Saturday, December 23, 2017

“Or,” or “, or”?

The teaser for a New York Times article asks, “Is it better to shower in the morning or at night?” The article’s headline asks, “Should you shower in the morning, or at night?” Is there a difference between “in the morning or at night” and “in the morning, or at night”?

Only the worst kind of curmudgeon would insist that the commaless question could be misunderstood as an inquiry about whether or not to shower. Cue the curmudgeon: “Yes, it is better to shower in the morning or at night. Do so and you will be less likely to offend.” To misread the commaless question in that way is to mistake an alternative question (x or y ) for a yes-no question (also called a polar question).

But sometimes a comma is crucial to avoid misreading. “Would you like coffee or tea?” is the question to ask if you want to know whether to boil water and get out cups. “Would you like coffee, or tea?” is a entirely different question. Read aloud and you can hear your voice mark the difference between the yes-no question and the alternative question. Since both Times questions are alternative questions, I would prefer a comma in each, if only for the sake of consistency. That’s the kind of thing people might have thought about at the (now-gone) copy desk.

Another way to justify a comma before or : the comma marks the omission of words, as in “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” Should you shower in the morning, or should you shower at night? Would you like coffee, or would you like tea? Earl Grey, or Irish Breakfast?

The Times headline ends with a clever touch that turns the alternative question into a polar question: “Should you shower in the morning, or at night? Yes.” In other words, there’s no easy way to decide. Well played, Times.

[About the post title: Why the comma after the first or ? Because I’m asking an alternative question.]

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