Historical Plaque Memorializes the Time Jack Kerouac & William S. Burroughs Came to Blows Over the Oxford Comma (Or Not)

Maybe it doesn’t take much to get a gram­mar nerd in a state of agi­ta­tion, or even, per­haps, vio­lent rage. While I gen­er­al­ly avoid the term “gram­mar nazi,” it does blunt­ly con­vey the severe intol­er­ance of cer­tain gram­mar­i­ans. One of the most pop­u­lar recent books on gram­mar, Lynn Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves, announces itself in its sub­ti­tle as a “Zero Tol­er­ance Approach to Punc­tu­a­tion.” And sure enough, the main title of the enter­tain­ing guide comes from a vio­lent joke, in which a pan­da enters a bar, eats a sand­wich, then shoots up the joint. Asked why, he tells the bar­tender to look up “pan­da” in the dic­tio­nary: “Pan­da. Large black-and-white bear-like mam­mal, native to Chi­na. Eats, shoots and leaves.”

Truss’s exam­ple illus­trates not a gram­mat­i­cal point of con­tention, but a mis­take, a mis­placed com­ma that com­plete­ly changes the mean­ing of a sen­tence. But we might refer to many tech­ni­cal­ly cor­rect exam­ples involv­ing the absence of the Oxford com­ma, the final com­ma in a series that sets off the last item.

Many peo­ple have argued, with par­tic­u­lar vehe­mence, that the “and” at the end of a series sat­is­fies the comma’s func­tion. No, say oth­er strict gram­mar­i­ans, who point to the con­fus­ing ambi­gu­i­ty between, say, “I went to din­ner with my sis­ter, my wife, and my friend” and “I went to din­ner with my sis­ter, my wife and my friend.” We could adduce many more poten­tial­ly embar­rass­ing exam­ples.

The Oxford com­ma is so con­tentious a gram­mat­i­cal issue that it sup­pos­ed­ly pro­voked a drunk­en fist­fight between Beat writ­ers Jack Ker­ouac and William S. Bur­roughs. At least, that is, accord­ing to a plaque at Mill No. 5 in Low­ell, Mass­a­chu­setts, a his­toric tex­tile mill built in 1873 and since revi­tal­ized into a per­for­mance space with shops and a farmer’s mar­ket. “On this site on August 15, 1968,” the plaque reads, Ker­ouac and Bur­roughs “came to blows over a dis­agree­ment regard­ing the Oxford com­ma. The event is memo­ri­al­ized in Kerouac’s ‘Doc­tor Sax’ and in the inci­dent report filed by the Low­ell Police Depart­ment.” The next line should give us a clue as to how seri­ous­ly we should take this his­tor­i­cal tid­bit: “Accord­ing to eye­wit­ness­es, Bur­roughs cor­rect­ed the spelling and gram­mar of the police report.”

The plaque is a hoax, the fight nev­er hap­pened. (And it is one of many such joke his­tor­i­cal mark­ers at the mill.) Doc­tor Sax was writ­ten nine years ear­li­er, in 1959, and Ker­ouac and Bur­roughs hadn’t even met at the time of that novel’s events. But it’s a great sto­ry. “We imag­ine Bur­roughs grab­bing the policemen’s pen,” writes Alex­is Madri­gal at The Atlantic, “lucid as a shaman, and then plop­ping onto the grass, out cold.” (The Anarchist’s Guide to His­toric House Muse­ums calls the spu­ri­ous plaque “an act of his­toric van­dal­ism.”) We like the sto­ry not only because it’s a juicy bit of lore involv­ing two leg­endary writ­ers, but also because the Oxford com­ma, for what­ev­er rea­son, is such a weird­ly inflam­ma­to­ry issue. The TED-Ed video above calls it “Grammar’s great divide.” (The com­ma acquired its name, points out Men­tal Floss, “because the Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press style guide­lines require it.”)

If it isn’t already evi­dent, I seri­ous­ly favor the Oxford com­ma, per­haps enough to defend it in pitched bat­tle. But if you need con­vinc­ing by gen­tler means, you might heed the wis­dom of The New York­er’s res­i­dent “com­ma queen,” who, in the video above, serves up anoth­er humor­ous instance of a ser­i­al com­ma faux pas involv­ing strip­pers, JFK, and Stal­in (or “the strip­pers, JFK and Stal­in”). For a much more seri­ous Oxford com­ma ker­fuf­fle, we might refer to a class action law­suit involv­ing over­time pay for truck­ers, a case that “hinged entire­ly” on the ser­i­al com­ma, “a debate that has bit­ter­ly divid­ed friends, fam­i­lies and foes,” writes Daniel Vic­tor at The New York Times, in a sen­tence that puck­ish­ly, or con­trar­i­ly, leaves out the last com­ma, and sets the gram­mar intol­er­ant among us grind­ing our teeth. But the Oxford com­ma is no joke. Its lack may cost Maine com­pa­ny Oakhurst mil­lions of dol­lars, or their employ­ees mil­lions in pay. “The debate over com­mas is often a pret­ty incon­se­quen­tial one,” writes Vic­tor. Until it isn’t, and some­one gets sued, shot, or punched in the face. So snub the Oxford com­ma, I say, at your per­il.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Jack Ker­ouac Lists 9 Essen­tials for Writ­ing Spon­ta­neous Prose

Hear Allen Gins­berg Teach “Lit­er­ary His­to­ry of the Beats”: Audio Lec­tures from His 1977 & 1981 Naropa Cours­es

Meet the “Gram­mar Vig­i­lante,” Hell-Bent on Fix­ing Gram­mat­i­cal Mis­takes on England’s Store­front Signs

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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