The Neapolitan Comma and How to Fix Soccer

By: Eric Clifford Graf - Feb 20, 2017, 8:03 am
How to fix soccer: get rid of unfair penalty kicks. (Soccer Training Central).

As cultures, as nations, over centuries, changes have occurred that determine what kind of society we have, what our politics are like, what kinds of rules we live by. I dream of laissez faire capitalism and constitutional monarchy, but these will never happen in my lifetime.

In academic literary studies, where I teach great fiction and analytical writing, the recent elision of the Oxford comma remains a particular thorn in my authoritarian side. I’ll never forget the day that I learned that a series of three words, such as in the phrase “that idea is stupid, arrogant, and destructive,” could now do without the Oxford comma, that is, the one after “arrogant” and before “and destructive.” Like this decision or not, even more bothersome is that it seems to be the only option. You either go with the Oxford comma or you do not.

Over the years I have written repeatedly to the MLA (Modern Language Association) –a kind of rules committee for American English– asking them to consider a pragmatic and productive alternative, what I like to call the “Neapolitan comma.” Oxford, meet Naples. The Neapolitan comma is slightly paradoxical because I use the term in reference to the absence of the Oxford comma, such as in the phrase “that is a stupid, arrogant and destructive idea.”

Unlike the MLA, however, I’m proposing the Oxford comma be retained for a series that stands alone, and only dropped as per the Neapolitan comma if the series modifies what follows. In the phrase “that idea is stupid, arrogant, and destructive,” I propose we keep the Oxford comma because the adjective series stands alone. Here the series modifies the noun “idea,” but, due to the presence of the copular verb “is,” the reader does not need to anticipate any other term. We read each word in the series –“one, two, and three”– and we are done. However, in the phrase “that is a stupid, arrogant and destructive idea,” I propose we use the vanishing Neapolitan comma in order to prompt the reader to anticipate a subsequent term. I fancy that the Neapolitan comma sounds like it reads because it disallows a pause, thus obliging us to continue on to the term being modified. We read “one, two and three something.” The Neapolitan comma asks the reader to seek out the subsequent term being modified by the series.

My point is that it makes no sense to disallow distinctions in language. This only leads to doubt and confusion; and to the degree that it does make sense to some of us out there, well, this reflects laziness, not to say a culture in decline, not to say a society of nitwits. Moreover, what I am proposing allows us to have the best of both worlds by giving each option its own signifying function. With both Oxford and Neapolitan commas in play, we make the tasks of reading and writing more precise.

I have never received a response from the MLA regarding the Neapolitan comma. The MLA should be ashamed of itself. Given its flippant attitude regarding the Oxford comma, its utter silence regarding the Neapolitan comma, and its general urge to eliminate distinctions, I’m not at all surprised by the same organization’s looney leftist politics. I am reminded of a passage in Thucydides that relates societal decay to linguistic shenanigans. But I digress.

So, even though I am a Texan, I can sympathize with Javier Marías and Arturo Pérez-Reverte regarding the new policy of the RAE (Real Academia Española), which now opposes the use of certain tildes in Spanish. These authors are right to criticize the organization’s attempts to elide distinctions. Before the new rules, the word sólo indicated the adverb “only”; whereas the word solo indicated the adjective “alone.” Now it is up to the reader to figure out if the writer intends the adverb or the adjective. With a phrase like Lo haces tú solo, there is now no immediate way to distinguish between its two possible meanings: “You are the only one who does that” or “You do that all by yourself.” In addition, the new rules introduce phonetic chaos. The pronunciation of the word guion does not coincide with the way it is written, which should be guión. Similarly, truhan does not reflect pronunciation as precise as truhán. In other cases, the RAE has permitted two pronunciations, as in austriaco and austríaco, so why have they eliminated guión and truhán? This is sad, careless, ominous even. Like the MLA, the RAE should be ashamed of itself. I’m reminded of a passage in Hobbes which relates societal decay to linguistic shenanigans. But I digress.

The problem with soccer is similar in that the rules makers are giving up on the possibility of making the game better by allowing a more proper distinction to occur. Everybody knows that a professional-level match should not end in penalty kicks. This introduces an unacceptable level of luck to a sport that is otherwise nearly perfect. It’s tantamount to flipping a coin to decide who wins, and we know, intuitively, that is wrong, immoral. It’s worse. As things stand, soccer, at crucial moments, actually incentivizes playing for a tie. Which is to say that, under certain conditions, the rules of soccer actually dis-incentivize winning.

Over the years I have written repeatedly to FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association), asking them to consider a better alternative to penalty kicks when an important match ends in a tie. In America, every season brings rule changes in baseball, football, and basketball. Although baseball remains the world’s greatest sport, I happen to think that soccer is a more interesting and beautiful game than either basketball or football. Still, I think it could be improved by implementing what I like to call the “sudden death shootout.” I’m also open to calling this “Neapolitan overtime.”

The solution is simple. During the sudden death shootout, a player from each side is eliminated every 3 minutes and the size of the field of play is radically reduced (see diagrams). When an important match is tied after 90 minutes, the goals are moved toward the half-way line and placed on the penalty box line. The penalty box line becomes the new goal line and the penalty arc functions as did the penalty box. The only adjustment to the pitch is that the short lines of the penalty box are extended to the half-way line, making touchlines for sudden death shootouts.

Traditional Soccer Field
Traditional Soccer Field
“Sudden Death Shootout Soccer Pitch”


The first team to score wins. With a pitch that is now roughly a third the size of the original, goals will be easier to score and the game’s pace will increase. Moreover, as players are removed, the game will spiral toward a frantic climax. Each team picks which of its players to eliminate every 3 minutes. Thus, if the game is still tied after an additional 30 minutes, fans will witness a “one-on-one” encounter between the two best players from each side. Imagine, after 120 minutes, everything will boil down to Leonel Messi versus Cristiano Ronaldo. This change would also allow Americans to finally enjoy the sport because important games can no longer end so stupidly. I don’t have to explain to FIFA what an increase in American viewers would mean for soccer. I dream of calling the organization FISA.

I have never received a response from FIFA regarding the sudden death shootout. Like the MLA and the RAE, FIFA should be ashamed of itself. At the very least, they should allow me to circulate a survey among the players of the top European teams measuring their openness to this reform. I wager FIFA won’t allow this because FIFA is made up of a lot of corrupt cowards. Like writing that contains precise and significant tildes and commas, a more precise and significant game of soccer will remain a dream. When I think of organizations like the MLA, the RAE, and FIFA, I am reminded of a passage in Cervantes which reserves a special place in Hell, just inside the gates, where devils play soccer with imaginary books instead of real balls.

Eric Clifford Graf Eric Clifford Graf

Eric Graf is a professor of literature at the Francisco Marroquín University in Guatemala. View his research on