were Ten with different faces, that would be the end of the show.

    For my money, I was good and tired of Ten’s angst by “Waters of Mars”, which existed solely so Tennant could make as many mopey faces as possible in one episode.