The Oxford comma.
Hoo boy, now there’s a contentious subject.
Raised as I was with English literature and writing, I was – until recently – a vehement opponent of the Oxford comma.
And I love commas.
But I must confess I’ve come round to the idea and admit that the occasional Oxford comma helps to avoid confusion.
What is the Oxford comma?, I hear someone ask.
(More to the point, why is it called an Oxford comma, since it’s a very American* feature?***)
The Oxford comma is also known as the serial comma, which makes more sense.
It’s a comma used after the penultimate item in a list of three or more items, and before ‘and’ or ‘or’.
For example, “an orange, an apple, and a pear”. “Chocolate éclair, lemon meringue, or rhubarb crumble”.
I always thought that final comma in a list was unnecessary. What misunderstanding could possibly arise from a list citing an orange, an apple and a pear?
Well, none, since that’s a fairly benign and simple sentence.
But let’s look at a sentence shared by renowned writer and editor Benjamin Dreyer about Donald Trump:
The highlights of his waning administration include encounters with Rudy Giuliani, a healthcare disaster and a dildo collector.
What does that sentence say to you? It could be merely a list of three items – but it could be explaining that former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani is a healthcare disaster and dildo collector.
And litigation fears would make that claim undesirable.
The serial comma is almost obligatory in American English, its ability to resolve ambiguity being the most powerful argument for its use.
However, that litigious statement about Mr Giuliani could simply be rearranged to state:
“The highlights of his waning administration include encounters with a healthcare disaster, a dildo collector and Rudy Giuliani.”
No misunderstandings there, surely.
In fact, as the Wikipedia page points out, the serial comma can introduce ambiguity. The example it uses says:
“They went to Oregon with Betty, a maid, and a cook.”
Is that a list of three things? Or is Betty a maid?
Which is why the Oxford/serial comma is not obligatory in British English and can be used at the writer’s/editor’s discretion.
Are you a fan of this grammar tool?
* This is my opinion. I’m going to look this up and confirm**.
** Wikipedia says I’m right: “British English allows constructions with or without this comma, while in American English it is common and sometimes even considered mandatory to use the comma.”
*** It was first mandated for use in Hart's Rules for Compositors and Readers at the University Press, Oxford [my emphasis]
I’m learning Spanish. Cómo estás? Me llamo Isla. Tengo dos hijos y un perro.
That’s about the sum total of my conversational ability.
What I’m really enjoying about the lessons, aside from my wonderfully eccentric tutor Ana Maria, are the grammar pointers she gives the class.
I’ve said elsewhere in this blog, I wasn’t taught grammar at school. Knowing what is right and wrong came organically through reading many, many books.
(Ana Maria has to give grammar pointers in English precisely because none of us understands our own language, and we have to be able to before we can understand Spanish. Rolls eyes emoji.)
I am always fascinated when Ana Maria names and explains a rule I knew but didn’t know I knew.
My latest favourite: when we use “something” or “anything”*.
I hadn’t ever paid the blindest bit of notice to when or why I say “something” or “anything” but, when you think about it, there are definitely contexts that require one over the other.
As Ana Maria explained: “If we have been for a hike, and you come back to my house, I might say, ‘Do you want something to eat?’ The assumption is that you will answer yes. The assumption is that you are hungry and will want something.
“If I say, ‘Do you want anything to eat?’ I am open to the fact you will say no.”
The implications of this rule blew. me. away.
I had never thought about it like that!
Generally, in English we use “something” in a positive sentence or expecting a positive response; but we use “anything” either in more negative sentences or not assuming there will be a positive response.
“I got something lovely for my birthday”
“I haven’t eaten anything”.
Have a think about this. Isn’t it great?
* We needed to learn this because Spanish does not use the word “anything” (or “any” or “anyone”). Depending on the context of “anything” in an English sentence, Spanish would use “something” or “nothing”.
Being a member of the CIEP is great. Not only am I part of a wider industry network, making connections and having access to resources for learning, it means I am also introduced to new ideas and concepts in language and grammar.
I say “new”; I mean ones I hadn't heard of.
I’ve mentioned elsewhere in my blog that I never really learned English grammar, having had the misfortune to go through secondary education in the UK during an odd phase when the government didn't think it might be useful.
I mean, one can go too far – see the recent controversy over teaching eight year olds about fronted adverbials, a concept most teachers hadn't even heard of before they were told it was necessary for schoolchildren – but understanding the structure of language can be useful to aid communication; is especially useful when learning foreign languages; and is even more useful when forging a career in, oh I don't know, writing and editing.
All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I recently learned about zombie rules, a concept I really wanted to pass on to you. Yes, you.
Zombie rules, as I discovered via the CIEP, are “laws” of language that either never existed or are no longer valid.
The latter alternative is thanks to the ever changing nature of language, its evolution through use. Such evolution can be difficult to adjust to, especially for those who were raised in a generation of education when grammar was taught, and the rules were laid out as being hard, fast and incontrovertible.
[Personally, I think different platforms and media require different language. I’m quite comfortable with the evolution of language in blog posts and fiction, for example, though that does leave my own voluble writing style looking decidedly Victorian; but I like formal media such as news writing and company reports to be more conventional. What do you think?]
The former alternative – that some zombie rules never even existed (sorry, we’re back there, several paragraphs ago) – was something I learned many moons ago via the wonderful Bill Bryson. One of the points he made in his book Troublesome Words, and one of the few that stuck with me, was that split infinitives are not a thing.
Some hardcore grammarians aver that splitting infinitives is a big no-no. “To boldly go” is a split infinitive, which I assume means hardcore grammarians can’t watch Star Trek without flinching.
An infinitive is a verb, preceded by the word ‘to’; eg, to go, to walk, to push. A split infinitive happens when you place an adverb or adverbial phrase between the 'to' and the verb, eg, to boldly go, to casually walk, to gently push.
Bill explained how a split infinitive was not and could not be a thing – it was a rule invented by Victorians, who said that since infinitives aren't split in Latin, they shouldn't be in English.
But this is a nonsense, since the reason Latin infinitives are not split is because they cannot be. A Latin infinitive is one word! For example, ‘to walk’ is ambulare, ‘to push’ is ventilabis.
The myth of the split infinitive is only one zombie rule – there are many more listed in the CIEP's link below.
But* why am I bothering with the concept of zombie rules and why are they a problem?
Here’s what the CIEP says:
Zombie rules stalk the language landscape, disorientating editors and proofreaders, restricting writers’ ability to express themselves as they would like, encouraging an elitist approach to language use and causing fights between wordsmiths
Fights between wordsmiths are really ugly affairs to be avoided at all times, involving broken pencils, torn pages and syntactic insults.
I think it's the repression of writing style that makes zombie rules undesirable.
I read masses of Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope as a teenager, and went on to study 19th century literature. I mean, I’m not knocking these guys, and they certainly directed my own writing style – ie, long-winded – but there isn’t a huge degree of variation of writing style in that period.
Nowadays, however… the diversity of style and tone is just a delight. And that’s because we don't have to stick to turgid rules to tell our stories.
The thing is… rules are great to form a foundation, a sort of building structure for writing, a frame to support the novice.
Children learn language because they are led by rules. They apply the rules they absorb to find their own way. (As an aside, when I was little, I thought “cheese” was plural, so would ask for a chee with my apple.) When a child unconsciously applies the rule they don't even know is a rule to the sentences they construct, it’s really quite incredible to hear.
But once language is embedded and communication comes naturally… What need for hard and fast rules? Why break pencils and sling insults over a split infinitive.
Disclaimer: there are some rules I do find hard to give up. During a period freelancing at the Financial Times, the editor told me not to use the word “over” in a sentence such as “over the past 10 years”.
“You go over a fence,” he said. “It’s ‘during’ a period of time.” He was an FT editor. That rule sticks.
In fact, as I scroll through the list of zombie terms the CIEP says are unnecessary, there are several I use and would feel uncomfortable giving up!
And here’s the kicker – I would feel uncomfortable giving them up. But it doesn't mean all writers should be forced to abide by these rules. In my own writing, I’ll stick to the language I know and with which I am comfortable. But as an editor, I rejoice in other voices, in rule breakers and diversity, and am happy to adjust to the evolution of language.
I’m going to carry on picking and choosing my rules, but you go ahead and kill those zombies dead.
* I just broke a zombie rule!
So much confusion around how to structure a sentence referencing multiple people. For example: "Me and John went to the shops."
(I don't know why I chose John. He's my brother. I don't think we've ever been shopping together.)
The key to this area of grammar lies in pronouns, such as I, he, we, you. Those are "subject" pronouns. Then there are "object" pronouns – me, him, us – and "possessive" pronouns – mine, theirs, his.
Where are you going? Come back!
I honestly do feel your pain – during the period when I was at secondary school, the education powers-that-be had decided not to teach students grammar, which has proved quite inconvenient for those of us who have gone on to work with language.
Fortunately, as a teen I read a lot of Victorian literature, which is brutal in its grammatical perfection. It's also the reason my sentences can be interminably long labyrinths. Lol.
I'm basically self-taught when it comes to understanding what is right and wrong, so I know instinctively if a sentence is badly constructed but can't really tell you why. Thank goodness for Ecosia*.
So – me and John went to the shops. This is incorrect because when referring to yourself and somebody else, you put their name first.
"John and me went to the shops." Wait! That's wrong, too!
This is when knowledge of grammatical terms would be useful. Where the pronoun in a sentence is the subject, you use a subject pronoun. In "John and me went to the shops", John and I (see what I did there?) are the subjects. The sentence is about us. So we need to use the subject pronoun "I", not the object pronoun "me".
I found that deleting the other subject from the sentence helps clarify things really quickly. So – delete John. (Not literally.) If you delete John, you have "me went to the shops."
That's clearly wrong.
On the other hand... "Mike bought John and I a drink." (Mike's my husband. He would totally buy the drinks, he's very generous.) We've used the subject "I" there but it doesn't sound right. That's because it isn't – in this sentence, John and I are the objects.
Say, "Mike bought I a drink." Nope. So, extrapolate from that and you have "Mike bought John and me a drink."
I cringe the most when I see/hear people using "myself" when they just mean I or me. "Myself and Katie went to the cinema," for example. It's easier and more acceptable, really, to make these mistakes in speech rather than writing, but I honestly don't think anyone says "myself went to the cinema".
I'm just glad my children are being taught grammar at school now.
*Ecosia is my go-to Google replacement.
This is the bit where I write about wordy and linguistic things that take my fancy...