Grammar rantings

Mostly, I do very well with content writing and translation. I enjoy it very much. I am given a topic, some keywords and a word limit, and off I go. I get by with editors, though sometimes they are hard work. Sometimes, they make me want to explode. This is the issue…

When I proof-read, I check spellings. I sometimes add commas, because I’m a comma-stickler. Here’s my beef. You move a clause to the beginning of a sentence and technically – technically! – it should have a comma to distinguish it. For example:

I sometimes add commas, because I’m a comma stickler.

That comma is my choice. I put it there because I want you to pause a little. It’s neither right nor wrong. Some people don’t like commas before coordinating or subordinating conjunctions, but I’m not one of those people. See. I just did it before but. 

However, if I were to write:

I sometimes add commas because I’m a comma stickler. 

That would actually be right too. And if I were proof-reading this, I would let it pass. 

However, when you move ‘because I’m a comma stickler’ to the front of the sentence, to prioritise it, you need a comma. You just do.

 Because I’m a comma stickler, I sometimes add commas. 

And sometimes, people don’t put them in. I put them in sometimes, because they should be there. I admit I’m comma-heavy. I know where they go. I know where they can’t go. But there’s a lot of places where they could go, or they might go. And there’s a lot of grey areas for a comma. Give me a semi-colon every time. A lovely semi-colon, splicing two complete, coordinating sentences together like a beautiful little pivot. A delightful little mark replacing a coordinating or subordinating conjunction. Mainly black or white; mainly right or wrong. Or give me a colon: that beautiful dictatorial mark that tells you quite categorically that an explanation is coming next.

Commas ARE yucky and most people don’t know what to do with them.

Once, I gave a classroom of 40 English teachers an unpunctuated text. In that room, there were Masters holders, BAs in writing, linguistic experts, literature experts and language experts with over 750 collective years of experience. Not one teacher came up with the exact same text as the original writer. We could all agree Miss Angela Carter was not wrong, and that we weren’t wrong, but why did we have so many different responses?

Because commas are largely subjective. That’s why.

If you want to start a comma war, ask an American English scholar and a British English scholar about the Oxford comma. Those people can’t even agree on its name. Is it the Harvard comma? Is it the Oxford comma?

An American will tell you that you need a comma before an and in a list.

This is a terrible example. It’s terrible because in fact, the sentence should read “we invited the strippers: JFK and Stalin” if it means Stalin and JFK are strippers. I can see why Americans argue very strongly for Oxford commas in some sentences. However, my line is that this sentence is a terrible sentence. It could say “we invited JFK, Stalin and some strippers” and then no-one can use the line that you need an Oxford comma before the and so that nobody is under the misguided illusion that JFK and Stalin are strippers.

But I’m mindful when I write a text that Americans might read it. If I’m writing for an American audience, I slip that Oxford comma right in there. If I’m writing for a global audience, I leave it out. Plenty of the English-speaking world have learned English because of the UK, not because of the USA. In fact, the USA haven’t colonised anyone very much, so unless it’s for an American reader, I stick to British English rules because we’ve had the sad and weighty duty of spreading the language across the planet.

And do you know what? That Webster fellow – the one who decided Americans should write gray and categorize and organize and color – he was actually dumbing down the language so that it made sense in the New World. There. That’s a controversial yet true statement. He simplified it because those there USA citizens couldn’t understand that an s between two vowels, just like in French, is said as a z. Organise. Categorise. If you want to make an s sound between two vowels, you do as the French and put in another s. Vitesse.

And why take issue with some spelling? Why not take issue with most of it? Why keep daughter and laughter the same? They’re way more complicated to spell than grey or gray and a world full of language learners and writers would have thanked him. That’s my beef with Webster.

However, I’m down with the fact that Webster existed and that he tried to do something and a nation followed (most likely out of spite over the Boston Tea Party and a couple of wars… rather like rebellious teenagers than righteous linguists) so I can do American spelling if I need to. And I avoid American spellings and English spellings if I can because then you’re not putting anyone’s nose out of joint.

Believe me, these grammatical and lexicographical decisions weigh heavily in my mind when I write and when I edit.

However, some ‘quality control’ proof-readers seem to think it is their sole purpose to change stuff that’s perfectly fine.

And this makes me MAD!

They forget that the sole purpose of language is to communicate and seem to think that language is some kind of bizarre set of rules by which we must all live. These are the same people who don’t like split infinitives and sentences ending in prepositions.

Unfortunately, this type of proof-reader is living proof that a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. They wield their laws in an arbitrary fashion, removing things hither and thither with ne’er a thought that there’s no purpose to their editing other than their own self-importance. They fail to answer the two most fundamental questions. Does it make good sense? Is it acceptable usage?

And above all, does it communicate clearly?

That’s all.

And thus, I find myself involved in arguments with a pedantic proof-reader whose main aim is to show they’re earning a crust tinkering with a comma rather than accepting that it’s fine. Not only is it offensive because I know more about language than they do, and by the rulebooks, that comma is fine and dandy, but it’s offensive because it goes against the fundamental rule of a proof-reader. Primum Non Nocere. Above all, do no harm.

My stance on language is much like that of the much worthier opinion of Professor David Crystal, perhaps the most eminent linguist in the world today. As he would point out, punctuation didn’t even really exist until the printing press came along. The same with standardised spelling. There’s a need for rules, certainly, so that we all understand each other, but no need for rules by which we can beat each other in some kind of weird battle for grammatical superiority.

As Professor Crystal says: “we are no longer living in an age which accepts that a few self-appointed individuals can impose their personal linguistic tastes on everyone else”

“All linguists care about clarity and precision. What linguists object to is the attempt by individuals to impose artificial and unauthentic rules on everyone.”

Luckily, I end up feeling uplifted as I turn to DC as inspiration and remember that not everyone is a pedant, and in fact I feel sorry that my poor proof-reader has probably never come up against anyone who so vociferously questioned their bizarre standards. But nobody, nobody, can tell me that I have to spell accommodation as accommodations. So it might be acceptable in the USA and Canada. It’s not to me. There’s no point in it. It’s like writing cattles. Accommodation is a mass noun, an uncountable noun. It might very well have been plural in England back in the day, but it’s not now. Sheeps. Fishes. Cattles. Informations. Knowledges. Musics. Trashes. I’m sticking accommodation firmly in that list.

So, if you want to edit my work, please remember I do not take kindly to people who change my spelling and punctuation for worse examples. And if you do, then I retain the right to complain tirelessly and ceaselessly on my blog.

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5 thoughts on “Grammar rantings

  1. Hmmm…with the rise of International English, or whatever you want to call it, accommodations is probably coming. Informations certainly is. Mind you, if I was proof-reading a non-native English speaker’s paper (something I do from time to time) I would change it to the ‘s’ free version.

    1. It just looks and sounds wrong. I’d probably change it from the ‘s’ version myself. Which makes it even stranger that mine was changed to the ‘s’ version when at the moment, both are fine, and the s-free is ‘more correct’ if there can be such a thing. Certainly to me, anyway!

  2. Whenever ‘grammatical and lexicographical decisions weigh heavily’ I still look to HR Fowler. Whilst his work wouldn’t satisfy modern standards of academic scholarship, his contribution to the English language is not in dispute.

    I would also add ‘concise’ to your list of ‘fundamental questions’. Does every word count? I’m sure you will agree, we are all guilty of failing on that score.

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