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The Whippet #172: Skeuomorphic Ghosts

McKinley Valentine — 7 min read

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FYI The Whippet hasn't switched to three-weekly, that's not a Thing I'm deliberately doing, it's just a thing that happens sometimes.

So you know skeuomorphic design? A skeuomorph is a decorative/ornamental feature that replicates a thing that used to be necessary. Rivets on jeans are a classic example: they used to be riveted together, now we sew them and don't need the rivets, but we keep them as decoration. Or digitally, a notes app that looks like lined paper. (People mostly talk about it in the context of apps.)

It occurred to me the other day that a ghost is a skeumorph. Specifically, the reason they look like this in pop culture, is because Europeans used to bury their dead in white shrouds.

It's meant to look like a person arisen from their grave, still draped in their burial shroud.

In contemporary Western society we mostly dress our dead in nice clothes, so seeing white cloth drapery doesn't seem creepy. We (mostly) stopped using burial shrouds, but we keep our ghosts in them for ornamental reasons. Skeuomorph!

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To the Oxford Comma fanclub: I'm sorry, but you don't know what you're talking about

[forenote that I worked as a copyeditor for like 10 years and have a qualification, this is my actual industry experience not just stuff I've googled][sorry to pull rank][this is literally the only thing I have any expertise in]

So there is a large-ish group of people who identify as pro-Oxford comma:

They use memes like the following to make the point that Oxford commas are necessary to avoid misleading sentences:

Note in those twitter bios that it's often framed like a debate – here's some snippets from other bios in the top search results:

  • "Passionate defender of the Oxford comma"
  • "and someone who strongly believes in the Oxford comma"
  • "Willing to debate the Oxford comma"
  • "Oxford comma advocate"

They're not just enthusiasts and appreciators, they see themselves as on a team, defending a position (lightheartedly but sincerely) against the anti-Oxford-commaites.

Here's the problem: there are no such people. No one on twitter has "against the Oxford comma" in their bio. There is no styleguide* on the planet that says "don't use Oxford commas".

* A styleguide is a document that large organisations have which tells you which words to capitalise, whether to write numbers as 22 or twenty-two, etc, so that all their comms look consistent even if they have tonnes of different writers. Some styleguides are broad and venerable, like the Chicago Manual of Style, and used much more widely. Here's The Guardian's; I find them quite interesting to look through.

That is literally just not a position anyone holds. It's a strawman.

"But McKinley I often see official publications not using Oxford commas"

That is true! There are genuinely two sides of the debate here, but the sides aren't Against vs For. They're 'Only When Necessary' vs 'Always, No Matter What'.

Specifically, the two teams are

  • "Only use Oxford commas where necessary to avoid ambiguity; unnecessary punctuation is visual and semantic clutter."
  • "Always use Oxford commas, even when they're not necessary, because it creates a more consistent look."

In other words, in the "the strippers, JFK and Stalin" example, both teams would tell you to use an Oxford comma, because it's necessary to avoid ambiguity.

(I said "visual clutter" and "consistent look" but this is more about subconsciously setting reader expectations and helping them read smoothly – both inconsistent punctuation and unnecessary punctuation can cause mental snags, but you have to choose.)

So, Oxford comma maximalists, the point you really need to prove is why it's important to use an Oxford comma in the sentence "I bought coffee, milk, and bread." That's the only point of disagreement you have with the Oxford comma minimalists.

Is it really better to consistently use the same punctuation every time, whether it serves a purpose or not? That's not a biased question, consistency is a valid goal. Hopefully you see why "only use a punctuation that serves a purpose" is a valid position as well.

The comic above is also a strawman because it's a badly written sentence. You don't want meaning to hinge on whether the reader notices a comma or not. If I were editing it, I'd rephrase it as "We invited JFK, Stalin[,] and the strippers."

Genuine writing tip: if you ever find yourself agonising over a single word or comma, 9 times out of 10 the problem is one level higher and you gotta rewrite the whole sentence. Your brain resists seeing this because it's lazy and rewriting is a hassle.

(I'm talking about business writing and journalism etc, not like, haiku.)

PS If you enjoyed feeling correct about the Oxford comma and I've taken that away by pointing out that no one disagrees with you, may I introduce you to the joy of responding to an X vs Y debate with "actually, I question that dichotomy."


Shrimps is bugs: the most wholesome thing on the internet recently

So someone posted on a tattoo design subreddit whether someone could design a cover-up for this tattoo –

But everyone loved it:

no one would give him any cover-up suggestions. Instead, they started drawing fan-art –

u/ZestyCthulhu, u/MrFigYum, u/tradstickydesign

– and then getting tattoos

tattoos - shrimps is bugs
a bunch from the subreddit – I left out a handful

Shrimps is bugs got its own subreddit: (which is where the photos above are from if you want to idk loook closer)

and a few days later, the original dude posted this:


Jewel Orchids

A lot of cool animal/plant photos on social media are manipulated to be more colour-saturated (or just totally fake). But the Macodes petola (a species of jewel orchid) seems to be legit! Here's a photo of one on Wikipedia:

~ marvel at me ~

Unsolicited Advice

Getting a refund on online shopping when you missed the returns deadline

Or you didn't realise Sale items aren't eligible for a refund or whatever.

I've had reasonable luck just emailing their customer service and saying "I didn't read your Returns policy properly, I thought it was 30 days, is there any chance you could make an exception for me this one time?"

This isn't a 'hack' it's just, sometimes people will help you if you ask nicely, but you might not have realised that's something you can ask for. And the person you're talking to, the customer service rep, it's not their money, so they have no emotional investment in it. But it still feels good for them to be able to help you.

Things to say clearly:

  • you made a mistake, not them
  • this would be a very generous act of goodwill on their part
  • you know it's not their policy, and that you're asking for a favour

No entitlement, no "I've been a loyal customer for x years" nonsense.

Their main fear is not the loss (a couple hundred bucks is a lot to you, but nothing to a business) but that if they do it once, you'll think that's the norm and expect it every time. Hence the "I know I'm not eligible for a refund, but..."

Anyway, like I say, this isn't a hack, you really cannot do it routinely, and I'm suggesting being honest about the reasons even if they're bad ones ("I lost track of time" ).

but if you fuck up, look, you still have one avenue left worth trying


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