Monthly Archives: September 2012

We nearly came to blows…over a comma?

My son and I had it out the other day. I don’t remember which of us began yelling first, but what started as an innocent conversation took less than a minute to escalate to an all-out screaming match. If our neighbors were unlucky enough to hear us, they probably guessed we were arguing about money, or maybe my son’s use of my car, or some “normal” subject matter that causes parents and adult children to clash.

But we weren’t. The topic that caused our red faces and clenched fists? Serial commas, otherwise known as the “Oxford comma.”

Given my heretofore stated passion about grammar and its rules, you would probably assume I’m a big proponent of the Oxford comma, but let me clarify my feelings about commas. In certain types of writing (e.g., legal pleadings and briefs, contracts, things of that nature), a comma is a BIG DEAL. A missing or added comma can completely change the meaning of the sentence, so the author must be specific and purposeful in using and placing commas.  The same thing with certain forms of academic writing and journalism. But fiction?

Let’s think about this for a minute. A “wrong” comma in fiction isn’t going to cause a contractual default, or start a war (well, except maybe in my house).  At worst, incorrect comma usage or placement in a piece of fiction will cause confusion with the reader, and as I’ve said before, it’s our job, as writers, to know when that can happen, and to avoid it.

To me, the hard and fast rule for commas when writing fiction is this: Use them judiciously when needed for sentence clarity.  Aside from its more mechanical uses, I also think of a comma in fiction as a pacing tool. I once worked with a woman who knew little about rules. She punctuated by sound. She’d read a sentence out loud, and when her voice paused, she’d stick in a comma. I thought it was funny at the time, but now I think she was on to something, and I often make my comma decisions (in fiction) by the rhythm of the sentence.

Now, on to the Oxford comma. According to oxforddictionaries,com:

“The ‘Oxford comma’ is an optional comma before the word ‘and’ at the end of a list.”

I understand the rule. It gives each component of the series its own special place in the sentence. It prevents the reader from incorrectly lumping the words together. It makes perfect sense to me. I just don’t know that it’s absolutely, 100-percent needed unless you’re referring to a  more complex listing, one using  multi-word phrasing, modifiers, appositives, or other construction that could cause confusion. Here’s a simplified example:

Sally’s favorite colors are fire-engine red, oyster-shell pink, and brown.

Without the comma before “and brown,” the reader could be confused into thinking one of Sally’s favorite colors is “oyster-shell pink and brown.” Maybe. In this case, I would keep the comma there just to prevent confusion.

But if I removed the unit modifiers, would I need the Oxford comma?

Sally’s favorite colors are red, pink and brown.

I think most people would understand that “pink and brown” is not a color in and of itself. So to me, it’s perfectly clear without the comma. By the same token, adding the comma doesn’t take away clarity or add ambiguity, so it’s fine with the comma, too.

If I were editing this example, I would let the author choose. His or her preference might have to do with pacing after all.  It might be the way the author “hears” the sentence while reading. For that reason, I’m happy to let the author be happy with his/her choice.

Some people (who shall remain nameless, but who know who they are) aren’t so flexible. Some people would insist on that third comma, always, just because of some typesetting rule that has survived who-knows-how-many decades!

Some people might be surprised, in fact, to learn that Oxford itself has relaxed its own famous rule about the serial comma, at least a smidgen. It seems now the main concern, aside from avoiding confusion and ambiguity, is to be consistent. (I kid you not! I read it on the internet…somewhere. Google it yourself if you don’t believe me!)

In any event, my son and I have since mended ways. We’ve agreed to agree to disagree on this one. If nothing else, we’ll make for nicer (quieter) neighbors!

Happy writing, all.

Words matter.

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Adverbs, adjectives and other scary-sounding terms

Welcome back to “Grammar Snob Monday,” my nod to my inner (oh, okay, my outer) grammar geek. After reading last week’s post, one of my closest friends commented that her biggest peeve is when people of language authority (mainly television journalists and other screen media types) succumb to the larger society’s grammar lapses.

Her example:  He jumped over those hurdles so quick, I couldn’t see his feet.

 The problem with this sentence is the word “quick.” It’s an adjective (meaning it helps to describe a noun…a thing, or person, or place), but it’s being used as an adverb (a word that helps to highlight a verb – action word – or even an adjective).

In this case, the word quick is theoretically modifying the word jumped.  It’s describing how he jumped – quick – and you guessed it, it’s wrong. A person doesn’t jump quick, a person jumps quickly. If anything, quick can modify the word jump when used as a noun, a thing: He took a quick jump into the pool. Or it can modify “he” in a different construction: He was quick when he jumped. (Both are inelegant examples, I know, but grammatically correct.)

Again, like last week’s message, we all know what “he jumped quick” means, but for someone who makes a living using words, that type of glaring error grates on the nerves of those of us who count ourselves among the grammar geeks of the world. Well, let me amend that statement. Yes, it grates on our nerves, but worse, when a “professional” uses incorrect language, it teaches the rest of the unknowing world that it’s acceptable. It’s not.

Language does change over time, both spoken and written. Words are added, spellings are changed, and I suppose adjectives can mutate into adverbs. People spend their lives studying the ebb and flow of language shifts, after all. But those changes take place at a relatively slow pace, and if you want to be taken seriously in a professional setting, you need to pay attention to what’s considered correct in that given moment of time.

Currently, at this moment in time, the example my friend cited is wrong, and word professionals (whether cable TV anchors or storytellers) should be mindful of setting a correct example for others. I mean, you don’t want to go into a job interview with your dream company and say something like, “Yeah, uh, I did good in school.” (We’ll save “good” and “well” – two of the worst offenders in the adjective/adverb swap category – for another time.)

Now, I should clarify that storytellers have much more leeway in this area than journalists, depending on the circumstances. For example, if you’re being interviewed by Oprah as the next big author, you’ll want to comport yourself as a professional and use proper speech. But if you’re creating a character with a certain background, it’s okay to throw the grammar rules away when you’re in that character’s point of view, if it fits that character’s profile. In fact, varying speech patterns is one of the most effective ways to differentiate one character from another – both in thought and speech.

Even for the most knowledgeable in grammar, however, conversational speech often ignores the rules. Conversational speech is more often sloppy than correct. Sentences are fragmented and chopped off – by emotion or another person’s speech. It fascinates me, and sometimes I find myself punctuating conversations in my head, just for fun. (Hey, I already acknowledged I’m weird!)

You certainly don’t have to go to my extremes, but the next time you’re alone in a crowd, focus on a nearby conversation, not to eavesdrop, but to pick up on the speakers’ style and cadence. Listen for those breaks, the pauses, the run-on thoughts. Use what you hear in your stories, but don’t pick up those bad habits when you’re presenting yourself, the professional writer.

Words matter.

 

 

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Grammar Snobs are People Too

Jeff Deck is my hero.

In case you don’t know who he is, he wrote a book called “The Great Typo Hunt, Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction at a Time.” As you might imagine, the book chronicles a cross-continent journey Deck and his friend took to locate and eradicate public examples of those everyday grammar errors that have become so common in our society.

I first heard about the project when my older son gave me the book as a Christmas gift. (He said it was in honor of the many term papers I proofread for him through high school and college…not to mention the many disagreements we’ve had about commas over the years.) It turned out to be one of my favorite gifts, and I found myself laughing out loud more than once as I devoured those pages, awed by a man who’d go to those lengths to try to educate our increasingly uneducated public about the basics of our common language.

Which brings me to the purpose of this blog: reminding the writing public that the basics of our common language matter.

That probably sounds more than a bit pretentious, and it probably is. I mean, who am I to claim any greater knowledge than anyone else? I don’t know, really. I just know that I get it. I get grammar. But you have to understand – the ability to spot grammar errors is not something I’ve ever cultivated. I was born that way. I dream in prose, as if I’m writing, rather than cinematic images. I routinely scored in the 99th percentile in grammar during school, and I enjoyed diagramming sentences. It’s just who I am.

So this blog is dedicated to all the writers in the world who have wonderful, imaginative stories to tell, but who don’t know a comma from a semicolon, a subject from a predicate, or a dangling participle from a …well, you get the picture.

Call me a grammar snob, if you must, but I’m only trying to help, one grammar misconception at a time. So every week, either I or one of our guest editors will be writing about our favorite grammar errors, and trying to help others “see” the language as we do.

And what better place to start than the Urban Dictionary’s definition of grammar snob:

“Someone who gets so worked up by improper grammar, they are unable to function.”

(My fellow grammarians are likely clutching their heads right about now, screaming, “STOP THE PAIN!”)

This, ladies and gentlemen, is too perfect an example of incorrect grammar to pass up. It may be a common usage, and you might think it’s perfectly correct, but it’s not. It’s WRONG.

Let’s start with the basics of standard sentence structure. A typical sentence has a subject (whatever the sentence is about) and a predicate or verb (the action taking place around that subject). The subject and predicate/verb need to “agree”; they need to match in plurality (single subject with single verb, plural subject with plural verb), because if they don’t, the sentence doesn’t make sense, and the reader could get confused.

In our example, the basic subject is “someone.”

Now, picture “someone” in your head. Is “someone” a throng of people, or is it a person, a single individual? Here’s a clue: Someone.

Someone is a singular word, meaning it refers to a single person. One.

In our example, “someone” is modified by the descriptive phrase “who gets so worked up by improper grammar,” and that does match. Someone…gets. Perfectly correct. But if we keep reading to the the words after the comma which form the meat of the sentence, we run into trouble:

“Someone who gets so worked up by improper grammar, they are unable to function.”

Did you hear it? Did you hear the glaringly, painfully wrong “they are”?

If you didn’t, picture “they are” in your head. What do you see? Do you see a single person doing something, or do you see several people? If you said several, you would be right. They are is a plural phrase, not what our sentence needs to be correct.

I know what you’re thinking. Yes, okay, grammar snob, it’s wrong, but everyone knows what that sentence means. And you’re probably right. But how does everyone know? We know because we’re smart people. Our brains have stopped, even if only a nanosecond, to translate the “they are” so the sentence make sense.

So why does this matter to a writer more than anyone else? Because words and language are a writer’s trade. A writer tells a story, paints a picture, in words – not finger paint, not numbers – words that are put together in a specific pattern to make sense, to convey a message. Sure, our readers can usually figure it out when we make mistakes – they’re smart people. But as writers, do we want them to have to figure out what we mean, even for a nanosecond? Do we want to throw them out of the picture we’re so carefully painting so they can stop to reconcile our mismatched words?

No. We want them to keep reading, so enthralled with our story that they don’t stop turning the pages until we’re ready to let them go, at the final word on the final page.

So, how should that sentence correctly read? If you’re following strict academic rules, it would be:

Someone who gets so worked up by improper grammar, he or she is unable to function.

I know, it’s a mouthful, and an awkward one at that. So as a writer, you’d probably want to rewrite it. But please, choose your words carefully. Make sure they make sense.

Words matter.

For more help with subject/verb agreement, check OWL, Purdue University’s online grammar lab.

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Blog author (and self-proclaimed grammar snob) Leah Price may have been born with the ability to detect typos and grammar errors, but she’s honed those skills over years in the administrative field, where she’s held positions in government and the private sector, including five years as a legal secretary and ten-plus years as a line editor for court stenographers. It was  during those years in the legal field that she learned the importance of accuracy with the written word.

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