Monday, March 24, 2014

Serial comma: Are you an innie or an outie?

The serial comma, aka the Oxford comma, is the toilet paper roll of writing style dicta, for like the toilet paper, it gets people tied in knots when it doesn't go their way.

Its presence or absence is also just about as important as which way the toilet paper is hung. There are reasonable arguments to be made to include or omit it, but either way, your meaning will probably get across, except in a few odd circumstances (some in favor of the comma, others against it) that punctuation purists on either side point to as evidence that the language gods are with them.

This particular comma even shows up in online dating profiles. Even those who miss the distinction between you're and your feel confident expressing a strong opinion about this small mark and using it as a gauge of potential partners' worthiness. Maybe there's something deep here that I'm not getting, some direct correlation between the use or non-use of this comma and the potential for a bad breakup when one partner receives an inappropriately punctuated text message from the other. Or maybe this kind of pseudo-intellectual posturing is a useful tool for flirting.

But even though I do have an opinion on this issue (and it is strongly held), I have to believe that those who are completely hung up on the distinction between a sentence that uses commas before all elements of a list (a, b, and c) and one that omits the final one before the coordinating conjunction (a, b and c) deserve a limited slate of romantic options.

People who don't like the serial comma may bring up the possibility that it may be perceived in some circumstances as the final comma setting off an appositive:

Rick, my brother, and I threw eggs at my neighbor's expensive stucco wall.

Take out that comma, and it's less likely that readers will think Rick is the narrator's brother:

Rick, my brother and I threw eggs at my neighbor's expensive stucco wall.

Those who do like it offer examples in which the comma's absence tends to blur necessary distinctions:

The plaintiff's lawyer waved an arm at the offenders, the defense lawyer and the judge.

It could be argued that in a situation like this, the last two items in the series might be considered an appositive defining the offenders as the defense lawyer and the judge. With the serial comma, the distinction is clear:

The plaintiff's lawyer waved an arm at the offenders, the defense lawyer, and the judge.

Whether a reader would actually misunderstand the first example in either of these instances depends on the context and on the reader's expectations. A careful writer would find a way to reorder the items or recast the sentence in a case in which extreme confusion was a probable outcome.

In this blog, I have chosen to use the serial comma, though the stylebook I use at the office prefers to omit it. My own reason for liking it is about aesthetics more than clarity: A brief pause before the end of the series lends the sentence an air of formality. It also gives the reader a chance to take a small breath before lunging toward the last item in the list. It's like a vacation that only lasts for an instant in time that is still vaguely perceptible, even though its duration is infinitesimal.

That's not a scientific explanation or much of an argument, but it's as reasonable and definitive as anything that might be said about how to hang the toilet paper.

Bonus opinion: This type of comma may be called the serial, Oxford, or Harvard comma. I prefer the more generic term "serial comma," both because it describes how it is used (in a series) and because this usage was not invented at either Oxford or Harvard. Also, pledging allegiance to an "Oxford comma" sounds like a snooty attempt at name-dropping, especially if you're using it to bait the hook for a potential date.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Shake it! Find and flaunt your writing style

Picture an array of tall, fine-boned models strutting down a runway. Each model wears a different outfit, but the different pieces of clothing are obviously related, their hemlines, seams and shapes expressing the overall vision of one person, the famous designer who created the collection. Now imagine that this designer is you.

What choices did you have to make to come up with this cohesive collection? Perhaps you decided to make the shirts hang loose and the pants tight-fitting. You included your signature touch, a rounded neckline, on every shirt and tunic. If anything were out of place, you and your audience would notice instantly.

Style in writing, like style in clothing, is about the outward touches, the choices that make for a consistent presentation. While it may involve grammatical considerations, it's not all or even mainly about grammar. While every writer develops a unique style over time, made up of his or her accumulated habits and choices of diction and syntax, many also find it useful or necessary at some point to adopt the style advocated by an organization or publication.

This second type of writing style provides businesses, academic disciplines, and publishers a way to make decisions about matters like punctuation, word choice, and format that they can apply across an array of works, just as the fashion designer applies a unified set of ideas to an entire collection of clothing. Everything that is considered optional in writing may be covered by style, but no stylebook covers every possible issue.

Some style decisions regard punctuation: whether to use a comma before the conjunction preceding the last item in a list (the serial or Oxford comma) or to place quotation marks outside or inside end punctuation marks (the American style is to put them outside, the British to put them inside). Others are about capitalization: When, if ever, should you capitalize the first word after a colon? In what instances do you capitalize job titles and political titles? Still others regard word choice: whether to use farther or further, titled or entitled, dived or dove, and which dictionary to consult for cases not specifically mentioned. Some are about compounds: Is shortlist one word or two? Which compounds are hyphenated and which are not?

Style guides focused on academic writing devote many pages to the proper formatting of footnotes and endnotes, creating headaches for the beginning student but saving professors and publishers of academic journals and books an enormous amount of hassle.

Making so many minor decisions, particularly on matters that have no right or wrong answer, may seem silly to some, but it prevents a disorderly presentation that would make a writer or publication seem sloppy and inattentive. Following a set style, whether the choices are your own or someone else's, will help you maintain consistency in your work.

If you have free range in selecting a style guide to use in your writing and aren't bound by the wishes of your employer, editors, or school, it's best to choose one whose purpose closely matches your own goals. If you're a scholar of the humanities or social sciences, it's likely that you will use the Modern Language Association's MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Publishing or the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association. Journalists may turn to The Associated Press Stylebook, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage or some other stylebook geared toward news publishing. The Chicago Manual of Style, a hefty tome, is used by both academics and book publishers and contains a great deal of information pertaining to the publishing process.

Even among guides that are used within the same line of work, there are significant differences. The style developed by the Associated Press emphasizes concision, for the quick composition and transmission of wire service stories: no serial comma here. The New York Times, on the other hand, retains the practice of using Mr. or Ms. when referring to people by their last names, conveying a formality that may lead the reader to expect deeper analysis than might be expected from a publication with a shorter, snappier presentation.

How the guide is structured will also tell you something about the factors that were most important to its authors and whether it will be easy for you to use for your own purposes. The AP guide is organized like a dictionary, listing words and categories in alphabetical order. It's an easy reference if your main concern is consistency in word spelling and usage. If you're interested in preparing a lengthy manuscript, the Chicago Manual may be more helpful, with its organization by category and emphasis on formatting.

Since most of us belong to more than one institution over the course of our lives, it's likely that you will be encouraged to follow several different guides or sets of rules regarding style. When you're on your own, though, what matters most is to recognize what choices you are making and to be consistent about them. Your work will appear more correct and more professional as you pay greater attention to the trimmings.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Creatures of the deep: detecting hidden subjects

We spend our lives swimming in a boundless sea of language, from the moment we begin to understand our first words. Being so profoundly immersed allows us to go where we like in this ocean, confident that we know all that is important about how to navigate it. But beware: Even in the relative safety of your own reef or pool, sharks are lurking in these waters.

Familiarity can make us incautious. A headlong plunge into your subject can be a great advantage in getting the ideas out on the page in a first draft, but when you start refining your words and editing them, it's best to start with a clear understanding of what kinds of hazards you may have met along the way.

Locating your subject and verb is a useful first step in the process of finding possible mistakes or bad habits in grammar. In a simple sentence, it's easy to figure out who or what is acting and what is being done. When we say, "Frank and his brothers renovated our kitchen last week," we know the action (to renovate) and who performed it (Frank and his brothers).

But what happens when we say something like "Let's go out Thursday with Connie and Bill"? Here we have to take apart the beginning contraction, which means "Let us." But who or what is the subject here? In this sentence we have a pronoun, us, and a set of proper nouns, Connie and Bill, that could be candidates, but is either of those possible subjects performing the action? Who is letting us go out?

The verb in this kind of sentence takes what is called the imperative mood. It makes a command:

Let us do this.
Go ahead, make my day.
Don't bother.
Be sure to take out the trash.

The subject here is implied. It is the entity we wish to perform the action, which in all cases is you, in either the singular or plural, depending on whom we are addressing. What we really mean, when we use the imperative, is:

(You) let us do this.
(You) go ahead, make my day.
Don't (you) bother.
(You) be sure to take out the trash.

So when we casually come out with a suggestion like "Let's go out Thursday with Connie and Bill," we're hoping the action of letting will be performed not by us or by our friends Connie and Bill but by you, the person we're addressing.

Another kind of hidden-subject sentence is even more insidious, and that is the sentence that begins with "There." The subject is present, but it is not the word there. It lingers just out of reach of the unprepared, but if you're careful, you can grab it by the fin and wrangle it.

There is orange juice in the refrigerator.
There are some wonderful sights along the coast.
There have been many strange incidents.
There remained a powerful odor in the air.

The verbs in these sentences are easy to identify: is, are, have been, remained. But the subject isn't where we expect it to be. In this kind of sentence, "There" is a placeholder. It isn't actually doing anything. To find the subject, we have to start with the verb and detect who or what is performing it, or in this case, existing, since the verbs are several forms of "to be" and one form of "to remain," which means to continue existing.

If you take out "There" and reorder the words so the sentence still has the same meaning, the task is simpler, even though the construction doesn't always seem to make as much sense. (Some guidebooks and grammarians tell you not to begin a sentence with "There is" or "There are." In many cases, avoiding such constructions may make for a more muscular style, using the active voice, but on many occasions, this kind of construction is the most natural way to express a thought.)

Orange juice is in the refrigerator.
Wonderful sights are along the coast.
Many strange incidents have been.
A powerful odor remained in the air.

Juice, sights, incidents, and odor are the simple subjects. One reason it is useful to know this is that it may help you avoid using a plural verb for a singular subject, or vice versa, making a mistake like this:

There has been many strange incidents.

The subject and verb may both slip out of sight when you take the opportunity to ask a question, because their order is inverted or mixed up.

How should I know?
Can you believe it?
Wouldn't they be better off not driving to Milwaukee in a snowstorm?
Who ate that bagel?

Often, the subject comes directly after the verb or between the helping verb and the main verb. If you recast the sentence as a statement, you will end up putting the subject in its usual position before the verb:

I should know. You can believe it. They wouldn't be better off not driving to Milwaukee in a snowstorm.

In the last example, though, the subject and verb are in the usual order, because the question word who, a pronoun, is in the right place. If you find it confusing, you can imagine replacing it with a word that who might be standing in for, like somebody or nobody:

Who (somebody) ate that bagel.

Learn to identify the subject and verb in these exceptional cases, and you will be better equipped to dive into deeper zones of composition, while still getting your ideas across to your readers in clear, sparkling terms.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Subject and verb: the beginnings of a vast cosmos

Space, time, and the matter that exists or pops in and out of existence are the basic elements of our experience. They also make up the fundamentals on which our writing is established. After all, what are our sentences about if not matter or ideas either existing or acting within the space-time continuum?

I might be getting a little far out after reading about the great Carl Sagan in this month's issue of Smithsonian, but I believe the ideas are linked. To make the most basic kind of declarative sentence, you must have two parts, a subject that performs an action or occupies a state of being and a verb that expresses that action or state of being.

If you take the matter and smash it together with what it does as it proceeds through time, it becomes something greater than its parts: a sentence that expresses a complete thought. As a writer, you've created the beginnings of a universe, with multitudinous possibilities for expansion.

The tiger snores.
I am.
Miley Cyrus twerked.

Yes, I did go there. "Twerk" is a new verb, but it certainly describes a specific and immediately identifiable action, performed by a subject who is likewise quite easy to point out in a lineup, at least if you've been paying attention to the celebrity gossip.

If you add more nouns or pronouns to your subject, it becomes a compound subject:

Either the tiger or the lion snores.
My brother and I are.
Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke performed.

That much may still be easy to remember, but when you start adding elaborate descriptions to the subject, it may become harder to remember where the subject and the verb are. A mismatch between the subject and the verb, resulting in an error of agreement, may be the unfortunate result of such a memory lapse.

The most sought-after item at our stores, the blue-gray penknife decorated with carvings of jumping hyenas symbolizing good luck, fly off the shelf.

The verb here incorrectly takes the plural form because somewhere between the stores, carvings, and hyenas, the writer forgot that the main action, flying, is being done by a singular subject, the item. Boil down this sentence to its core components, and it reads: The item flies.

The simple declarative sentence isn't the only basic sentence form. I'll cover the sentences that don't appear to have a subject at all or whose subject appears in inverted order in another entry.

The English language is rife with odd cases and exceptions to rules, but knowing your simple subject and the simple verb connected with it can save you a lot of trouble as you express more complicated thoughts with more elaborate constructions. It can also keep you focused on what you're really trying to say in a sentence, helping your readers stay with you, no matter how far you want to take them.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Not just for nerds: learning to embrace your grammar

There's something undeniably geeky about celebrating an occasion like National Grammar Day. The idea of devoting a single day to grammar sounds like something that would attract librarians, pedants, and those people who troll comment sections to correct other commenters' sentences while throwing down the classic misspelled Internet catchphrase, "Your an idiot."

It's fun to pay tribute to grammar once a year, but we shouldn't elevate it to the status of an uber-nerdy subject that only a few can fully appreciate. Grammar is the bedrock of every language. It's not the whole mountain, but it's the substructure that supports the rich soil of an immense and varied lexicon, connected by numerous veins of communication and interplay among the individuals who use it every day.

We don't always see it, but it's an essential part of our lives, and it's something we all can enjoy, even when we aren't aware that we're using it. Even the text-happy teenagers some teachers complain about, whose written communications have devolved into a panoply of shortcuts and alternative spellings, are dependent on their readers' ability to decipher the underlying structure. Perhaps the entire system will break down at some point, but when it does, a new grammar will have to emerge for people to use in understanding each other.

When you watch a spider build its web, there's something awe-inspiring about watching a tiny creature superimpose a spiral on a set of lines radiating from a central spot, with the whole structure tethered to some unlikely combination of stems and leaves or the drafty corner of a garage ceiling. Writers employ the same set of techniques. Long novels and short poems, even those that seem free-form in conception, all build on an underlying order that allows almost infinite variations in the outcome.

Grammar is one important element that distinguishes the human writer from the hypothetical team of monkeys that would eventually randomly produce the works of Shakespeare, if given enough time. Our time to transmit ideas to each other falls far short of the eternity that would be needed for such a random feat, and our knowledge of sentence structure and of the different roles that various words play in a sentence helps us get to the point quickly, with precision, and occasionally with great elegance.

Anyone can learn more about grammar, and that learning doesn't have to take the form of lessons or reading prescriptive blog posts. Take pleasure in reading something substantial offline, and you will take in the form of language as well as the content. Learning a foreign language, even just the basics, can heighten your awareness of the way you put words together in your own language. What's more, it can broaden your sense of what it's possible to say, since ideas themselves take on a different cast of meaning when expressed differently.

It also helps to try not to see the whole subject as a system of arbitrary rules laid down by others. They are simply the explanations we have gathered for the ways we have come to use language by instinct. They have been standardized, but they are also subject to change over time; that is to say, our grammar is not our grandmas' grammar.

The ropes and tethers of your substructure aren't the whole story; they're just a beginning. But they are wonderful things to have within your grasp when you want to weave something magical, even when you choose to depart from grammatical norms. While we're paying tribute to grammar today, let's embrace it as an essential part of how we relate to one another through both the written and the spoken word.