What Big Teeth You Have, Grammar – Part 6

To continue with my occasional look at interesting grammatical points or issues (yes, grammar can be interesting) I come across from time to time. It’s not intended to be deadly serious, but not too jokey, either, despite the title. Somewhere in the middle, then—grammar with a smile.

Onwards…

Punctuation for Effect

Most writers know there are rules of punctuation to which they should generally adhere. It is possible to depart from these rules—for example, by not enclosing dialogue in quotation marks à la Cormac McCarthy—but do so at your peril because you can bet your bottom dollar that it will irritate the heck out of some readers. And some of them won’t hesitate to post a scathing review. (If you don’t believe me, check out the low-star reviews on some of McCarthy’s works.)

Most writers also know that sometimes the rules can be broken deliberately and to good, if subtle, effect. There might be other instances, but I’m thinking particularly of punctuation in dialogue. Consider these examples:

“No, we don’t.”

“No. We don’t.”

“No we don’t.”

It’s all about nuance—each example conveys a slightly different tone on the part of the speaker. The first is punctuated as you’d expect, suggesting the speaker is calm and talking in a normal tone. The second has the full stop (period) after ‘No’, implying that the speaker is being deliberate and more emphatic—maybe they are involved in a minor argument with someone. The third has no punctuation between the words. That’s not breaking the rules to be contrary, but for a particular purpose: it requires the reader not to pause between the words, implying that the speaker is a little flustered—a hurried rebuttal, perhaps.

Here are some more examples:

“No. We. Don’t.”

“No we don’t!”

“No, we don’t…”

“No, we don’t—”

It depends largely on the surrounding text, but each example might suggest something slightly different on the part of the speaker: over-emphasis, excitement, uncertainty, interruption.

Not all of these examples break the rules of punctuation and sentence structure, but even those that do are effective at conveying the desired impression about the speaker. In dialogue, especially, it is possible to imply a host of different moods simply by altering the punctuation.

It’s probably a good idea to depart from the norms only sparingly, since even the most forgiving readers will grow irritated at what they consider cavalier disregard for rules that have been long established for good reason.

‘Try and’ v ‘Try to’

Many of us will have used the expression ‘try and’ in everyday speech.

“When will it be ready?”

“I’ll try and get it done by tomorrow.”

The reply could have been, “I’ll try to get it done by tomorrow.” Either way, most people wouldn’t bat an eyelid.

Yet, ‘try and’ is a weird expression when you think about it. Change the reply in the above example just a smidgeon and only the ‘try to’ construction works:

“I’m trying to get it done by tomorrow.”

If we said, “I’m trying and get it done by tomorrow,” the listener would think we’ve gone barmy.

In my writing, I have always changed ‘try and’ to ‘try to’ whenever I notice I’ve used it (except I’ll allow it to stay occasionally in dialogue). This comes from a nagging sense that ‘try and’ is somehow ungrammatical. But is it?

The short answer is no. If you want to use ‘try and’ in your writing—not just in dialogue but in narrative, too—have at it.

For a longer answer, take a look at what Merriam-Webster has to say on the subject: try-and-v-try-to

 

I’ll leave you with another thought about collective nouns. If there’s a prickle of porcupines and a paddling of ducks, why isn’t there a poppycock of politicians? Till next time…

Twinkies

Making the Mysterious Mundane

If the title and subtitle don’t already tell you, this week’s post is not profound. Indeed, you might say it’s light-hearted. Frivolous, even.

Nothing wrong with a bit of frivolity now and then. It can provide a small but welcome distraction from the deadly serious stuff that’s been pretty much the story of 2020 thus far. So here’s a bit of froth about Twinkies.

I’ve mentioned them before in a post about the differences between British and American English: What Big Teeth You Have, Grammar – Part 2

For those who don’t want to read the entire piece, this is what I said about Twinkies (‘SK’ being Stephen King):

For years I read (yet again in SK’s books) about some mysterious object called in American English a ‘Twinkie’—note the spelling; in Britain, a twinky is something else entirely—without having any clue what a Twinkie is. I was eventually able to deduce from context that it was something edible and, from the capital T and it being a SK novel, a brand name. It took many more years and ease of access to the internet before I discovered quite what they are. As an aside, I’ve also read the claim that in the event of a nuclear holocaust, that Twinkies are likely to be one of the only non-tinned (that’s non-canned in American English) foodstuffs that will survive, but I don’t know how much truth there is to that, and hope never to find out.

For any non-Americans looking in who don’t know what they are, Twinkies are a cake, of sorts. A snack-sized, yellowish sponge filled with synthetic cream.

They feature in the film Zombieland, where Woody Harrelson’s character is constantly on the look-out for them. (Interesting aside: the Twinkie he consumes in the film is, apparently, not a real one but a vegan version mocked up for him. The real ones contain ingredients unsuitable for vegans; some would argue they contain ingredients unsuitable for humans.)

After first encountering them in a Stephen King novel in my early teens, I spent many years knowing that Twinkies exist, but without knowing what they are. As anyone with an active imagination will appreciate, we often picture the unknown as more exciting and exotic than the reality. I don’t now recall what I imagined a Twinkie to be, but it wasn’t a plump finger of highly processed, sugary sponge filled with fake cream. When later, much later, I learned the truth, it came as a bit of a let-down, but still my curiosity wasn’t fully assuaged. That would only happen if I one day ate a Twinkie.

I’ve since visited the States a few times, but on each occasion, there being too many other delights to sample (such as a corned beef sandwich in Katz’s deli in Lower East Side Manhattan—yum, yum), I completely forgot to hunt down a Twinkie. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I finally tried one for the first time.

During lockdown, one of my daughters decided to order a delivery of confectionary from a place that stocks products from the US. Yep, including Twinkies. She ordered a box of ten for her and her boyfriend; one was enough for me.

The most satisfying part of the experience was getting to set eyes on a Twinkie at long last, to hold one and peel off the cellophane wrapper. Actually consuming it? Not so much.

Hmm, how best to describe it? Well, it was edible. Too sweet, cloyingly so, for my palate. Did it leave me wanting more? Nope, I can’t say it did, though I guess I’d happily consume them during the Apocalypse.

So more than forty years after first hearing about them, after many moments spent idly wondering what they are, I’ve eaten a Twinkie. Despite it not being an experience I’m in a hurry to repeat, I’m glad to have done it. A small part of my teenage curiosity has been satisfied.

Now to find out what this sex thing is all about…

What Big Teeth You Have, Grammar – Part 5

To continue with my occasional look at common grammatical issues I come across from time to time. It’s not intended to be deadly serious, but not too jokey, either, despite the title. Somewhere in the middle, then—grammar with a smile.

Onwards…

Starting sentences with conjunctions

Is it okay to start sentences with conjunctions such as ‘and’, ‘or’, ‘so’ and ‘but’? Take the opening line to William Blake’s poem that has subsequently been turned into the hymn ‘Jerusalem’:

And did those feet in ancient times…

So there’s the answer (see what I did there?)—yep, it’s perfectly acceptable.

I’m not going to overegg it. There are plenty of places where you can read more about this; here, for example: quick_and_dirty_tips

But it leads nicely (and there?) into the next topic…

Ending sentences with prepositions

“A preposition is a terrible thing to end a sentence with.”
― Winston S. Churchill

The grammar pedants would have Winnie saying, “A preposition is a terrible thing with which to end a sentence.” There’s nothing wrong with this second version, though it sounds a little stuffy to my ears. However—and here’s the crux of it—there is absolutely nothing wrong with the original version, either.

Over to Merriam-Webster: words_at_play

Startled

I have, on occasion, encountered this construction:

He burst into the room. I startled.

That’s grammatically incorrect. You can be startled:

He burst into the room. I was startled

You can startle someone or something:

He burst into the room. He startled me.

You can also start (jump in fright or surprise):

He burst into the room. I started.

There are, of course, technical reasons why the first example is poor grammatically. They’re to do with transitive and intransitive verbs, and requiring an object to be acted upon, but you can look that up yourselves if interested. It’s a little dry.

Here’s one of the more accessible explanations I’ve found online:  english_grammar_explained

 

I’ll leave you with a thought. If the collective noun for a group of squid isn’t ‘squad’, it ought to be. Till next time…

Weird Words 3

The third in a series of posts taking a lighthearted look at some of the most troublesome, overused, misused, comical, or downright peculiar words in the English language.

All suggestions for words to include in future instalments are welcome—simply comment with your suggestion.

On with this week’s words…

Minuscule

A film with this title recently premiered on Sky Movies—perhaps I ought to get out more (tricky though that is in today’s world), but I was gratified to see it spelt correctly. Mind, it’s understandable why we so often see it written as ‘miniscule’. In its adjectival form, it means ‘very small; tiny’ and so people will, wrongly though not unreasonably, associate it with the prefix ‘mini’, and words such as ‘minimal’ and ‘miniature’. Merriam-Webster, while listing ‘minuscule’ as the only correct spelling, notes that some dictionaries accept ‘miniscule’ as a legitimate variant. A case of where enough people get something wrong, it ends up being right?

Jeopardy

One of those words I have to pause and think about before spelling it correctly. There was a time when I couldn’t spell it without looking it up. Then I realised that it takes the same form as ‘leopard’ and I’ve been able to spell it ever since, though I still have to pause and think about it for a moment.

Diphthong

Also known as a gliding vowel, which is a lovely description. It’s the vowel sound found in words like ‘oil’ and ‘loud’ (and, indeed, in ‘sound’ and ‘found’), where the pronunciation changes during the syllable. (Ironically, the word diphthong does not itself contain any diphthongs.) This is one of those words that you might come across occasionally in writing, especially if you are interested in the technicalities of the English language, but won’t often hear spoken, and so there is ample scope for The Avid Reader’s Curse to strike. In my head, I pronounce it ignoring the first ‘h’: dip-thong. Turns out that’s the American pronunciation and the British pronunciation is diff-thong. Who knew?

 

That’s all for Part 3. Don’t forget to suggest any words you find weird for inclusion in future instalments. I’ll credit anyone whose suggestion I use.

What Big Teeth You Have, Grammar – Part 4

Here’s the next post about the wonderful world of grammar, he says to accompanying groans. Actually, it can be a fascinating world. No, really. I’ve been recently engaged in editing for indie authors, which I enjoy, and it’s been having a beneficial effect on my own understanding of how grammar works.

My grasp of grammar comes from a lifelong love of reading and writing. I can read something and instinctively know when a grammatical mistake has been made. However, I didn’t study English at a high level (my degree is in law) and so my ability to explain the error is lacking, especially when it comes to using the correct technical terms. Yet, when editing, I often find myself having to explain the reason for a suggested correction. That is when I turn to the style guides—I use Chicago and Oxford style manuals—and then try to couch the reason in layman’s terms.

I thought it might be fun (yeah, yeah, I have a strange idea of fun) or, at least, useful to explain some of the more common errors I come across while reading and/or editing indie work. (Not, I hasten to add, that these errors are entirely confined to books by independent authors, but I think most people would accept that they are much less commonly found in traditionally published works since they tend to go through more rounds of professional editing.)

I’ll deal with two of the more common ones I come across in this piece. There are plenty of others to discuss in future instalments. (Seriously, stop groaning.)

Run-on Sentences

The humble comma has a multitude of uses. It separates items in a list, it can be used for parenthesis (where a stronger break as indicated by an em dash isn’t required), it punctuates speech, it breaks up wordy sentences into more easily readable chunks, it denotes a slight pause. There are more uses, but that’s enough to be going on with.

What is not a function of the comma is to join two complete sentences. That is the job of a semicolon (sometimes a colon) or em dash, or conjunctions such as ‘and’, ‘but’, ‘then’, etc. I see this sort of construction regularly:

John was exhausted, he fell over.

‘John was exhausted’ and ‘he fell over’ are two complete sentences. You could rewrite the example properly as, ‘John was exhausted. He fell over.’

The author has tried to make the comma do the work of the semicolon. It’s sometimes known as a ‘comma splice’. There are plenty of ways to merge these sentences without abusing the poor comma:

John was exhausted, so he fell over.

John was exhausted and he fell over.

John was exhausted; he fell over.

John was exhausted—he fell over.

More creatively:

John was so exhausted, he fell over.

Since John was exhausted, he fell over.

You get the point (and I’m fed up of writing about John and his problems).

Another incorrect use of the comma is to use it to splice two clauses linked by adverbs such as ‘nevertheless’ and ‘therefore’. So, the grammatically correct translation of the famous philosophical statement attributed to Descartes is not ‘I think, therefore I am’, but ‘I think; therefore I am’. On that profound note, let’s move on.

Like v As

Consider this (admittedly lowbrow) sentence:

I felt scared, like I was about to shit myself.

Not the most edifying of sentences, but is there anything wrong with it grammatically? The answer is, technically, yes.

Ah, technically. So here, according to Chicago, is the technical reason:

‘[Like’s] traditional function is adjectival, not adverbial, so that like governs nouns and noun phrases.’ There’s more, a lot more, but you’ll have to look it up yourself.

In essence, traditional grammar dictates that ‘like’ shouldn’t be used before a verb phrase, such as ‘I was about to shit myself’. Instead, the conjunction should be ‘as if’ or ‘as though’:

I felt scared, as though I was about to shit myself.

On the other hand, this would be grammatically correct:

I felt scared, like a man about to shit himself.

‘a man about to shit himself’ is a noun phrase (i.e. ‘man’ is a noun and the remaining words modify it) and so ‘like’ can properly link it to the preceding clause.

I imagine some writers reading this and shaking their heads, thinking, “What the heck is he wittering on about? I use ‘like’ all the time in the way he’s condemning without any problems.”

Such is your prerogative. However, far better to break grammatical rules through educated choice rather than ignorance. In other words, know the rules before deciding to break them. At least, then, if an irritated reviewer tears you a new one, you’ll know why.

And I’d strongly recommend breaking them sparingly. You’re far more likely to run foul of a disgruntled reader through constant disregard of the rules than by the occasional informed decision to break them.

That’s enough about grammar for today. No doubt there’ll be another post along in a while. Groan away—I can take it.

What Big Teeth You Have, Grammar – Part 3

“The greater part of the world’s troubles are due to questions of grammar.”
― Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays

Another post about grammar? Yawn off, Sam.

There’s no need to be like that—I’m merely going to talk a little about some of the so-called rules that surround writing. If you frequent any forums inhabited by writers, you’ll see these ‘rules’ mentioned frequently. One or two may be more accurately described as ‘myths’, yet are held up as gospel by some. I’m going to keep this light-hearted—there are plenty of places where you can read serious discussions on these matters if you are so inclined. Let us begin…

To boldly split infinitives

We’ve all heard the rule: you should never split infinitives. Yeah, yeah, tell that to Gene Roddenberry, or whoever wrote the tagline for his most famous creation.

This edict arose from grammarians in times long gone objecting to separating the ‘to’ from the verb (to eat, to sleep, to read, etc) because the infinitive was never split in the Latin form of the verb. Well, it wouldn’t be, seeing as Latin verbs are usually only one word. A bit tricky to stick the Latin version of ‘boldly’ (audenter) into the middle of the Latin version of ‘to go’ (ire) and still have it make sense. And it wouldn’t be anywhere near as catchy.

If you want to split infinitives, go at it. There’s nothing wrong with writing, ‘I ran upstairs to quickly brush my teeth.’ But be cautious. Usually, we’re taking about separating the ‘to’ from the verb with an adverb and these ought to be used sparingly (see below). Take an example: ‘After a moment’s hesitation, I decided to briskly walk after him.’ For a start, that doesn’t sound natural to my ear—better if ‘briskly’ comes after ‘walk’. Better still, a new word could be substituted for ‘briskly walk’; there are plenty to choose from, such as stride, rush, hurry.

Liberally applying adverbs

Stephen King famously wrote: ‘I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs…’ [On Writing]. Some writers take this to mean that we should never use adverbs. Ever. Don’t believe me? Take a peek into any writers’ forum when this topic comes up and you won’t have to wait long before someone will come along and decry any use of the humble adverb, often trotting out this King quote in support of their position.

He is particularly scathing about adverbs used in dialogue tags, though he freely admits that he has been known to use them on occasion. I’ve just picked out one of his books at random from my bookshelves: Hearts of Atlantis. It took me under a minute to find an example: ‘“Go in your room, Bobby,” Ted said quietly.’

“No, no, no!” the naysayers will protest. “The phrase ‘said quietly’ should become ‘whispered’ or ‘breathed’ or ‘muttered’.” I heartily disagree. It’s about nuance: saying something quietly is not the same as whispering or breathing or muttering it.

To me, adverbs are another tool in the writer’s shed and to avoid them altogether is to unnecessarily limit our ability to paint the fullest picture with our words. Having said that, they should undoubtedly be used with care and often a better word will present itself. So slam the door rather than shut it firmly; shout rather than exclaim loudly; sprint rather than run quickly. But by all means sweat profusely if sweating alone doesn’t fully convey the image you want to portray.

He and she and they

Ah, gender-neutral pronouns. A tricky one this. Easy to use ‘they’ when referring to more than one gender-unspecified person; not so easy when referring to only one.

Historically, ‘he’ was understood to include ‘she’, but that is rightly no longer considered acceptable. Indeed, clumsy constructs like ‘he or she’ and ‘he/she’ are now regarded as non-inclusive since they exclude those who regard their gender as neither. (If you want to read more about this, there are many instructive articles out there, such as this one: how-to-use-gender-neutral-pronouns)

‘They’ seems to have become increasingly acceptable as a gender-neutral pronoun when referring to only one person, even though it is, technically, a plural pronoun, not singular. It doesn’t always work well, though. Take a simple, contrived example, where the writer doesn’t want to reveal the identity of either character and so conceals their gender:
‘The murderer picked up the knife; the victim cowered. They thrust it into their chest.’

I try to get around it in my blog by writing ‘he (or she, but let’s take that as read)’. That’s no less clumsy but I can get away with it somewhere informal like a blog. And I ought probably to write ‘he (or she or any pronoun of your choice, but let’s take that as read)’ so as to include those who don’t identify with either he or she.

As for fiction writing, the best advice to avoid clumsy structures like the example above is to rewrite it.

Redundancies

A mention of a couple of my pet hates, though they’re becoming so widely used that I suspect I’m railing against them in vain.

‘PIN number’ – PIN is an acronym for Personal Identification Number so we don’t need to say ‘number’. PIN alone will suffice.

‘for free’ – free means ‘for nothing’ so we don’t need to say ‘for’. ‘You can get it free’ suffices. With this one, in particular, I know I’m not so much peeing into the wind as into a force-ten gale. They even use the expression ‘for free’ on the BBC, for goodness’ sake.

That’ll do for now. If I think of any more pet hates, I’ll include them in the next grammar post. What, another one…?

What Big Teeth You Have, Grammar – Part 2

‘Two nations separated by a common language’. That quote, or something very like it, is usually attributed to George Bernard Shaw and refers, of course, to the differences between English as spoken and written in the UK, and the version spoken and written in the USA. (I am aware that the term ‘America’ includes a heck of a lot of countries, but for the purposes of this piece I am going to use ‘American English’ as shorthand for the spoken and written word pertaining to the USA only.)

Everyone—and we’re talking about adults, not children—knows there are differences between British and American English, right? It surprised me to discover that there are people who don’t. It came to my notice a few years ago through a review of one of my books. The reviewer said that the book was ‘littered’ with spelling mistakes. (Note: this is not about having a pop at reviewers. I’m incredibly grateful for each and every review my books receive, even the less-than-stellar ones of which I have my fair share. I mention it only because that’s how I became aware of this issue.)

The review puzzled me. Whilst I aim to have my books completely error-free, I accept they may contain the odd error that was missed during the editing and proofreading stages. But littered with spelling mistakes? I knew that couldn’t be right (and read the book again to be sure). It took me days to realise that the reviewer clearly wasn’t aware of the differences between British and American English, and the mistakes ‘littered’ throughout the novel were actually words spelt in British English.

I want to talk a little about those differences, but I don’t intend to list every one I’m aware of—there are plenty of places where you can find such lists, if you’re interested (e.g. here). I’d rather mention a few that amused (and sometimes continue to amuse) or surprised me when I discovered them.

Take the word ‘fanny’—a fairly innocuous word in the States, but with quite a different meaning here. The first time I came across the American usage was, I think, in a Stephen King novel many years ago. When a male character patted a female character on her fanny, I almost dropped the book in shock. I mean, he’s noted for his horror, not his erotica. It took me a while to work out that in American English the word refers to the backside. I still can’t see the expression ‘fanny pack’ without it causing a juvenile snigger.

Then there’s the word ‘pissed’. To us Brits that means drunk, intoxicated, inebriated, sozzled. In American English, it means annoyed. We also use it to mean annoyed, but only when adding the word ‘off’: I was so pissed off, I felt like getting pissed. It was probably in a SK novel (since he was the American writer I mostly read as a teenager) that I first came across the American usage. When he described a character as being ‘pissed’, I understood him to mean that the character had been drinking copious amounts of alcohol. Strange that he’d failed to explicitly mention the drinking; even stranger that the character was behaving normally (in an annoyed sort of way), without slurring or stumbling about or trying to hold conversations with the furniture. The penny has long dropped, but I still have to sometimes pause when I come across the word in a novel and remind myself whether the author is American before deciding if the character is annoyed or drunk. It’s not always obvious from context.

There are some words in American English whose variation from British English is minuscule and yet they always give me pause while my mind adjusts. Take the simple little word ‘spit’. In American English, it doesn’t appear to have a past tense. In British English, it’s obvious in which tense I’m writing: ‘The boxers spit out blood’ versus ‘The boxers spat out blood’. In American English, they’d both read exactly the same and, unless obvious from context, ‘The boxers spit out blood’ could mean that they’re doing it now or did it yesterday.

I can’t read the American English words ‘math’ and ‘aluminum’ without wondering what they’ve done with the ‘s’ or the ‘i’; the first time I saw the latter, I thought it must be a new kind of metal that I hadn’t heard of. I had to rely on context to realise that a ‘bullhorn’ is what we call a ‘loudhailer’; a ‘cell phone’ is what we call a ‘mobile phone’ (easy if the word ‘phone’ is included, otherwise I’m relying on context); a ‘pacifier’ is what we call a baby’s ‘dummy’, not some sort of cattle prod as I first thought.

Some American English words I prefer to their British equivalents. There’s something far more colourful to my ears about a stroller than a pushchair. When I first read the name ‘tic-tac-toe’, I thought it sounded like a delightful new game to discover; I was disappointed to learn that it’s merely noughts and crosses, with a less literal but more fun-sounding name. And what about the American English ‘fender’, as opposed to the British ‘wing’? No contest, unless someone, employing ‘wing’, can think of a better phrase for a minor road traffic accident than a ‘fender bender’.

For years I read (yet again in SK’s books) about some mysterious object called in American English a ‘Twinkie’—note the spelling; in Britain, a twinky is something else entirely—without having any clue what a Twinkie is. I was eventually able to deduce from context that it was something edible and, from the capital T and it being a SK novel, a brand name. It took many more years and ease of access to the internet before I discovered quite what they are. As an aside, I’ve also read the claim that in the event of a nuclear holocaust, that Twinkies are likely to be one of the only non-tinned (that’s non-canned in American English) foodstuffs that will survive, but I don’t know how much truth there is to that, and hope never to find out.

‘Bangs’ is another American English word that confounded me when I first came across it. I suspect that everyone these days knows that the word refers to the humble fringe but, seriously—bangs? If it wasn’t clear from context, how the deuce was a British reader in the pre-internet days (and, yes, if you’re of a certain youthfulness, there is such a thing as ‘pre-internet’ and it wasn’t that long ago) supposed to work out what that meant?

On one of the online forums I frequent, where writers from the US are the majority representatives, I happened to use the word ‘fortnight’ that we Brits use without even thinking about it to mean a period of two weeks. This was quite recently and I was taken aback when some folk from the US didn’t know what I was talking about. Not all of them, by any means, but enough to show that the word I assumed was in common usage throughout the English-speaking world isn’t even widely used in one chunk of it (a big chunk, granted).

Another great source of confusion, at least to me, is the American way of referring to the ground floor of a building as the first floor, although there is a lot of sense in their method. So a lift (elevator) in a six-storey (that’s ‘story’ in American English, which mkes a lot less sense) building in the States has buttons marked 1 to 6, whereas a British one has buttons marked 1-5 and another marked G. I prefer the American way in this instance.

It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. Knowing that these differences in usage and spelling and grammar exist is vital for any writer, either side of the Atlantic; at least, for any writer who is looking to sell his or her books internationally. It may also be a good idea, for the benefit of readers who aren’t aware that the differences exist, to somehow make them aware. Some authors insert a note in the front matter stating that the book is written in British or Canadian or whatever English, which varies in some aspects of usage, spelling, etc from American English.

I haven’t done that (yet), preferring where possible to employ a subtler approach, such as have the characters in the novel mention the variations; this is much easier where the book includes both British and American characters. It is an issue that I now keep in mind in all my writing, even going so far as to name a novel The Elevator. There is actually a good reason for calling it that, which has nothing to do with what we’re talking about, but I’d be lying if I said that the possibility of there being some (a tiny minority, I’m sure) American readers who’d think a book called The Lift is about ice skating didn’t feature in my reasoning.

What Big Teeth You Have, Grammar – Part 1

Firstly, I must apologise for the groan-inducing title. Yes, this is a post about grammar*. And, yes, there may be more to come. A post about grammar? Part 1? Yawn.

Don’t be like that. I don’t intend them to be dry, technical posts. Rather, I want to talk about the idiosyncrasies of grammar and, occasionally, of those who use it.

Caveat: I do not hold myself out in any way as being an authority on grammar and its usage. If you want authority, refer to one of the style guides, like the Chicago or Oxford manuals**. Alternatively, visit an online forum dedicated to writing and post something like, ‘There’s nothing wrong with splitting an infinitive’—you’ll soon be swamped with authority or, at least, those who believe they speak with it. I am not claiming to speak with authority. I have, however, been around the block a few times and have published more than half a million words of fiction, so I ought to know a little about the subject.

I’m going to start with one of the most bemusingly controversial of topics: the Oxford comma. It’s also known as the Harvard comma or serial comma, which always puts me in mind of Jack the Ripper. (Or should that be Jack, the Ripper? You have my permission to call me rude names.)

Now, I doubt whether the average reader has even heard of this unassuming little fellow; I’m almost certain that he couldn’t care less about it. For those who aren’t sure what it is, take this example:

For dinner we’re having pie, chips, and peas.

The Oxford comma (OC) is the second one, the one that separates ‘chips’ and ‘and’. Here’s the sentence without it:

For dinner we’re having pie, chips and peas.

In case there are any grammar pedants looking in, I know that some will feel the sentence should contain a comma after the word ‘dinner’, but I’m making the style choice not to include it. So sue me. (I don’t consider there’s anything wrong with pedantry, by the way. I have a strong pedantic streak in me, but find as I get older that I care less and less about what others choose to do. You should try it; it’s liberating.)

Back to the example. Neither sentence is grammatically incorrect, but I prefer the second one. The OC adds nothing in my eyes and the second example looks less cluttered.

It comes down to which style a writer prefers, then? You’d think, but there are a surprising number of people out there who will argue vehemently that either the OC should always be used, or that it should never be used. It’s difficult to think of another example of grammar usage where writers (not all, it has to be said, but many) are so polarised, supporting one position to the exclusion of the other.

Whenever I’m visiting a writing-related forum and see a thread started about the OC, I can guess what’s going to happen. Before too long, someone will come along who will declare that the OC should always be used. It clears up ambiguity, they argue. To back up their argument, they’ll post some (often ridiculous) example, like this:

I’m going to dinner this evening with my brothers, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.

See? they’ll say, without the OC the sentence reads as though the narrator is saying his (or her, but for the sake of brevity I’m sticking with his) brothers are Laurel and Hardy. Therefore, they’ll say, the OC is always required to avoid such ambiguity, so that the example should read:

I’m going to dinner this evening with my brothers, Stan Laurel, and Oliver Hardy.

And they are right, up to a point. Unless the narrator wants to say that Laurel and Hardy are his brothers, the OC removes that ambiguity. But with most of the examples (possibly all; I haven’t tested) that get bandied about in support of this position, it only requires a little tinkering and the OC will produce the opposite result, i.e. it will create ambiguity. Take the Laurel and Hardy example. Now change ‘brothers’ from plural to singular:

I’m going to dinner this evening with my brother, Stan Laurel, and Oliver Hardy.

Now it sounds as though the narrator is saying that Stan Laurel is his brother. If that’s not what he intends, the OC needs to go.

So why do (some) writers get so bent out of shape by this and insist that the OC is always, or never, required? Beats me. It also amuses me in a head-shaking-sadly sort of way. For me, the OC is simple, so simple that I’m going to state this in bold:

– If the intended meaning of a sentence is improved by inclusion of the OC, use it.
– If the meaning is obfuscated (man, I love that word) by inclusion of the OC, omit it.
– If the meaning isn’t clear with or without it, rewrite the sentence.

And, as far as I’m concerned, that’s all there is to say on the matter.

* By ‘grammar’, I’m including things like spelling and punctuation. Although, strictly speaking, they are usually separate and distinct from grammar, I’m including them under the same umbrella term for ease of categorisation and, well, because it’s my website. So there.

** I mention the Oxford and Chicago manuals because they are the ones which seem to be most favoured by writers (I have copies of both sitting on the bookshelf above my writing desk) and both of which happen to be in favour of the OC, but there are other guides which aren’t.