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Church’s comma missing!

I think there is an error in the name of our church.

I am a strong supporter of the “Oxford comma” (also known as the “serial comma”) – the comma that comes before the “and” in a list. Tweeter @ktheory says it all: “For teaching me that the Oxford comma resolves ambiguity, I’d like to thank my parents, Sinead O’Connor and the Pope.”

Last week there was a rumour spreading that Oxford University was abandoning the Oxford comma. I was thrilled that my efriends rioted. Clearly I pick the right friends (and they are right to pick me).

But the Oxford comma is actually safe. The news was merely the discovery of the usual English chaos where Oxford University’s PR Department is rejecting the style advocated by Oxford University itself.

Because you know I use the Oxford comma, you will understand what I mean when I say “The best available men are the two tall guys, George and Pete.” Those silly people who don’t use the Oxford comma will not be able to make sense of that sentence and the quite different one, “The best available men are the two tall guys, George, and Pete.”

Now to the name of our church. Much energy, meetings, and free flights were expended on making sure that one comma was in our church’s name: the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia. Now don’t distract us by pointing out that only the smallest minority of lay people and even only a minority of clergy are able to get the name of our church even remotely correct. There are no prizes any more for spotting errors in our name in official documents or websites – such errors are two a penny.

But there is a comma missing. It should be the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand, and Polynesia! Silly General Synod people!

Now here’s where it bites.

The NZ Prayer Book was published with “breech” where it should have been “breach”, as in: “So you would have destroyed them but for Moses your chosen one who stood before you in the breech, to turn back your wrath from their destruction.” Psalm 106:23.

To make the change from “breech” to “breach” required a meeting of General Synod; every diocesan synod and hui amorangi had to debate it and vote on it; then a newly-elected General Synod debated and voted on it, and only a year after that, not having received any protests, we could make the change to the psalter (actually no new printing of the psalter has happened since then! So all our Prayer Books are actually Breeches Prayer Books!)

Bishop Philip Richardson, as you know, is calling for setting up a commission to explore sexuality – specifically “whether sexual orientation towards those of one’s own gender is a consequence of wilful human sinfulness, or an expression of God-given diversity.” (Yes, there apparently seriously are still people who think that even in the most homophobic of situations there are people who go, “hey, life is hard enough already, but let’s make it even more interestingly difficult – I think I’ll decide to be gay!” That’s wilful human sinfulness for you.)

I think far more importantly, we need to set up a commission to get the Oxford comma into our church’s name! That sort of really important debate can keep church politicians happily occupied for years!

Ps. And, for those who have ears to hear, there is an “Anglican Covenant” parable here. Many other languages are controlled by a central magisterium (often parliament). The English language is not. Some use the Oxford comma, some do not (silly people!). Some put the punctuation inside quotation marks, others outside (some use single quotation marks, some double). Some use capitals where others use lower case. Some start a sentence with “However”, some think that is wrong. Some spell it “humor” or “humour”, “sulphur” or “sulfur”, “programme” or “program”… There’s no international agreement, no final arbiter, no centralised magisterium, no final authority. Decisions are made locally. With even a university’s PR department contradicting its own university style sheet! It’s the Anglican English way. And it sort of works – although other languages may turn their noses up at this English-language way of doing things…

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38 thoughts on “Church’s comma missing!”

  1. I believe strongly in the Oxford comma. I have a hard time convincing my fellow U.S. citizens that they should use it.

  2. Julia Smucker

    The Oxford Comma is both legitimate and optional, according to standard usage. That is what will keep it in use, not the dictations of Oxford, whose style guide is (presumably) meant to describe the English language, not determine it.

    So just let language do what it does, keep using the Oxford Comma as long as you find it useful, and stop worrying.

  3. Brother David

    As I have startled others on Dr Peter’s blog that there were things I had never heard of until they were mentioned on his blog, so here I have another startling revelation; I have never heard of the Oxford comma!

    And I can see why, it flies in the face of all that I was taught about punctuation in English, by my US-based English teachers. It is a heresy too far Padre, I am in fear for your eternal soul.

  4. I think the Americans know it as the Havard Comma. It’s in every style guide I’ve ever used – though as a style issue, not a grammatical correctness point.

    Best example of ambiguous punctuation I know is:

    I helped my Uncle, Jack, off a horse.

    1. I think being able to see the sentence, Richard, with the capital “J” there is no ambiguity – now hearing it read – that is something else. Just as we have a Eucharistic Prayer where God is described as the “source of all life and goodness”. Get it?

      1. I didn’t get it… until I looked it up. Lost in the trans-Atlantic translation.

        Oh, and Oxford Comma Rules OK! (I say this as a Cambridge man…)

  5. Good for you, Bosco. The name of the New Zealand church has, for a long time, driven me crazy. My experience with the No Anglican Covenant Coalition leads me to believe that Americans generally use what you call the Oxford comma, and the English generally do not. As a result, the English produce many ambiguous sentences in circumstances in which an American would not do so.

    Commas really matter, and I cannot understand why so many people seem intent on avoiding using them. See, for example, my essay “Commas,” which largely deals with another issue involving commas but has a comment at the end that is relevant to the Oxford comma discussion.

  6. Stephen Donald

    No no no (or should it be no, no, no?) Bosco – its not the comma’s that are the problem – or even misplaced apostrophe’s! Mr Catolick has found the major issue in the Anglican Communion – its (or it’s?) ‘Symmetry in the Sanctuary’ – here,s the link!

    http://youtu.be/cUq8n39ckKA Enjoy!

  7. A question: I had understood that Aotearoa was the Maori name for New Zealand. Is that correct? Or do the two names refer to different areas?

    If my assumption is right, and Aotearoa and New Zealand are the names in two languages for the same place, then shouldn’t it be “…in Aotearoa (New Zealand) and Polynesia.” or – with the extra comma. “…Aotearoa (New Zealand), and Polynesia.”
    The way it’s written seems to suggest that Aotearoa and New Zealand are two out of three different places. (I think – am I wrong?)

    By the way, what you refer to as the Oxford comma is generally considered in England to be an American usage, not a British one. I don’t know anyone here who uses it, and to my eye it looks clumsy and incorrect, merely because the British habit is so ingrained! If you are used to the British habit, in your first example using the extra comma will make you wonder whether there are four men, not two (“…the two tall men, George, and Pete.)

    1. The first comma (and until my suggested commission gets going), Maggi, was made a very big fuss of – the name of our church originates with its 3 tikanga (cultural streams) structure. Aotearoa refers to one tikanga, New Zealand another – hence the heavy insistence on the comma; Polynesia forms the third tikanga.

      I do get easily confused – but I did think Oxford University refers to the British one 😉

      You are correct, for we sensible people who use the Oxford comma, “…the two tall men, George, and Pete” refers to four men, “…the two tall men, George and Pete” refers to two. Because you don’t use the Oxford comma, you cannot make that distinction. In your usage “…the two tall men, George and Pete” could just as easily refer to four men as two. And I as your reader will not know which you mean. Hence you see why the use of the Oxford comma makes sense!


      1. This is a fallacious argument.

        The phrase “the two tall men, George and Pete” reads as 4 people without the evil comma, as it should.

        It has no alternative sense; if you wanted to get all Granville-Sharp about it, you shouldn’t be abusing the comma as a conjunction: that’s what you have colons and any assortment of dashes for!

        1. Yeah, Tim!!! Now we are getting some really serious discussion starting. Thank you! So “the two tall men, George and Pete” reads unambiguously as 4 people! Well, you are the first to suggest so here…

          And you think we should be using colons and dashes for conjunctions…


  8. Thanks Bosco, I didn’t know about the tikanga, although when I visited NZ I was impressed that there seems to have been better efforts at reconciliation and integration between cultures than in some other places that were colonised during their history.

    I think on reflection “…tall men, George and Pete” is ambiguous whichever way you read it. There are numerous instances where a list can be ambiguous, and the solution is to rewrite the sentence – e.g. “George, Pete and the two tall men” (four men) or “George and Pete, the two tall men.” (two men).
    Sometimes an argument about grammar is a misplaced argument about a bad sentence, don’t you think?

    1. Maggi, it is only ambiguous when you do not know if the author is committed to the Oxford comma or not, and it is also ambiguous if the author does not use the Oxford comma. If everyone was committed to using the Oxford comma – there would be no ambiguity. “…I’d like to thank my parents, Sinead O’Connor and the Pope.” is again only ambiguous when you do not know if the author is committed to the Oxford comma or not, and it is also ambiguous if the author does not use the Oxford comma. If the author of that sentence is committed to the Oxford comma, it is perfectly clear who the author’s parents are.

      You can rewrite the sentence, but if we were all committed to the Oxford comma, you wouldn’t need to.


  9. Or “The best available men are George and Pete, the two tall guys” / “The best available men are the two tall guys, George and Pete” / “The best available men are George, Pete and the two tall guys”? You can avoid ambiguity by recasting the sentence. Word order as well as punctuation is a tool for communicating meaning.

  10. Well that’s a lovely theory Bosco! Alas, usage never conforms to uniform rules; there will ever be local variation. Still, it makes conversation necessary, so maybe that is the upside! Thanks for a grammar puzzle to start Monday morning 🙂

      1. Stephen Donald

        I suspect you’ve lost that one Bosco – Mr Catolick has got it SO right – most people missed the irony of ‘the candles in the sanctuary’ discussion too by the look of the comments (note no commas) :*

  11. Tony Fitchett

    A minor quibble: there was no Commission set up to correct “breech”. What happened was that I noticed the mistake in a reprint of the psalm in our service sheet, checked it against A New Zealand Prayerbook, rang Robin Nairn [General Secretary at the time] and got him to check it against the “Deposited Copy” that emerged from the 1987 Special Session of GS, and then, on my own initiative, brought a Bill to the GS/tHW to make the correction. The mistake originally occurred in the draft that we were all given as working documents for the 1987 Special Session [and were supposed to destroy, but I still have mine] and was not picked up during the line by line consideration of texts – presumably no synod member read through the text of the Psalms as they did with the services.

    The fact that the correction required the ‘twice round’ procedure seemed to upset some people, and was used to denigrate our processes under the Constitution/te Pouhere and the Church of England Empowering Act 1928, but I felt it was an amusing demonstration of the virtues of accuracy, which allowed a little light relief in the middle of more serious business – a bit like the ‘source of the Waitangi’ debate at Suva in 1990.

    1. Thanks, Tony. I have corrected this important point in the post. We, here, were clearly misinformed – I wonder if that now makes our diocesan synod vote (and possibly other diocesan synod votes) questionable. Maybe a commission needs to be set up to look at this and its possible consequences.

  12. Peter Carrell

    Dear fellow Kiwi Anglicans

    The name of our church is prescient. The three tikanga character will not hold. Pressure is mounting for Pakeha and Polynesia to work together as one partner to the Treaty of Waitangi, as one culture in a bi-cultural church. “New Zealand and Polynesia” will be the right combination to complement “Aotearoa.” Hold that comma!!

    1. Thanks, Peter. Historically, of course, all the lead up to the structural change was about “Tikanga rua (two)” – “Tikanga toru (three)” was a last-minute change. Polynesia, of course, is not a treaty partner in their own lands – there they are tāngata whenua (people of the land).

      [Let’s not even go down the track of, without the Oxford comma, does the adjective “New” modify “Polynesia” as well as “Zealand”?!]

  13. Goodness, you do need a comma in your church’s name, much more than we need, or even desire, an Anglican covenant. You know, of course, that it’s the renegade Americans (United States-ians) who put some punctuation inside quotations marks and some out, so it’s no surprise that E.C.U.S.A. makes waves within the Anglican Communion!

    1. Clearly, Susan, I agree with you we do need a comma in our church’s name, much more than we need, or even desire, an Anglican covenant.

      As for ECUSA – that is now TEC – much more memorable and easier to say than TACIA,NZAP! (Affectionately known as “tacky anzap”).

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