The River Takes a Tree

For years, I’ve taken pictures of the same tree leaning over the Navidad River. The pictures have been at different seasons and different water levels. But this weekend, the tree was gone without a trace. Most my recent picture of it was April 14, so the river took the tree after that. A nearby flood gauge shows that the river peaked shortly after my last photo of the tree.

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Evolution of Language

Bryan Garner offers this Quote of the Day:

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This is the long, twilight struggle between descriptivists and prescriptivists.

Descriptivists, who hold that language is whatever people do from time to time, must win in the end.

But prescriptivists, who hold that language rules should be observed, must fight a never-ending rearguard action, yielding ground slowly and reluctantly.

I am a prescriptivist at heart.

A Shortage of What?

One often hears that, if the government were put in charge of the Sahara, we would soon enough have a shortage of sand. The details vary, and the saying is attributed to different people, but the point is generally consistent.

Now we have a case in point. Venezuela is said to have the largest proven petroleum reserves in the world. But the government has been unable to keep the nationalized refineries running, so it imports gasoline and resells it for less than it pays. As a result, Venezuela has a shortage of gasoline.

As the company’s crumbling refineries fail to meet domestic demand, imports have become a financial burden because the country buys fuel abroad at market prices only to sell it for pennies per gallon at home. PDVSA, as the state-run producer is known, has been reducing the money-losing imports as it prepares for $2 billion in bond payments due next month, said Jose Brito, an opposition lawmaker on the National Assembly’s oil commission.

“They’re not importing enough because they are saving up to pay the debt,” he said in a telephone interview. “It’s unbelievable that this is happening in an oil producing country.”

Good grief.




The Oxford Comma, Again

A recent labor-law case (O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy) turned on the absence of the Oxford Comma. The Oxford Comma is the last comma in a series. For example, guests at my wedding included my parents, Winston Churchill, and Vladimir Lenin. Omitting the comma would cast the sentence as “guests at my wedding included my parents, Winston Churchill and Vladimir Lenin.” Depending on how you read that, I could have an interesting family.

The employer did not have to pay minimum wage to certain employees if they came within an exemption in the law. The exemption applies to employees engaged in canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of certain products.

The subject employees worked in distribution but they did no packing. Are they exempt? That depends on whether “packing” modifies only shipment or both shipment and distribution. It’s hard to say from the language above.

The court fell back on the rule that, in cases of ambiguity, such exemptions should be construed in favor of the employee. Too bad for the employer.

Of course, had there been a comma after “shipment,” it would have been clear that the exemption did not apply. No lawsuit would have been necessary and the parties need not have spent tens of thousands of dollars and who knows how many years to get this result. To be sure the employer won such a case, the drafter would have had to rephrase the sentence, not an onerous task.

Again, the best that can be said for omitting the Oxford Comma is that the omission is not always ambiguous. So if your goal is to avoid ambiguity some of the time, by all means omit the Oxford Comma.