Comma, Confession

I admit it: I have read several books on grammar. Perhaps five or six all the way through. And yet, as you can see from the previous sentence fragment, I am not much of a stickler. Knowing grammar is fine, but the passion some readers and writers have for grammar is alarming.

I believe you should be consistent and correct on the big things–the stuff that makes your sentences and paragraphs decipherable–and go easy on the rest. James Joyce and Cormac McCarthy, two of my favorite authors, have famously waged war on punctuation marks and are still entirely readable, in their way. So what if the occasional fragment or under-punctuated sentence slips through? Writing is, after all, not the same as civil engineering. No buildings fall down if you don’t use the Oxford comma.

And yet there is a large cult of self-identifying grammar police who still carry around tattered copies of Strunk and White and denounce any evolution of the language. These are the folks with whom you must always correctly use certain pronouns and who scream if you were to err in adherence to English’s spare use of the subjunctive mood.

So imagine the cries of horror across the English speaking world when the PR department of Oxford University decided to stop using that same university’s most infamous grammatical contribution, the Oxford comma. That’s right. The people who promote Oxford University’s style guide do not follow Oxford University’s style guide. The Oxford comma–the comma that separates off the final item in a list–is definitely a darling of aspiring grammaristas… even ones like me who are not going for their red pen PhD.

A more old-fashioned darling of the language is also fighting for its life. “Hopefully” now officially means what, to me, it has always meant, as in the sentence, “Hopefully we get there in time.” The AP style guide acceded to the change after decades of nabob hand-wringing. “Hopefully,” the old guard insists, should only mean “in a hopeful manner,” as in the sentence, “He hopefully awaited her answer to his proposal of marriage.”

I can’t see what all the fuss is about. “Hopefully” is a word that gets used incorrectly so often you would be hard pressed to find a person under the age of 40 who could recall ever using its original meaning. The reason, of course, is that there are many more sentences that work using it the wrong way. “Hopefully” fills a gap in our language; it feels more organic for most speakers than “I hope.” So let it be what it will. To preserve “hopefully” in its historic sense is to preserve it in a coffin, never to be used at all.

That all being said, there are plenty of grammar battles still worth fighting. A quick glance at the Chicago Manuel of Style highlights some of the classics:

You appraise property and apprise someone of a piece of news.

For his excellent report card, his just deserts were to skip dinner and have just dessert.

Reaching the peak of the mountain piqued her interest.

All the talk about grammar policing reminds me of the modern classic on the subject, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, a book I was going to read until I saw this: the most amazing grammatical take-down you will ever find. Louis Menand’s article is the literary criticism equivalent of this:


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