a victory for the Oxford comma (and for grammar nerds)

Grammar nerds are delighted at the news story last week that the Oxford comma decided a court case. Being a grammar nerd who loves the Oxford comma, I got caught up in the excitement.

The Oxford comma, or serial comma, is the final comma right before the conjunction in a series of words. Some style guides favor it, others say to omit it. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage says not to use it. The Chicago Manual of Style tells us we should use it.

Here is an example: “I had eggs, toast, and orange juice.” If you omit the final comma (I had eggs, toast and orange juice) the sentence could be read as telling the toast and orange juice that you had eggs for breakfast.

In fact, eliminating ambiguity is one of the strongest arguments in favor of the Oxford comma. Take this example: “This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” While this was probably never really a dedication in a published book, I love it nonetheless. The implication that the author is saying that his parents are Ayn Rand and God really strikes my funny bone.

And the court case? The court case was all about ambiguity. In Maine a group of dairy delivery drivers believed they were entitled to overtime pay. Their employer said they weren’t. The relevant statute states that workers involved in the following activities are not eligible for overtime:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods. 

Note the missing comma before the “or.” Because that comma was not there, the court read “packing for shipment or distribution” as a single activity, when in fact “packing for shipment” and “distribution” were probably meant to be understood as separate activities. Nonetheless, the judge sided with the (missing) Oxford comma and ruled that the delivery drivers were eligible for overtime.

Here’s to the Oxford comma!


Becoming a Great Essayist

Becoming a Great Essayist coverBecoming a Great Essayist
Jennifer Cognard-Black, Ph.D.
The Great Courses
Audio download $24.95 when on sale
If the course is not on sale, check back– the sale price will come around again

I very much enjoyed this course. As a blogger I appreciated what Professor Cognard-Black had to say about what makes a proper essay. You can write about your own experience any time you want, but until you include a more universal component, until you work in a perspective to which your readers can relate, you have not written an actual essay.

For anyone desiring to get serious about essay writing, this can be a highly useful course. Cognard-Black discusses a wide variety of essay types: skeptical, reasonable, empathetic, visual, and on and on. She reads from well-written, evocative essays. And she gives assignments. After discussing a particular type of essay she provides instructions how to get started writing one.

There is a lot of valuable material here. I expect to listen to this course again.


automated proofing tools and their limitations

I have a long history with automated proofing tools. That history goes back to about 1990, when I experimented with a couple of grammar checkers while working at a small software company. To put this in context, at that time the only people who used Microsoft Windows were those who used graphic or desktop publishing tools that required it. The rest of us used the command line with the C prompt to start our programs, which, you may remember, we had to use one at a time. It was not until 1992 with the release of Windows 3.1 that the graphical user interface came into common use.

keyboardThe results of the testing I did with these proofing tools were disappointing. Things that should have been flagged weren’t and things that did not need to be flagged often were. Sadly, twenty-six years later in the world of Windows 10 little has changed.

In her marvelous Great Courses lecture series, English Grammar Boot Camp, Anne Curzan shows little love for the Microsoft Word grammar checker. She says that it often gets things wrong, and sometimes the rules it tries to enforce are often not even rules. For example, her version flags sentences that start with “and.” Interestingly, my Word 2013 doesn’t complain. In any case there is, she says, there is no established rule on not starting a sentence with “and.” (Mignon Fogarty, the Grammar Girl, says this rule is “one with no historical or grammatical foundation.”)

I certainly have my issues with Microsoft tools. The Word 2013 proofing tools failed to flag a repeated “the.” The grammar checker in Outlook wanted me to lowercase “give” at the beginning of a sentence (perhaps because it was preceded by “p.m.”) and failed to catch a “you” instead of “your” when I used the phrase “your money.”

Microsoft is not the only guilty party, however. The proofing tool for my personal blog has its annoyances. It asked me to replace “thyme” with “time” and “adobo” with “adobe.” I guess it doesn’t have much of an interest in cooking.

The bottom line: Don’t put too much trust in the grammar tools. Proofread carefully. Better yet, get someone to proofread your work for you.


write if you get work

I’ve been working on building my web and writing business for a while now.  I have had a couple of gigs here and there, but not what I really would like.

write ifyou get work stock photoThen I had an email from a former manager of mine. She is working for a small firm that works on customer referrals and success stories. They do a lot of one-page customer success story write-ups. Would I be interested in giving this a shot, she asked. I absolutely would, I responded.

I was given a transcript of a customer interview and some general guidelines. I wrote the piece and turned it in. When I heard back I learned that I had made a couple of bonehead errors. But they also liked my work enough that they are going to give me a second assignment. And I got paid.

It’s a promising start.

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the passive voice

I recently came across an article I had saved from the first quarter 1991 issue of Technical Communication, the journal of the Society for Technical Communication, or STC. The article by Kent Porter is entitled “Usage of the Passive Voice,” and is a hilarious spoof on the use of the passive in technical communication.

passive voice: "inconvenience caused is regretted"The passive voice, of course, is when the subject of the sentence becomes the object. The sentence “He clobbered me” is in the active voice. “I was clobbered by him” is in the passive voice.

Although most of Porter’s article is funny only if you have either been a technical writer or a user of technical manuals, the author provides a couple of tidbits that any student of language can enjoy. First, he re-writes Shakespeare:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, your ears should be lent to me. … It is intended that Caesar be buried, not praised.

In another example he writes:

Jane was asked to be married by Robert through a romantic proposal.

Both great examples of why to avoid the passive.

I belong to an online kitchen appliances group. One woman wrote about a particular appliance:

My husband and I agreed that the quiche is not going to be made again.

I’m not sure why she didn’t want to admit to who was responsible for making the quiche.

Of course, there are times when it is appropriate to use the passive. Anne Curzan, in her video course English Grammar Boot Camp, writes about starting a blog entry this way:

I have a new favorite mug. It was given to me by graduate students in the English and Education program.

Curzan points out that the passive is useful here because the focus of the second sentence is the mug and not the graduate students.

In The Elements of Style Strunk and White state:

The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive. … This rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.

The pompous H.W. Fowler states in Modern English Usage that the passive “sometimes leads to bad grammar, false idiom, or clumsiness.” Note the “sometimes.”

The bottom line, then: give preference to the active voice, but use the passive when appropriate.

By the way, if you are a technical writer or a user of technical manuals you might enjoy Porter’s original article. It’s here in PDF format. Note that the article starts halfway down the page.

photo credit: Scott Dexter, cropped.  license: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.

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kid in a candy shop

Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation coverOne of the blogs I follow is CMOS Shop Talk, from the good folks at the Chicago Manual of Style. They recently ran an interview with Bryan Garner about the May release of his Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. (What took them so long?) Ann Curzan, the instructor in the English Grammar Boot Camp video course that I am taking often quotes from the author’s Garner’s Modern English Usage, and he seems to me to frequently take a conservative, overly pedantic, and restrictive stance on grammar and usage. But, I thought, he is writing the Chicago Guide for the Chicago Manual of Style, so he is going to have to adhere to Chicago style, rules, and conventions. Right? And in any case he is the author of the Grammar and Usage” chapter in the Chicago Manual of Style.

So I bought it.

And what a pleasure the book is. It tells me all about mass nouns and count nouns. It distinguishes between qualitative adjectives and quantitative adjectives. It discusses linking verbs, phrasal verbs, and ergative verbs. It discusses compound sentences, complex sentences, and even compound-complex sentences.

So much fun.

It’s that little old grammar nerd, me.

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much ado about nothing

I spent the greater part of a recent morning getting my knickers in a knot over nothing.

I had just started a new course from The Great Courses entitled English Grammar Boot Camp. The instructor displayed a sentence which the editors of the American Heritage Dictionary sent to their usage panel to get panel member views as to whether the construction was acceptable. The sentence read:

Aptitude is essential; but equally as important is the desire to learn.

The question revolved around the use of “equally as important” in the sentence, the idea being that it might be better to streamline the sentence by writing “equally important.” However, I fixated on the words after the semicolon, thinking that they did not constitute an independent clause. I composed a rant for the blog on my business web site, describing how that bothered me, and citing the Chicago Manual of Style chapter and verse. Chicago takes the position that the phrase to the right of a semicolon must be an independent clause.

But wait. There’s a problem here. “equally as important is the desire to learn” is an independent clause. It is a sort of backwards Yoda English (“Much to learn you still have.”) that does not stand well on its own, but it is an independent clause nonetheless. Remove the “as.” “Equally important is the desire to learn.”

Subject the desire to learn
Verb is
Predicate equally important

Now there is a comparative (“equally important”) that does not have a referent, which is not good syntax, but grammatically this is an independent clause.

I wasted a morning on a rant I was wrong about.

In the words of Miss Emily Latella, “Oh, that’s very different. Never mind.”

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