Monday, January 23, 2006

In Search of Mrs. Hagel

After 15 years I can still name every teacher I had in High School. I owe much of the knowledge I rely on today to their tutelage. The memories I have of their classes range from blurry, general impressions to crystal-clear lessons that I can still recite today. One  of those lessons has shaped almost every day of my life since.

The class was journalistic writing and the teacher was Mrs. Hagel. Mrs. Hagel was younger than some of the teachers at Powell High who continued to lecture the same lessons from well-worn texts year after year. She brought a vibrancy and enthusiasm to her classes that I enjoyed. She instructed more as a mentor than as a teacher. As advisor to the school newspaper she had two classrooms, one with traditional desks and the other with large round tables that we would gather around to collaborate on group assignments, (very forward thinking in 1986 Wyoming).

I remember she was one of the first teachers to have a computer in her room. It was a Mac Plus that was used by Mrs. Hagel and her newspaper staff to layout the school newspaper with PageMaker and a LaserWriter (can you believe the LaserWriter cost $6995 back in 1985?). Although I wasn’t on the official newspaper staff, she would allow me access to her computer. I think even back then I was a bit of a geek and as such was pressed into service when the silly box with a keyboard and mouse was not behaving. I am solely responsible for installing the Moose on her computer. (That didn’t last long.)

The writing I do today is strongly influenced by her class. We discussed many usages of grammar and I call on them often. One that I remember fondly was the use of the serial comma. Only that’s not what we called it in her class; I’ve only learned that name for it recently. My memory of the lesson is vivid, for it seemed that she was giving me a nugget of grammatical truth that would set me apart from my under-achieving contemporaries. The lesson went something like this: “You know how as a freshman you were taught to separate each item in a list with a comma? Well, modern style calls for the omission of the last comma. So instead of snow, rain, and sleet, you can now just write snow, rain and sleet.” I remember thinking that Mrs. Hagel was on the cutting edge for giving us this piece of tradition altering knowledge. Because of the advent of proportional width fonts I had just unlearned the use of 2 spaces to separate sentences, so I absorbed the dropping of the comma readily. With her warning that the older style was still accepted and many would not embrace this new usage, I held my head high as other teachers marked my papers. I raised my nose and sniffed at the air as I saw my classmates stuck in the past constantly typing commas for which there was no need.

I have continued this practice unswervingly for the past 15 years. I had assumed that eventually the rest of the writing world would catch-up to us early-adopters and I would only see that final comma in the oldest of manuscripts. Except that never happened, instead [Pullout: ]  I see generous comma usage all around me. Perplexed, I went looking for an answer to this inconsistency. I found numerous discussions on the topic and they all led me down a path that I did not expect.

It appears that each comma of a list is very much required in modern writing style. The reason is quite sensible and has everything to do with clarity. Consider this, “Much thanks to my parents, Blake and Christa”, without the serial comma it could be interpreted, by those who don’t know my family, that Blake and Christa are my parents. When written like this, “Much thanks to my parents, Blake, and Christa”, it is clear that I am thankful to all 4 parties listed.

Numerous style authorities document serial comma use. The dissenters to this style are British guides and newspaper guidelines, namely the AP style guide. It seems that the space saved on a newspaper page by omitting the serial comma is enough to forego its use.

Could it be that she was teaching the AP style and I missed that part of the lesson? It was a class on journalistic writing. I don’t remember discussing many style guidelines that were reserved only for journalism, so this one should have stuck out if that was the case. Could it be that I was eager to differentiate myself from the other writers at Powell High School, so I ignored the part about its journalism only usage? My ego could be at work here. I can’t imagine that Mrs. Hagel got it wrong. (Although I think her husband was the editor for the local paper, hmm. Perhaps in her house AP style was the only one that mattered.)

Whatever the reason, I’ve been incorrectly skipping the serial comma for years. One only has to scroll back to my December, 9 post to see its misuse right on this page. I have begun using the correct style and soon it will seem natural. I doubt I will ever place a comma before a conjunction again without wondering if Mrs. Hagel is still teaching, what her students are learning about the serial comma, and whether she knows how far her lessons have reached.


Blogger Chris Smith said...

Ah, grammar. I was, for the most part, an English flunky all of my school years. I recall getting straight A's in 8th grade accept for English which was represented by a big fat D. I also recall how my dad didn't notice the straight A's but certainly noticed the D! It is funny, I have learned more after college about writing and grammar than I ever did in school. I don't know if that is saying much or very little...

Mon Jan 23, 09:41:00 AM PST  
Blogger Johnathan M. Thomas said...

Funny, I thought this blog was in some response to my grammatical blogging efforts. When I write for our church bulletin or something that will be published, I always have one of our school teachers check my work. Now I wonder if that's a good idea.

I write like I talk. I write more at night when I am tired. In my English class, I always thought "F" meant "FANTASTIC!"

I think I better find my Little Brown Handbook


Mon Jan 23, 10:52:00 AM PST  
Blogger Lindsey said...

Wow, you've spent a lot more time thinking about this than I have...! I still put two spaces between sentences (though of course HTML "fixes" that for me). Call it nostalgia. As for serial commas, I just go with whatever looks right.

If it makes you feel any better, I would bet money that no one has ever looked at your blog and said, "Hey, doesn't that guy know the serial comma rule?"

Mon Jan 23, 11:57:00 AM PST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh man. AP style. Blech. That stuff is a headache and a half.

I still have nightmares about periods, commas, and abbreviations from my News Writing Class last semster. Yuck.

Mon Jan 23, 10:42:00 PM PST  
Blogger Jason Hill said...

I'm glad to find I'm not in this boat alone. I think some of us lean more toward the math/science/computer side of the knowledge spectrum, and when we have to use words to communicate it stretches us. (Like, I'm pretty sure that I just constructed a compound sentence with two independent clauses joined by a conjunction necessitating a comma, [I think].)

Lindsey, I cringe a little bit at your statement about knowing how many commas to use because it looks right. I consider you an accomplished wordsmith so you can trust your comma intuitions, I, on the other hand, need a few more rules to guide me. In other words, my intuition stinks.

The theme that I've uncovered here is my need to be right. I want to make correct grammar choices when I write. I thought my serial comma use was correct; finding out that it was wrong has caused me to take a closer look at all of the rules that I am following.

Tue Jan 24, 10:12:00 AM PST  
Blogger Lindsey said...

Good insights. And for those very reasons, which are admirable in themselves, you would make an excellent grammar teacher. I can edit like the dickens, but when it comes to the classroom, I'm with Jack Handey:

Instead of having "answers" on a math test, they should just call them "impressions," and if you got a different "impression," so what, can't we all be brothers?

(Now, do those commas belong inside the quotation marks, or outside?)

Seriously, if there's a rule, I firmly believe it should be followed. But if there are multiple contradictory rules, my brain can't handle the dissonance, and so they cancel each other out. Too many rules lead to as much chaos as no rules at all, between my ears at least.

But I'm truly sorry to have induced cringing.

Tue Jan 24, 02:52:00 PM PST  
Anonymous Stephanie said...

all i have to say is what in the world were you doing up at 4:19am!? i'd be worried about more than commas at that hour. lol. =>

Sun Jan 29, 09:52:00 PM PST  
Anonymous Allan White said...

Two things I must say:

- Read Lynne Truss' Eats, Shoots, and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. Quite funny, very insightful, most informative.

- Jay, the CSS is off the hook! Awesome column flow, looks like the page of an elegant book. And look at that big comma!!!!!

Tue Jan 31, 10:29:00 PM PST  
Anonymous Allan White said...

Lindsey, Truss discusses such niceties and contradictions in her book.

Personally, I think the comma should always be inside the quotes. Outside just looks ridiculous. It's like an unclosed HTML tag right J?

Tue Jan 31, 10:33:00 PM PST  
Blogger Rebecca said...

Doesn't anyone else see the funnier story here? What if Blake and Christa were your parents? Ok, I'm the immature one here. :)

I usually drop the last comma as well, however, when it ends up making your wife and your brother your parents, it should definately be included (did I just use too many commas?). I'm so stressed out!

Thu Feb 09, 09:12:00 AM PST  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I was visiting my mother, Mrs. Hagel, over spring break, and I saw your blog url written on a piece of paper. I think your mom had e-mailed it to her. She’s thinking of something clever to say back, probably researching it, trying to find evidence she’s still right, after all these years. (She hates to be wrong.) She’s actually not teaching anymore, but I know for a fact you were one of her favorite students. I’m so sorry about your tree house! My husband and I just moved to Portland, last year. The next time Mrs. Hagel comes for a visit, I’m sure I can hook you up with a mini grammar workshop, and coffee. I’m horrible! You have no idea how much of a crutch it is to have parents who are so proficient when it comes to these sorts of things.


Mon Apr 17, 10:59:00 AM PDT  
Blogger Jason Hill said...

Thank you for the kind note. I had a suspicion that my mom was doing some detective work, but I hadn't heard she got so far.

Tell your mom that I would love to hear from her, either here or in an email. (jasonhillpdx at And a real meeting in Portland would be splendid.

I hope you are enjoying Portland, I have been here since 89. If there is anything I can help you with, don't hesitate to get a hold of me--we WYO kids need to stick together!

Thu Apr 20, 01:24:00 PM PDT  

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