Horse! Mule! Horse! Mule!
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Horse! Mule! Horse! Mule!

The Oxford comma, grammar, and the machloykes

A slide that Ms. Brodsky uses to show that it can be funny, misleading, and silly not to use Oxford commas. (All images courtesy Ann Brodsky)
A slide that Ms. Brodsky uses to show that it can be funny, misleading, and silly not to use Oxford commas. (All images courtesy Ann Brodsky)

No matter how much knowledge you have of either punctuation or Yiddish (or both), you probably have a sense that “Oxford comma” and “machloykes” don’t belong in the same headline. One seems so very British, the other pure mamaloshen.

Yet, after more than four decades of teaching, I had a chance to witness these two words -— and worlds —collide. And it was the absolute highlight of my teaching career.

Let’s start with machloykes, which is Yiddish for “argument” or “disagreement”; its modern Hebrew counterpart is machloket, which somehow doesn’t seem to have the same oomph. When we hear of a machloykes, we imagine talmudic scholars engaged in a back-and-forth, their debate echoing through the yeshiva walls. Or the classic song “Tradition” from Fiddler on the Roof, which begins with Tevye’s simple statement:

“Of course, there was the time when he sold him a horse, but delivered a mule, but that’s all settled now. Now we live in simple peace and harmony and …”

A villager interrupts: “It was a horse.”

Another villager: “It was a mule.”

“Horse!”

“Mule!”

“Horse!”

“Mule!”

Ann K. Brodsky

THAT’S a machloykes.

Now to the beginning of the story, which will eventually lead us to the Oxford comma.

A few years ago, semi-retired from a career of teaching and translating, I volunteered my services to Makom, a division of Jew in the City, to help a group of adult chassidim improve their English writing skills. I had been a language teacher for many years, including several decades devoted to English as a second language. How hard could this be?

Nu, pretty hard.

I soon found out that my students didn’t fit neatly into any category. They were, theoretically, native speakers of English, but many — particularly the men — could write on a fourth-grade level at best. Yet, they weren’t traditional ESL students either, like someone from another country who is learning English from scratch. They had all grown up in the United States, although many were from fairly cloistered communities like Monroe, N.Y. (which I quickly learned is pronounced MONroe, with the accent on the first syllable. Who knew?).

I honestly didn’t know where to begin.

So we started at the beginning: What is a sentence? How do I know when to stop writing one sentence and start another? What’s wrong with saying, “I write English pretty good”?

Clearly my work was cut out for me.

The cultural gaps were vast. One evening, having reminded the class that they would indeed see progress in their English if they put in the effort, I found myself repeating that old chestnut: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” (The answer: “Practice, practice.”) No one reacted. There was radio silence, first for a few seconds, then an uncomfortable few more. Finally, one participant asked, “What’s that?” “What’s what?” I countered. “The place you mentioned.” Ah, of course; not a single student had heard of Carnegie Hall.

We also had to do some consciousness-raising about the difference between Standard American English and what I gently referred to as “Yiddish-speak,” particularly in word order, as seen here: “I’m learning in this class many new things.” The classic example, whether apocryphal or actually overheard in Monsey or New Square, is “Throw me out the window a towel.” See the problem? Now try correcting that problem without using terms like “verb” and “direct object.”

All of my students were incredibly dedicated. We met twice weekly for an hour, no small commitment. Some were comfortable using the camera on Zoom; others preferred to tune in just with audio. One fellow joined the class on his iPhone from his car. Another, living in Israel, woke up at 3:30 a.m. Rechavia-time and hardly missed a class.

Eventually, though, we had to face the music and talk about the comma. For such a tiny squiggle, the comma is the bugaboo of punctuation.

We started with things in a series, like: “I went to the store to buy milk, bread, and eggs.” Simple, right? Not so fast. That last comma — the one before “and”  — is called a serial comma, or an Oxford comma. It is, technically, optional, so this version (without the final comma) is also correct: “I went to the store to buy milk, bread and eggs.” But tell that to the pro-Oxford comma faction!

And if you Google “Oxford comma defense,” prepare yourself for some strong language. This smidgen of punctuation is the cause of virtual fisticuffs between otherwise mild-mannered grammarians, as well as the source of endless groan-worthy examples, like “I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.” (Without the Oxford comma, you’re laying claim to a rather interesting mother and father.) And yes, there are Oxford comma memes and merch; this writer happens to own a tee-shirt emblazoned with the seal of the “Oxford Comma Preservation Society: Defenders of Tradition, Form, and Clarity.”

After several weeks, many students had made astounding progress, becoming real experts in syntax and basic punctuation. One young man, whom I’ll call Yanky, was the class’s undisputed comma champion: he had mastered how to use commas in a series, how to set off appositives, how to correct run-ons and comma splices … if there was a comma to be found (or deleted), Yanky was your man.

About halfway through the course, I presented a midterm based on all the material we had covered thus far. As part of the review, I asked if the comma usage in the following sentence was correct:

“I enjoy learning the rules of capitalization, grammar, and punctuation.” (Remember, the last comma is optional.)

My students were on to me; they seemed to know this was a trick question. No one ventured an answer. The tension mounted. Finally, Yanky’s voice rang out: “It’s a machloykes!”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Before the course ended, one student asked if I would write a recommendation letter on his behalf to the “Mature Entry” program at a well-known university. I not only agreed but wrote in my letter: “In more than four decades of teaching, I can state unequivocally that I have never been as enthusiastic in recommending a student for college study.” He was accepted.

As any teacher worth his or her salt will tell you, we do indeed learn as much from our students as we impart to them. To quote R. Chanina from the Talmud: “I have learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues, and the most from my students” (Ta’anis 7a). What did I learn from this unique group of students? Humility, dedication, perseverance, and excitement for learning.

Ann Brodsky of Fair Lawn is a proud word nerd, an enthusiast of all things language-related. She is a lifelong educator, now at Hunter College, as well as an editor and translator.

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