Much ink/bandwidth has been expended in discussion of the serial comma, with partisans on either side making their case through outrageous examples. You’ve probably seen the ones about “to my parents, Ayn Rand and God” and “the strippers, JFK and Stalin.” One can easily construct similar examples on the flip side: “my best friend, Oprah, and my mom” and so on.
The problem often isn’t strictly a punctuation problem, though – it’s a sentence-construction problem. Whether your style guide calls for omitting unnecessary serial commas (Associated Press) or always using them (pretty much everyone else), it’s the writer’s or editor’s responsibility to ensure the sentence is clear and unambiguous.
I’ve said this before, but it’s probably time to say it again: “who” is well on its way to losing its case marking. That is, the objective case “whom” is fading, leaving us with “who” for both subjective and objective uses (like the pronouns “you,” “it” and “what”). In conversational speech, “whom” is already long gone, and in all but the most formal writing, at best “whom” is inconsistently used. Anymore, the only place you really need “whom” is directly following a preposition: To whom it may concern.
When I’m editing, I change an incorrect “whom” to a correct “who” far more often than the reverse. Hypercorrection – using “whom” where “who” is actually right – leads to sentences that are both stuffy and wrong. Here’s an example: “Please forward this message to whomever is in charge of purchasing.” The pronoun here is the subject of the relative clause and so should be who — you wouldn’t say “him is in charge of purchasing.”
Here’s a short video I made to explain this to my students:
Many editors own a T-shirt, sticker or button bearing this slogan, marking them as people who care about language, or at least have a sense of humor about it. However, others think it’s not at all funny and is yet another reason for people to think editors are snooty pedants who gleefully scold the less-educated.
Both have a point, but I’d like to point out that once an editor has spent years developing and honing language skills, it is (at least for some of us) really difficult to “turn it off.” We notice typos, misplaced apostrophes, incorrect usage and grammatical errors everywhere, because it’s what we do.
I’m not going to apologize for that, but I am going to suggest that we all focus on the “silently” part rather than the “correcting” part.
I’ve had plenty of friends and relatives say things to me along the line of “I’d better watch how I talk around you!” It’s meant good-naturedly, but I always tell them I don’t correct unless I’m paid or asked to. I’m not going to think any less of a friend who says “between you and I…” or a relative who was “supposably” in charge of the picnic. While I may notice — I can’t NOT notice — I’m certainly not going to say anything. That’s just called “not being a jerk.”
“Omit needless words” is one piece of stellar, timeless advice from the oft-maligned (with good reason) Strunk and White. Nonetheless, I see a lot writing filled with what I call “couch potato words” – words that just sit there, doing nothing and eating your chips.
There’s a poster in my office that says, “Grammar is not a secret code.” It is a code, sort of, but it’s certainly not a secret. Grammar is for everyone, and everyone deserves to feel confident using it. Plenty of resources exist to help people improve their grammar and language skills if they are so inclined.
We need a gender-nonspecific third-person singular pronoun to ensure inclusive writing that isn’t awkward. Generic “he” just doesn’t cut it anymore; extended use of “he/she” and “his/her” in writing is clunky; random switching between “he” and “she” is distracting at best, confusing at worst. Additionally, having the option of “they” accommodates people who don’t identify as either “he” or “she.”
English speakers and writers don’t just use singular “they” now, we’ve been using it for centuries. We’re talking pillars of English literature here, too: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, and so on. Even the King James Bible uses it (and frankly, if it’s good enough for God, shouldn’t it be good enough for the rest of us?).
That leaves the issue of clarity: If a usage choice introduces ambiguity or confusion, it’s generally not a good choice. But singular “they” is always clear (unlike singular “you,” which has led us to y’all, youse, yinz, you’uns, you lot, etc., to specify singular or plural – and which is also an example of a plural pronoun shifting into the singular, so unless you complain about singular “you” being ungrammatical, the “singular they is ungrammatical” argument holds no water). We understand when “they” refers to a group of people, and we understand when it refers to an unknown or unspecified singular person. Clarity is also the advantage “they” has over pronouns such as “ze,” “hir” and “em” (and dozens of other failed pronouns over the past 150-plus years): People know exactly what it means.
We all use singular “they” without even thinking and read right over it with total comprehension. The time has come for it to be considered standard.
The headline of this post is an example of a misplaced modifier (more specifically, this one is a dangling participle). Misplaced modifiers pop up every day, and even though it’s often clear what the writer meant, they cause a little stumble — and occasionally major confusion — for the reader.
Why it’s wrong: When you “back into” a sentence with a phrase, the information in that phrase goes with the subject of the sentence. So here, the “having started this post” goes with “an idea,” which is not right — it belongs with “me.” Sometimes sentences start with a phrase that doesn’t belong with anything in the sentence, which can really confuse readers.
How to spot one: Anytime you have a sentence that begins with a phrase — an adjective phrase, a prepositional phrase, a participial phrase — make sure that phrase goes with the subject.
How to fix it: You may be able to simply move the modifying phrase closer to what it modifies, or you may need to rewrite the sentence. With a dangling participle, it’s often better to change the participial phrase to a subordinate clause, which is what works for the title of this post: “As I started this post, an idea struck me.”
This is not a post about immigration — grammarians have no power over politics. It is a post about some of the more complicated aspects of subject-verb agreement, and it’s something I hope everyone can agree on.
The basics: Subjects and verbs must agree, that is, singular subjects get singular verbs, and plural subjects get plural verbs. With straight subject-verb-object constructions, this is easy and everyone gets it right.
A wrinkle: When more elements — such as a prepositional phrase or subordinate clause — are added to a sentence, it can end up that a plural noun is right before the verb, but is not the subject of the verb. Only the subject gets to “govern” the verb, that is, determine its number.
Example: The headline pictured above, “Flood of unaccompanied minors rush to cross Southwest border.”
To check agreement, take out the phrase or clause temporarily and look at the sentence. With no intervening words, it will be obvious what the verb needs to be.
Fix: “Flood of unaccompanied minors rush to cross Southwest border.” “Flood” is singular, so the verb should be “rushes.”
And the really tricky type: “She is one of those annoying people who publicly correct/corrects other people’s grammar.”
Should the verb be singular or plural? Let’s examine this sentence closely to find out.
“She” is not the subject of the verb “correct” – “she” is the subject of the verb “is.”
The subject of the verb “correct” is the relative pronoun “who,” which is referring to “people,” which is plural.
So “correct” is correct.
Think of it this way: There are annoying people who publicly correct other people’s grammar. She is one of them.
Thus, “She is one of those annoying people who publicly correct other people’s grammar.” But if someone says “corrects,” don’t correct them — it’s a common mistake and not one that sticks out.
One peeve I’ve seen pop up a couple of times recently is the prohibition on using “that” when referring to people, as in “The scientists that worked on the project toiled in anonymity” instead of “The scientists who worked on the project toiled in anonymity.” Some people think — and are quick to point out — that “who” is the only proper pronoun for human antecedents; centuries of written English say otherwise, as do most reputable usage guides.
In this kind of construction, “who” and “that” are relative pronouns introducing an essential, or restrictive, clause. Essential clauses are just that — essential to the meaning of the sentence. In other words, if you take them out, the meaning of the sentence changes.
“That” can refer to any sort of antecedent, whether it’s a person or a thing. It did for Chaucer, it did for Shakespeare, it did even in the King James Bible (the first instance is in Genesis: “And the sons of Noah, that went forth of the ark, were Shem, and Ham, and Japheth: and Ham is the father of Canaan.”). “Who” has arisen as a more specific form for people — and pets and zoo animals — and its use is apparently broadening, as it is occasionally seen referring to businesses.
Is there a preference for “who” when the antecedent is human? Absolutely. It’s even part of some style guides. But is “that” grammatically wrong? Absolutely not.
Last year I revisited the classic BBC show “Yes, Minister,” which is about a hapless British cabinet minister trying to get things done and the Civil Service employees who seek to thwart him. Much of the show’s humor lies in the dense, rambling speeches of Sir Humphrey, the minister’s permanent secretary, who can turn a single sentence into several jargon-laden, empty-phrased-stuffed minutes while saying next to nothing. Did I say the show was a comedy?
Jargon has its place in language: it’s a shorthand for members of a particular group that allows them to communicate specific concepts quickly to other members, who don’t require definitions or explanations.
Problems arise when jargon bleeds into everyday speech or writing and ends up impeding communication instead of making it clearer. The same can be said for buzzwords, unnecessarily long words* and needlessly wordy sentences. This is not to say that every sentence has to be subject-verb-object only — we don’t want to sound like a second-grade reading textbook — but that separating individual ideas into their own sentences generally increases clarity.
In my experience, people who use too much jargon or construct overly dense sentences outside of professional discourse generally have three reasons for doing so:
They want to hide something. Government “bureaucratese” is the best example of this: if you really don’t want people to find out about something, bury it under an avalanche of convoluted sentences, jargon and endless prepositional phrases.
They want to seem smart. The old saying goes, “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.” Lots of people think using big words makes them appear intelligent, but the reality is that making a point clearly and concisely requires a lot more thought and smarts.
They want you to think they know something that they don’t. People don’t like to say “I don’t know,” especially when it’s something they think they should know. If you’ve ever watched an unprepared student get called on in class and try to muddle through an answer, you’ve seen this.
All kidding aside, we do need to strive for clear, informative writing. If there’s a chance that something might be confusing, ditch the jargon in favor of straightforward language. Take a machete to overgrown sentences to clear a path for the reader. And if you don’t understand something, you can bet your readers won’t, so don’t be afraid to ask “What does this mean?” or “What are we trying to say here?” and adjust the writing accordingly.
Remember, no one will ever complain that something is too clear.
* I’m not one to shy away from sending people to the dictionary from time to time, but only when the word that will require looking-up is the best word for the situation and lacks a less-obscure synonym.