While visiting with my former neighbors, one of them asked me to explain how to use semicolons. As a writer and former writing teacher, I’ve got that one covered. However, her question opened the floodgates. It turns out that the majority of these smart, well-educated people harbor a secret fear of embarrassing themselves, because they aren’t well versed in some fine point of grammar, punctuation, or word choice.
How does grammar insecurity get started?
I picture some picky 7th grade English teacher or stern editor shaming writers so they feel incompetent. I’m not immune to that fear either—people expect more of you when you write for a living. Although I like correct grammar, punctuation, spelling, and word choice, I’m philosophical about the inevitable errors.
Here’s a secret—the experts don’t agree on the rules.
For example, the rules about comma use depend on what style is being used. If you’re a journalist who follows the Associated Press Stylebook, you omit the comma before “and” when punctuating a list or series. But if you’re an English teacher who teaches the Modern Language Association Style Guide or a journalist taught to follow the Chicago Manual of Style, you would use the serial comma (also known as the Oxford comma). No wonder people get confused about commas!
I’m a big fan of the Oxford comma. This example from Captain Grammar Pants illustrates why I prefer it:
This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
(It’s unlikely the author meant that his or her parents are Ayn Rand and God, but without a comma after Rand, the meaning isn’t clear.)
This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.
(Better! Now all I’m wondering about is why the author is enamored of Any Rand . . .)
The next example isn’t about serial commas, but it’s too much fun to resist:
Let’s eat Grandma!
(How’d Grandma get on the menu?!?)
Let’s eat, Grandma!
(Oh, thank goodness—she’s just being called to dinner.)
The Comma Queen at The New Yorker provides even more insights about commas.
Even when the experts agree on the rules, the rules change. Languages evolve over time.
When I was in grade school, I’d get marked down for splitting an infinitive (the “to be” form of the verb):
To boldly go (OMG—a split infinitive!)
To go boldly (This version keeps both parts of the verb together but it sounds stupid.)
These days few editors concern themselves with split infinitives. English has evolved. Old English turned into Middle English, which gave way to Shakespearean English and was eventually followed by Contemporary English. When was the last time you used “cozening” when you meant “cheating” (Shakespearean English) or “anon” when you meant “soon” (Old English)?
Sharp-eyed readers may notice several errors in this blog. Yeah, I know. I was just testing you!