Grammar Gripes

OK, so I’m a well-known grammar pedant. In my own words I’m a ‘grammar ninja graffiti artist, adding and removing apostrophes late at night to make the world a more grammatically-correct place’. But I’ve recently found myself defending the evolution of our language to some folks even more grammatically fascist than me…

You know the sort – they loiter in Sainsbury’s tutting at the ’10 items or less’ signage, telling anyone who’ll pause long enough to listen that ‘it clearly should be fewer, after all less is only used when the subject can’t be quantified’. Or they helpfully critique business letters or cards and send them back with some ‘suggestions’ marked in red, always red. And *officially* they’re not wrong. But how strict should we really be about this stuff?

When I grew up – not all that long ago – we still used ‘thus’ and added apostrophes before plane and phone because they were missing part of their prefix. And that’s just plain wrong now and makes anything you write smack of nineteeth century Puritanism. So, am I suddenly confessing – Oprah style – to a change of heart? Has Stephen Fry’s now famous plea to us all to abandon grammar fascism in favour of something much more relaxed and laissez faire gone to my head?

Not completely is the brief answer. I start sentences with and and but and could blind you with geekiness as to why that’s perfectly OK, but will save that bad boy for a follow-on blog. Should we abide by and obey rules which are there solely to complicate our language and prevent our expression? No. But should we fight hard to maintain some standards when it comes to how our language is organised and so make sure that our sentences are read as we mean them to be? Absolutely.

And this is where my complete bugbear comes in. The reason why I’ve been caught – on more than one occasion – actually ‘amending’ signage to aid the understanding (as a ‘selfless gesture on behalf of humanity’ officer, and not in any way graffiti-like…) Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the least lauded but arguably most useful part of our language, the humble comma. Most of us were taught at school – by someone with no more than an O-Level in English usually – that ‘you never put a comma before an and’ and they’ve gleefully shared this assertion with me hundreds of times since. My answer is that you can. Completely. And I even got to write a thesis at University to prove it (an exciting paper when you’re studying syntax and sentence analysis, and one I’ll happily dig out and share with anyone struggling to sleep).

It’s called the Oxford Comma and can be used whenever all parts of a sentence carry equal weight and you need to divide them for clarity. Think for a moment about your breakfast. Did you eat cereal, toast and orange juice. Or did you eat cereal, toast*,* and orange juice. The simple inclusion of a comma in the second example made sure that you could bite into a crisp piece of buttery toast and not poke at a stodgy, orange-infused mess of soggy bread. You see where I’m going…

So, (and you’re not meant to be able to start a sentence with that either but I’m a revolutionary) do remember that language evolves, that it’s a living and breathing thing which mirrors our society as we know it. But if anyone tries to touch our punctuation then I’ll be first to wave an immaculately punctuated placard and fight for our rights. After all, as you can see, punctuation really can save lives…

Have a great week!

By Felicity Wingrove


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