Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Serial (and Very Serious) Comma

To comma, or not to comma . . .

That question has been debated among writers for some time. Since a comma is used to replace the word "and" when listing several items in a sentence, must one use a comma before the last item listed even when there is an "and" before it? Example (with the debated comma): I bought bread, apples, and peanut butter at the grocery store.

Over the years, the University of Oxford Guide to Style has insisted upon including the last comma in this situation. The serial comma has become so identified with the university that it is known as the "Oxford comma." Oxford's position has been echoed by the Chicago Manual of Style, Elements of Style by Strunk and White, and the BBC.  (Thanks to the Oxford comma, you know when reading the preceeding sentence that Elements of Style is by Strunk and White, not by Strunk, White, and the BBC.)

Others have disagreed about the necessity of the final comma. The AP Stylebook, for instance, says that the comma before the last item in a list should be omitted unless it is necessary for comprehension. The AP Stylebook is primarily intended for journalists, but we have seen that journalistic style has a way of entering the mainstream. Consider, for example, the greater acceptance of the use of "alright," when traditionally (and more correctly) it should be written "all right."

So when word came out that the University of Oxford was abandoning it's own comma, punctuation nerds felt the ground shake a bit. Cries of angst arose on Twitter and Facebook as people tried to make sense of it all. It took several hours before it became clear that only the public relations office at the university had changed its guidelines for press releases to journalists, having no affect whatsoever on the advice offered in the Guide to Style. 

So grammar geeks can heave a sigh of relief. Their Oxford comma is safe. Everything, it appears, is alright.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Following Police Orders vs. Exercising Your Rights

I respect the police. They have a very difficult job--one that most people are unwilling or unable to do. They never know from moment to moment, on duty or off, when someone might produce a weapon and try to end their lives. Yet, they are sworn to protect the public, and put themselves at risk for us every day. Even after their shifts end, they cannot turn off their instincts, grounded in their training and experience, to be vigilant and aware of their surroundings--to identify dangers before they become tragedies.

Sometimes, however, their instincts can lead them to go too far. Take, for example, the case of Emily Good, a resident of Rochester, NY, who, last month, videotaped a traffic stop outside her home. Ms. Good is a self-proclaimed activist who, earlier this year, was arrested with others who were trying to prevent a home foreclosure. But this time Ms. Good was standing in her own yard recording what was happening in the street right in front of her house.

After the person stopped was under police control, one of the officers addressed Ms. Good directly. He told her he did not "feel safe" with her standing behind him. She asserted that she clearly had no weapons and that it was her right to observe and record what was happening in her neighborhood from her own yard. The police officer said that she seemed anti-police from some unspecified thing he claimed she said to him before she started recording. (Other witnesses say Ms. Good said nothing to the officers before beginning to record them.) Refusing to return to her house as the officer suggested, Ms. Good was arrested for the crime of "obstructing governmental administration," for not following police orders. You can see her video here:

Putting aside for a moment that it is difficult to imagine how observing and recording an event from a distance is "obstructing governmental administration," one still has to wonder why this confrontation ever took place. Perhaps the officer did not feel safe at first. There was someone standing several feet away, whose intentions were unknown, while their attention was focussed elsewhere. Taking control of a situation is the best way to avoid having things get out of hand. But after realizing that the witness did not pose a physical threat, why did the officer pursue it? A less generous interpretation might be that the officer did not want his actions recorded in case they might tend to show him in an unfavorable light. If that were his motive, he certainly failed to avoid that unhappy result. But as you watch the video, it seems that the officer just doesn't like that a person refuses to automatically do whatever he says.

Granted, Emily Good did not give in, but she was fully within her rights as a citizen to do what she was doing. The fact that she continued to record the encounter after the officer threatened her with arrest showed a certain grit and determination that she will now have to defend in court.

So where does one draw the line between obeying the police and standing up for one's rights?

Certainly there are times when bystanders need to follow police orders for their own safety or the safety of others, even if they don't understand why. But there are also times when the police need to be reined in and told that they have gone too far.

It seems to me that one of the best ways to protect our rights as citizens is to use them. I also believe that peacefully recording the police from a distance while they are engaged in a traffic stop should not subject one to arrest. Sometimes, as with the Rodney King police brutality case, only a bystander with a camera can help a victim get justice. As the lauded Supreme Court justice, Louis D. Brandeis, said, "Sunshine is the best disinfectant."

What do you think? Would you have done what Emily Good did? Do you think the officer's reaction was justifiable? Just how far would you go to defend your rights?