“Correct English is the slang of prigs who write history and essays.” -George Eliot, Middlemarch
Language is an ever-changing, always-evolving, living thing. The rules we learn as children may not be the same rules we follow as adults. Every day, words are created and brought into common usage as others fall from fashion and become outdated. It’s no wonder, then, that people who concern themselves with language and words, and all of the ways we are and aren’t supposed to use them, can’t ever seem to agree on certain things. Some grammar battles have been raging since long before any of us were alive to know about them. Some are more recent, developing as we try to regulate how we interact with new words and new formats. The one constant with common grammar fights, though, is that everyone knows their opinion is the right one.
There are a few grammar battles I encounter on a near-daily basis. I picked some of the trickier ones; ones that have legitimate and accepted arguments for both sides. Since I’m writing this column, though, I’m going to tell you why I’m right, and you’re welcome to duke it out with me in the comments.
The Oxford comma: Well, Vampire Weekend, I give a fuck about an Oxford comma.
I’ll just jump right in with this one. If you don’t see me around here after this, it’s because this is the one thing that our beautiful, intelligent, and benevolent editor-in-chief and I violently disagree about. Not sure what an Oxford comma is? Look back two sentences. It’s the comma after the word “intelligent.” An Oxford comma (also called a serial comma or Harvard comma) is the comma used before the final item in a list of three or more words. That same phrase without the Oxford comma would read like this: “”¦ our beautiful, intelligent and benevolent editor-in-chief “¦”
I use the Oxford comma because I feel it adds clarity and makes a list of many items easier to understand. Leaving it out can often lead to the impression that the final two items in the list are linked together instead of being separate. One of the most hilarious and famous examples of the lack of an Oxford comma causing ambiguity comes from The Times, a British paper, describing a documentary: “”¦ highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.” The intention may not have been to identify Nelson Mandela as a demigod and a collector of sex toys, but the addition of an Oxford comma would have cleared that right up.
Is “alright” ever all right? No. “But “¦” No. Two words. Eight letters and a space.
One space or two after end punctuation? One. I’m going to come out and admit it, though: this one is difficult for me. I’m old, you see, and I learned to type on a manual typewriter, which is where this rule originates. The death of the typewriter and the rise of computers and variable-width fonts has made this rule obsolete. All of the major style guides, including The Chicago Manual of Style and the AP Stylebook, agree that only one space should be used after punctuation at the end of a sentence. And honestly, the AP is the most inflexible and old-fashioned of the style guides, so if they say one space, I say one space.
Sentence fragments and contractions: Love ’em. I’m a huge proponent of conversational writing in all but the most formal or academic pieces. I think readers can process your words more easily if you write as closely to how you speak as possible. I’ve been known to edit contractions into writers’ pieces to give them an easier flow for reading. Writing shouldn’t come across as technical if it’s not a technical piece. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been reading an article on fashion or a blog post about someone’s vacation and it reads like Data from Star Trek: the Next Generation wrote it. Don’t be afraid of contractions. Or fragments. It’s likely how your audience speaks, and it’ll make your writing easier and more enjoyable for them to read.
Ending sentences with a preposition: Oh, hell, I’ve already done that at least twice in this post. Prepositions are words like, “at,” “of,” “in,” “around,” “on,” and “from.” There’s a long-held grammar rule that you shouldn’t end a sentence with one. Going back to my preference for an easily understood conversational style, I usually choose to tell that “rule” to go fuck itself. I personally don’t say things like, “The Oxford comma is something about which my editor-in-chief and I disagree.” It’s stilted, it’s unnatural, and it doesn’t flow well. Most grammarians agree: this rule is not one you need to pay attention to.
How about you, readers? Do you violently disagree with me on any of these rules? Are there others you feel strongly about? Let me know in the comments.