Saints, Milk, and Commas

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March 18, 2019 by libroshombre

You want to keep your Saint Isidores straight when you’re talking about commas. Or is it “Saints Isidore”? Either way, both were Spanish saints, but Isidore the Farmer was a poor agricultural laborer of remarkable piety and kindness, while Isidore of Seville was born to a wealthy and religiously well-connected family. As the Catholic.org website says, he “was literally born into a family of saints in sixth century Spain. Two of his brothers, Leander and Fulgentius, and one of his sisters, Florentia, are revered as saints,” with both brothers becoming bishops and the sister an abbess.

Isidore of Seville was also a bishop, and was dedicated to promoting learning and established seminaries in every Spanish diocese and wrote “The Etymologies,” the great medieval textbook that was popular for 900 years. The public library’s database OxfordReference.com said, “in the last part of his life Isidore built up an Encyclopedia – ‘The Etymologies’ – an extraordinary work for 7th century Europe and exceptional in the history of medieval Latin culture. His method was faithful to ancient tradition: he started from words, their meaning and history, to establish an immense dictionary of knowledge, structured by a dual aim: to transmit the contents of a secular scholarship ranging over the seven liberal arts.”

Isidore’s book “summarized and organized a wealth of knowledge from hundreds of classical sources,” according to Wikipedia. “Its subject matter is extremely diverse, ranging from grammar and rhetoric to the earth and cosmos, buildings, metals, war, ships, humans, animals, medicine, law, religions, and the hierarchies of angels and saints.” “Etymologies” was the most popular book in medieval libraries and was quoted by Dante, Chaucer, Petrarch, and most other literary stars. Unfortunately, it was so popular that the scribes in many monasteries and other seats of learning figured Isidore had pretty well covered it all and stopped making copies of the classics that he excerpted, and they were lost.

What does this have to do with commas, you wonder? It was Isidore who resurrected Aristophanes’ 3rd century BCE idea to use dots to show where readers should pause for breath. In ancient Greece and Rome writing was done without spaces or punctuation, and all reading was done aloud, making it difficult to know where words and sentences began and ended. Moreover, “eloquent and persuasive speech was considered more important than written language, and readers fully expected to pore over a scroll before reciting it in public. To be able to understand a text on first reading was unheard of,” according to Keith Houston’s BBC.com article, “The Mysterious Origins of Punctuation.”

Aristophenes was chief librarian of the famed Alexandrian library, and this state of affairs troubled him. He proposed using three dots, at the middle, upper, and lower areas following words where the vocal readers should take “subordinate,” “intermediate,” and “full” pauses, like commas, colons, and periods do today. However, “When the Romans took overtook the Greeks as the pre-eminent empire-builders of the ancients world, they abandoned Aristophanes’ system of dots without a second thought.” That’s how things stood until the arrival of the Renaissance, the printing press, and silent reading led to the popularization of punctuation.

“Big whoop – punctuation,” you smirk, before learning how a missing comma cost Maine’s Oakhurst Dairy $10 million. Maine law stipulates that employees get 1.5 times their normal pay for overtime work. There are exemptions for workers who are “canning processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of; Agricultural produce; Meat and fish product; and Perishable foods.” A dairy driver noticed that he wasn’t getting overtime, and that there was no comma after “or.” His union proved that the missing comma meant the phrase “packing for shipment or distribution” excluded the drivers from the exemption since they aren’t involved with packing the product, only distributing it. The judge awarded the drivers $10 million.”

If the legislative lawyers drawing up that statute had been using the Oxford comma, “an optional comma that follows the last but one item in a list of three or more items and precedes the words ‘and’ and ‘or’ … traditionally used by printers, readers, and editors at Oxford University Press,” they’d have avoided a world of hurt. However, few lawyers ever reach sainthood.

 

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