Friday, December 31, 2010

Old Men and Babies

Connye Griffin writes My Writing and Editing Coach

Good literature is like a set of nesting dolls. The large, outer doll is the story itself. It provides shape and boundaries. Inside that doll is a smaller one that seems to be identical except, of course, in size, and inside the second is a third and fourth, each one slightly smaller than the one before. Like characters and conflicts, the dolls complement each other, each component essential to the experience of discovery as we readers turn page after page.

Archetypal patterns, including character, quests, and symbols, are the designs on the dolls. Good writers challenge us with complex, intricate designs, using simple, archetypal tools. Clever readers observe the designs as they peel back the layers of each doll, enjoying the familiar patterns that have been woven to create a new whole, anticipating the overall meaning that awaits when the last doll is revealed.

On December 31, let us now consider the overall meanings associated with two more simple archetypal symbols: old men and babies, also known as Father Time and New Year. Revelers and readers are familiar with these iconic symbols for the old year giving way to the new, but great writers elaborate upon the simple symbols, using them to jar our imaginations and provide new perspectives for us to consider.

William Shakespeare weaves images of the old giving way into his Sonnet 73, and in so doing, he creates a portrait of love. He writes:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang. 4
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest. 8
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish'd by. 12
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

In the first quatrain, the speaker compares his life-stage to late Fall. He exists in a time when few leaves hang upon the boughs and the birds have flown south, their songs no longer heard among the trees.

In the second quatrain, the speaker associates his age with the end of a day. He dwells in twilight that will soon give way to black night, a natural mirror image for death itself for like death, night is the time for rest.

The third quatrain equates the speaker’s life to a fire that, in youth, blazed bright and warm. Now, however, only embers glow upon a deep bed of ash, the ashes that will soon suffocate the embers.

In the final couplet, the reader learns that the speaker’s beloved beholds (1) and sees (5, 9) Father Time’s grip. The beloved knows that the lovers’ time together is brief; thus, love grows stronger.

Charles Dickens, in Dombey and Son, opens his novel with images of Father Time and New Year:

DOMBEY sat in the corner of the darkened room in the great arm-chair by the bedside, and Son lay tucked up warm in a little basket bedstead, carefully disposed on a low settee immediately in front of the fire and close to it, as if his constitution were analogous to that of a muffin, and it was essential to toast him brown while he was very new. Dombey was about eight-and-forty years of age. Son about eight-and-forty minutes. Dombey was rather bald, rather red, and though a handsome well-made man, too stern and pompous in appearance, to be prepossessing. Son was very bald, and very red, and though (of course) an undeniably fine infant, somewhat crushed and spotty in his general effect, as yet. On the brow of Dombey, Time and his brother Care had set some marks, as on a tree that was to come down in good time--remorseless twins they are for striding through their human forests, notching as they go--while the countenance of Son was crossed and recrossed with a thousand little creases, which the same deceitful Time would take delight in smoothing out and wearing away with the flat part of his scythe, as a preparation of the surface for his deeper operations.

Dickens uses the iconic Time, scythe in hand, to suggest that Dombey, at 48, is already care-worn whereas Son is yet unaware of the knicks and scars ahead of him. Son’s tomorrow has yet to be written; his father’s book is already thick and will sooner come to its end.

In The Poisonwood Bible, Adah observes that, “The death of something living is the price of our own survival, and we pay it again and again. We have no choice. It is the one solemn promise every life on earth is born and bound to keep." This oblique reference to Father Time, to the “whips and scorns of time” (Shakespeare, Hamlet), and to the quid pro quo of sovereignty calls to mind the brutal truth that all living things give way. New Year and new life will also age and fade.

We hope for the best when new life or a new year begins. We imagine that dreams will come true, that promises will be kept, that love will thrive, and that tragedy will recede. Thus, when authors introduce babies and spring, they count on our emotional investment and often play against our expectations to surprise us or even shock us. Sharon Olds does this in a poem entitled “Rite of Passage:”

As the guests arrive at our son’s party
they gather in the living room—
short men, men in first grade
with smooth jaws and chins.
Hands in pockets, they stand around
jostling, jockeying for place, small fights
breaking out and calming. One says to another
How old are you? —Six. —I’m seven. —So?
They eye each other, seeing themselves
tiny in the other’s pupils. They clear their
throats a lot, a room of small bankers,
they fold their arms and frown. I could beat you
up, a seven says to a six,
the midnight cake, round and heavy as a
turret behind them on the table. My son,
freckles like specks of nutmeg on his cheeks,
chest narrow as the balsa keel of a
model boat, long hands
cool and thin as the day they guided him
out of me, speaks up as a host
for the sake of the group.
We could easily kill a two-year-old,
he says in his clear voice. The other
men agree, they clear their throats
like Generals, they relax and get down to
playing war, celebrating my son’s life.

We readers expect children of six and seven to still have smooth foreheads. No care or worry has scarred them--except, these boys lack the innocence we expect. They care deeply about power and hierarchy. They exist in a world that prepares them for combat.

So, dear reader, when you read of an old man or babies, consider them as icons, as archetypal symbols, then evaluate the writer’s use of them. In each writer’s design is a theme, one that enriches our understanding of old and new, age and youth, past and present.

Reading Challenge:

Read any one or all of the works listed in this blog. You may also wish to read Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor. In it, you will find humor, insight, and tools to help you analyze archetypes of all kinds.

Writing Challenge:

Search your writing journals for a story about the old giving way to the new. Turn your journal entry into a “fabulous reality,” using the iconic symbols of old (idea, year, age) yielding to the new (idea, year or phase).

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

Costello once asked Abbot who’s on first? The correct answer is Who--Who is on first [base], but Costello cannot make the leap from the interrogative who to the word used as a surname so he remains confused. The comic bit is classic, still very funny, and available online. Enjoy, and while you do, remember that two versions of who’s exist: who’s, the contraction, and whose, the possessive. Some of my former students seemed to have lost track of the distinctions between the two parts of speech and the correct way to spell each. Try to avoid their mistakes.

Who’s = who is or who was; e. g., Who’s invited to John’s party?

Whose = the possessive form of who; e. g., Whose party is this invitation for? John’s!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Water, Ablutions, and Rebirth

Water has talismanic power. Surely ancient men marveled at its benign effects on the earth. They observed the Spring rains wash away Winter’s debris and nourish the seedlings buried in the soil. They concluded that water cleanses and contributes to rebirth.

No wonder, then, that water symbolizes physical and spiritual renewal in most of the world’s major religions. Christian sects spritz, pour, or dunk when they christen and baptize novices into a new life within the church. Followers of the Shinto, Buddhist, Hindu, Islam, Zoroastrian, and Jewish faiths practice ritual cleansing before spiritual devotions, and several of these religions believe that flowing waters are holy places. Buddhists also celebrate the life cycle with water. At funerals, Buddhists often fill a vessel with water that overflows its rim to signify that all things flow from separate beings into one larger whole as rivers flow into the sea.

Secular texts, including books, poems, and plays, are full of symbolic references to water, and water signifies the same things it does in nature and religion: water cleanses and renews the physical world and the spirit. A few of my favorite literary works featuring water as a symbol appear below.

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art--
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth's human shores
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors--
No--yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever--or else swoon to death.

By John Keats

In Keats’ sonnet, appearing above, the speaker longs to be constant, like a star that oversees the Earth, including the “moving waters” as they cleanse and purify. The speaker takes exception to being alone as a star is; he does not admire the star’s singular circumstance. Keats’ speaker wishes to be constant with his beloved. If he must be alone, he’d rather “swoon to death.”

Barbara Kingsolver plays against reader expectations for water as a purifying, sustaining, or renewing element in Kingsolver’s epic story, The Poisonwood Bible, a novel that recounts the story of the Price family in Africa in the late 1950s and 60s when Mrs. Price, Orleanna, washes “up … on the riptide of … [her] husband's confidence and the undertow of … [her] children's needs.” With these water references, Orleanna introduces ominous tones for her move to Africa. Riptides and undertows are dangerous; they carry people far from shore and may even overpower the swimmer. Water, for Orleanna, signifies a mighty foe just as it does for her guilt-ridden husband, Nathan, who hopes to be reborn by proselytizing to and saving the Kilangans. He preaches an urgent message to them, trying to persuade them that they are evil, born in and of sin, living in sin. He offers salvation and invites them to join him at the river’s edge so that they may be forgiven and reborn through baptism, but the Africans ignore his condemnation and his version of salvation. They know that the river is fraught with danger, foremost among them the alligator. The Kilangans refuse the rebirth that Nathan offers; they do not believe that they need to be washed down the gullet of a huge reptile in order to the washed clean. They simply continue their labor, accepting their fate and living meekly.

More often, water signifies a clean, fertile force in nature. W. H. Auden’s poem, “As I Walked Out One Evening,” opens and closes with a reference to a “brimming river” that continues even after humans have passed away. His use of the river suggests a life force that persists and continues well beyond the life span of men and women.

For both Stephen Daedalus in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, water is dirty or polluted in the early chapters of the novels, when fear and doubt governs both characters. In the first book of Stephen’s story, school mates shove him into a dirty puddle of water, and he struggles to be free of the filth that seems to penetrate his spirit. Similarly, Raskolnikov exists in a filthy city, St. Petersburg, Russia, where the river’s stench invades his soul. By the closing chapters of both novels, the water runs clean and reflects the sun, mirroring the transformation in the characters from lost to found. Stephen accepts himself as an artist while standing on the shore, gazing upon a woman wading in the sea, a brilliant sky above. Raskolnikov relents his alienation and disease as he looks across a clean, fast-running stream where Sonya waits for him.

Water then, like archetypal characters, ripples with symbolic possibilities. A writer relies upon your understanding of water’s natural properties to purge old, dead growth and renew. Spiritual men have transferred the natural properties of water and endowed them with religious significance. Writers make use of both and may even contrast our expectations for water with new, challenging ideas in order to add irony or advance our understanding of a character’s growth.

Reading Challenge:

Read any one or all of the work listed in this post. These include: John Keats’ “Bright Star,” Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, W. H. Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening,” James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

Writing Challenge:

Write a poem, tell a story, or create a “fabulous reality” that makes use of water, an archetypal symbol.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM): Pesky Apostrophes

I often receive mail incorrectly addressed because, somehow, apostrophes have wiggled their way into the plural form of family names. For example: A letter to everyone in the family might begin “Dear Smith’s” or the outside envelope might read “To All the Jones’s.”

Why? Plural forms do not need apostrophes! Only possessive forms of words need apostrophes. Allow me to illustrate.

• All dogs go to heaven.
• All dogs wear collars.
• Where are the dogs’ collars?
• A dog’s heaven is surely paved with rawhide.

We need no apostrophe to transform one dog into several. We simply add an “S.” On the other hand, when we wish to communicate that something belongs to or with a dog, we must add the apostrophe to signal a possessive form.

Proper surnames are not different. John Doe is one man in a family correctly written as “Does” (not to be confused with female deer or action verbs). Mary Smith is one woman in a family correctly written as “Smiths.” So when you address an invitation to all the “Does” or all the “Smiths,” tell the apostrophe to stay home alone.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

Friday, December 17, 2010

Here Comes the Sun: Another Literary Archetype

Here comes the sun . . . the smiles returning to the faces . . .
Sun, sun, sun, here it comes. . . . and I say it’s all right.
(George Harrison, The Beatles)

Recorded on the Abbey Road album, one of the best albums ever recorded, in my opinion, “Here Comes the Sun” suggests the powerful, archetypal symbolism of the sun and light. When it’s been a long cold lonely winter, the sun’s warmth renews us; we feel hopeful and smiles return to our faces as the ice slowly melts. Such is the power of the sun’s rays, and that is the sun’s archetypal meaning.

Light and the sun are also part of many creation stories. In ancient Greek mythology, before the Earth came into being, a dark void existed. With light comes form, and the form becomes complex, leading to relationships, especially love, and to civilizations that rise and fall.

In Genesis, the Lord cries “Let there be light,” and the vast darkness recedes. With the command for light come land and water, diverse plants, myriad animals, man and woman, human and spiritual bonds, and order. In other words, dark suggests nothingness whereas light suggests life that teems and stirs.

Another Greek myth featuring Prometheus enriches our understanding of light and dark. In it, humans exist in ignorance, barely able to survive until Prometheus steals fire from the gods and gives it to mankind. With fire, humans can penetrate the darkness—literally. Fire, like the lighthouse on a rocky shore, allows men to find their way in the dark mists of the unknown. Men use fire to cook foods and make medicines; i. e., fire penetrates the unknowns of disease, allowing men to become self-sufficient. Thus, Prometheus’ gift to man was enlightenment, and both the sun and light represent knowledge and enlightenment.

Just as George Harrison suggests in “Here Comes the Sun,” the sun renews and stimulates, bringing smiles to our faces, and the dawn of a new day restores hope. We emerge from the lonely, disorienting night, warming with the sun’s rays, the light drawing us onward. We leave uncertainty and doubt to nightmare.

Reading Challenge:

Read Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns.

Writing Challenge:

Write an analytical essay that explains the symbolic significance of sun and light in Hosseini’s novel.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM): The Forgotten Subjunctive

Once upon a time, the correct past tense subjunctive verb was “were” when expressing a wish or when expressing a conditional in phrases and clauses that use “if” or “as if.” In formal speaking and writing, the correct verb choice is still “were.” For example:

• I wish I were King of the World, not I wish I was King . . .
• If I were you, not if I was you . . .
• He acts as if he were King of the World, not he acts as if he was King of the World

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Simple Meal with Symbolic Significance

Surely, every parent hopes to teach his child good dietary habits and to be successful in school. After all, good dietary habits lead to life-long health and a successful school career opens the door to a lifetime of opportunity and self-sufficiency.

Dinner together is one ritual that parents can honor in order to instill good dietary habits and teach academic success. The simple act of breaking bread together can plant the seeds for a lifetime of bountiful harvests.

Movies and literature seem to have recognized the power of breaking bread long before the most recent round of parenting tips and talk-show blather. Indeed, the feast, whether an intimate dinner for two or an entire community, is iconic; i. e., it is a conventional archetypal symbol for:

• Sharing
• Celebrating
• Communicating

Sharing. When the lost and abused Frankenstein in Young Frankenstein (1974) stumbles into a blind man’s hut, the monster answers the old man’s prayer, asking for a visitor to forestall his great loneliness. In gratitude, the host offers soup as comfort against the cold and wine in honor of friendship. The blind man shares what little he has as a way of bringing strangers together and sustaining them on their long, separate journeys. Of course, as Gene Wilder intended, the scene plays against the wholesome, gratifying meanings, and in its incongruities, is very funny.

On the other hand, the recent holiday, Thanksgiving, usually honored in a spirit of sharing and caring, commemorates a legendary act of sharing when the Native Americans offered what they could to the hungry and grateful Pilgrims. In the nearly four hundred years since, families and friends gather to share what their labor has provided.

Breaking bread also has religious significance. From the Last Supper forward, believers accept the sacrament of communion in order to share in the mercy and sacrifice of the Redeemer. In addition, some religious orders teach acolytes to eschew money, permanent shelter, and regular provisions, relying upon the good nature and good deeds of others on their journey. Those who share with the seeker derive spiritual rewards.

. From the cake that honors birthday celebrants to a multi-course dinner served after a wedding, breaking bread signifies celebration. For the upcoming holidays, including Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, or the Chinese New Year, families will labor to prepare traditional dishes. In Charles Dickens’ world, a great goose and Figgy Pudding bring joy. In many dairy aisles, the annual appearance of eggnog in a carton cries “Merry Christmas.”

In the Jewish tradition, foods such as potato latkes, cooked in oil, mirror the reason for the season: oil that miraculously burned much longer than it should have. For Kwanzaa, dishes that link to African roots and the foods that slaves had access to fill the tables. These include collard greens, gumbos that used a little bit of whatever plus okra, and corn or cornbread. The Asian tradition of ringing in the New Year invites good fortune so foods are prepared and served whole so as not to carve up one’s luck.

Communicating. Sometimes the food is the message. In Babette’s Feast, Babette uses her lottery loot and her consummate skill as a cook to prepare a lavish feast for people unaccustomed to fine cuisine. She does this purely--with no thought of reward. She simply wishes to thank the villagers for allowing her to live among them. Still, breaking such fine bread together makes the elderly guests at the table whole and restores everyone to a state of well-being. Such is the communicative and healing power of breaking bread.

Chocolate has similar powers in Chocolat. Estranged couples fall in love again and many find the strength to overcome adversity simply by allowing in the delectable scent and flavors of chocolate. It communicates life’s pleasures and heals wounds.

In Eat Drink Man Woman, viewers infer that among the necessities for a full life are eating, drinking, and love. Indeed, preparing food with care and attention to detail is the metaphor for building a fulfilling relationship. One must carefully plan and attend to every detail in order to nurture and foster love.

Film-makers and authors may also use the literary archetype of breaking bread as the opposite of sharing, celebrating, and communicating. American Beauty, starring Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening, plays against all these symbolic meanings. Kevin Spacey, the father who just quit his job, asks his wife or daughter to pass the asparagus repeatedly. He finally stands to retrieve it himself, only to throw the plate against the wall. All of this action occurs against the musical backdrop of Frank Sinatra bouncing out the tune “Call Me Irresponsible,” a trait that his wife truly believes him to possess.

The dinner also introduces irony. Most people would not celebrate quitting or losing a job; in doing so, the father does not live up to the fatherly duty of providing for the family, a fact that his shrill, snarky wife points out. The daughter even arrives late and tries to run from her parents’ bitter quarrel; she does not wish to partake of the food and does not eat a single bite. Certainly, no one celebrates anything except lowered expectations, disappointments, and love lost.

Finally, the food and dinner itself does not fulfill or heal. It is a perfunctory event wherein people pretend civility by saying “please” when asking for a dish to be passed, but all civility disappears when the father’s requests go unheard and he hurls the dish against the wall. The mother has set the table with candles and flowers, suggesting romance is on the menu, but the evening’s entree is vitriol, not love and respect. This family meal communicates each member’s isolation and pain.

As you read and write, be aware of the power of eating together. Writers do not simply create a dinner scene to fill space; they intend to invoke our understanding of food as a path to sharing, celebrating and communicating. They suggest themes as a result, including the ones mentioned in this post:

• Food brings people together.
• Food restores people to a state of well being.
• Food is a gift of generosity and creativity.

Reading Challenge:

Read any of the films mentioned in this post, or in honor of this time of year, read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Writing Challenge:

Make a list of films and books that include a dinner scene. Write a sentence (or two) in which you declare what the scene signifies.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM): Fewer and Less

Which of the following is correct?

• Magazines have fewer pages these days because publishing costs are high, subscription rates are low, and readers receive their news online.

• Print magazines have less readership these days because of the Internet.

• Print magazines have fewer readers these days because of the Internet.

• Fewer students qualify for student loans these days because there is less money available.

• In less than two years, many magazines have folded, and the size of individual magazines fell by a bit less than 20%.

Each of the sample sentences is correct. Can you determine the rules by observing closely the correct uses of the words?

• If the word modified has a plural form (page and pages), choose “fewer.”
• If the word has no plural form (as in “readership” or “money”), choose “less.”
• If the word modified refers to people (readers and students), choose “fewer.”
• Use “less” when modifying time (years) or numbers (percentage).

*In the interest of accuracy, the figure 20% is complete conjecture.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

Friday, December 3, 2010

Situational Archetype: The Little Engine's Quest

In blog posts from October 22 through November 26, I reviewed six of the most significant and basic conventional literary characters:

The Femme Fatale,
Father Figures, and
Mother Figures.

With this post, I shift from characters to situations in which these characters exist and in the next posts, I will take up archetypal symbols. In doing so, I will demonstrate that characters and situations and symbols weave together like strands in a multi-colored cloth, forming patterns that cohere in a single, unified whole. That whole is an overall meaning or theme.

First, is the quest, an archetypal situation. The protagonist begins at Point A in some emotional, physical, and/or spiritual state and arrives at Point Z, changed by his quest. Whether he has an assigned task or Fate simply forces him to move along, a protagonist grows and changes as a result of his journey. Some characters on a quest enjoy good fortune, leading to a good, satisfying outcome. Other characters have lousy luck, and they end tragically.

A classic children’s story, The Little Engine that Could, by Watty Piper is a paradigm for the archetypal quest situation in which a character must complete a task. The little engine’s task is to pull her load over a hill, but she cannot complete her task. She is too small. Fortunately, she perseveres and adds a second task to the first: she searches for another engine to help her. Big (male) engines refuse because they are tired or sidetracked by their own importance, but the little engine persists and finds another little engine that eagerly agrees. Together, the little engines pull the train of cars over the hill, chugging along to the rhythm of “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”

Once over the hill and on flat plains again, the first little engine continues alone, singing to herself, “I thought I could, I thought I could.” She achieved her task and more. She proved the power of teamwork, and she learned that perseverance has its own reward: a lasting belief in oneself. In those lessons, dear Readers, are overall meanings drawn from a simple, short tale. These themes include
• attitude is everything, and
• as long as time and will exist, little engines can do great things.

The Star Wars stories echo those themes, but the hills that must be overcome are much larger and metaphorical. In addition, the characters are more complex, and the consequences of failure more tragic because the Star Wars’ series is actually a story about whether good or evil will reign supreme in the hearts of men and therefore, in the universe.

One of the little engines in the complex train is Hans Solo, a man with a self-appointed task: earn money and prove his flying skills by delivering Princess Leia to Tatooine. He declares, without shame or remorse, that he is loyal to no cause except his own, but as the journey to Tatooine continues and Hans bears witness to the evils of the Empire as well as the courage and daring of the rebel forces, his task becomes secondary. Ultimately, his quest delivers him as a selfless, courageous rebel, willing to risk his life for the greater good in the universe.

The Little Engine and Hans Solo stories illustrate the situational archetype known as the quest. Each begins a journey to accomplish a task, but the task is secondary to the outcome in quest tales. What characters learn about themselves as they try to accomplish tasks and how their journey changes them are the true heart of the story; therein lie the overall meanings:

• The Little Engine that Could learns that she can persevere and triumph even when the task seems impossible.
• Hans Solo proves that adversity introduces a man to himself so that later, when Hans looks in a mirror, he finds a good man looking back, a risk-taker pursuing intangibles such as justice rather than a fistful of money.
• Even though the task itself does not begin as High Noon for good and evil, as the journey continues, good and evil forces divide and women and men must choose between them.

Reading Challenge:

Read Homer’s The Odyssey, a quest paradigm and a great story. As you read, observe the characters and identify them as one of the six basic character archetypes. In addition or instead, read Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, an extensive allusion to The Odyssey and an excellent tale of redemption set during the Civil War.

Writing Challenge:

Using The Little Engine that Could as a model, tell a quest story that your children would enjoy.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

During the first oil crisis, way back in the 1970s, I watched the numbers scroll by as I filled my car with gasoline, and I watched my paycheck strain and stretch to meet the new cost of transportation. These are now cyclical as our oil supplies wax and wane, as we become more or less concerned about our dependence upon oil, but oil reserves have even affected usage, the comma in particular.

Newspapers began their slide into extinction in the 1970s because transportation costs were like a stone cast into a pool of water: ever widening circles emanate from the first splash, in this case, OPEC and the cost of oil. Fuels required to make and deliver products grew more expensive, adding to the costs of the products themselves. These products included paper and ink so publishers and editors sought ways to cut costs; the comma became one item in a long list of cost-cutting measures. Unnecessary commas such as the Oxford (Harvard or serial comma) could be omitted, and writers could say as much while using a little less space on the page.

Here are examples of the Oxford comma choice:
• If a list of items is simple, you may omit the comma before the conjunction; e.g., Please stop at the grocery store to buy bread, orange juice and milk. A comma before the words and milk is unnecessary, but perfectly acceptable if you choose to use it.
• If a list of items is complicated, do not omit the comma before the conjunction; e.g., As you prepare for college, you must secure a PIN number from the federal government in order to complete the FAFSA before all the money are been distributed, submit applications with the correct application fee by the deadline specified by the college or university, request an application fee waiver prior to the application deadline if you cannot afford the cost of several application fees, and search for scholarships that match your personal criteria. A comma before the words and search is essential because this list is lengthy and each item in the list is lengthy.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach