Crime & Punctuation (and a cat)

Crime & Punctuation. No, not the novel by Dostoevsky that just happens to have a somewhat similar title — that one that only English majors and Russian lit students have actually read, although everyone else claims to. (Confession: at least one linguistics major has also read it.)

This book, by the slightly pseudonymous Kaitlyn Dunnett, is a mystery that takes place in the Catskills in the present day; it too might appeal to English majors, as the title suggests. The Oxford comma even plays a central role in solving the mystery (although in a somewhat odd way — more on that below). And there have to be cats — well, there’s one cat, to be precise: Calpurnia, who of course is above suspicion, in contrast to Pompeia. (You can look it up.) But this novel isn’t primarily about cats nor about commas; it’s primarily about a retired English teacher who returns to buy her childhood home and sets up shop as a freelance editor. Dunnett captures small-town upstate New York perfectly and with an especially deft hand, capturing a lot with a few brush strokes (or do I mean keystrokes?). She is especially effective at conveying some convincing cat behaviors with an economy of words; I’ve been there. And at conveying what it’s like to live in part of your house while repairs and renovations are taking place in another part; I’ve been there too. And you can definitely sense what it’s like to return to your high-school friends (and frenemies) after 50 years; I’ve been there as well. Maybe I’m particularly sensitive to that issue at this time, as I will be attending my 50th college reunion in a few months.

As a linguist, I approached Crime & Punctuation warily. A protagonist who is a retired English teacher is most likely to be prescriptive rather than descriptive. I figured that she would have plenty of annoying peeves and would insist on inaccurate “rules” of English grammar. But Dunnett is much more nuanced than that. She explicitly discusses different registers of English; although I don’t agree 100% with her characterization of them, I have to admit that she has an appropriate amount of subtlety rather than rigidity.

So what’s with the Oxford comma? If you don’t know the terminology, just be aware that it’s the optional comma found before the word and in a list, as in this example, where I’ve bolded and reddened the Oxford comma:

My cats are named Douglas, Flicka, Mollie, Vincent, and William.

Fisticuffs can ensue when people argue about whether to use this comma or omit it. (It‘s called the Oxford comma because the style guide from Oxford University is the only major British style guide that prescribes it; otherwise it’s mostly American.) The link above in the second paragraph gives several convincing examples that show why it should be used, as well as several less convincing examples that show why it should be omitted. (Not that I’m biased or anything: you can feel free to omit it if you don’t mind being wrong.) But note that I said above that Dunnett uses the Oxford comma issue in a “somewhat odd” way: what gives the killer away is not the expected issue of whether they used or omitted the Oxford comma, but rather whether they misused it:

Is that ambiguous? I think not. But of course I could be wrong.

PS: The reason that I say Kaitlyn Dunnett is “slightly” pseudonymous is seen in Wikipedia’s explanation:

Kathy Lynn Emerson is an American writer of historical and mystery novels and non-fiction. She also uses the pseudonyms Kaitlyn Dunnett and Kate Emerson.

Whodunnit? Apparently Kaitlyn done it. The other two names are for her historical novels and non-fiction.



Categories: Books, Linguistics