Here are some reasons to make you smile on a Monday.
I constantly bemoan the deterioration of writing skills on the internet. I have resigned myself to endure quick but careless writing.
Imagine my surprised pleasure when I found grammar proponents in the unlikeliest place – the comments section of a sports blog!
Let’s face it, as adherents to good grammar, sports writers and announcers are at the back of the line. They grab every opportunity to get “creative” with English using strange words and poor sentence structure. Subject-verb agreement is taboo.
I usually avoid the rampant ignorance of any comments section on news sites. I just don’t need the aggravation caused by the assault on my writing sensibilities.
On the other hand, I have been a New York Rangers fan for more than half a century. I can’t help it; I was born that way. I follow a couple of Rangers-focused blog sites, but my favorite is Blueshirt Banter. The blogs are good and solid, but not overly spectacular. I like Blueshirt Banter because of the comments.
The commenters are witty, sometimes eliciting actual guffaws from me. The administrators make sure no one gets too nasty. Anyone who does, disappears like an informer at a mob wedding. Sometimes I need a laugh after a Rangers game, you know?
But what’s best is the “grammar police” who have no problem correcting, in the most jovial manner, whoever wrote the blog.
On what other sports blog can you find a 50+ comment side thread arguing for and against an Oxford comma? How many times have you seen a sports blogger raked over the coals for using “phased” when he meant “fazed”?
Just like any Rangers fan, I’m by necessity a pessimist with a deep, secret hope for success. I am trying to tame my copy editor and writing instructor fanaticism, so I have just been lurking and not commenting.
But observing the Blueshirt Banter commenters pushing for good grammar brings joy to my heart and a tear to my eye.
Just when you thought you were safely out of the Oxford (serial) comma melee, it comes back to bite with the force of legal precedence.
“Lack of Oxford Comma Could Cost Maine Company Millions in Overtime Dispute”* is the headline for a recent New York Times article.
Folks on either side of this comma issue are firmly (and vocally) supportive. Most news agencies omit the last comma in a series. Most academic style guides require it to be there.
I’m not an advocate of putting commas in all over the place. (Just because you tend to pause doesn’t mean a comma belongs there.) However, I feel the consistent use of the Oxford comma prevents confusion. Really, in an age of electronic writing, what’s the reason for leaving it out?
No matter what side you are on, this law needed to be written more clearly. Here is the piece of legislation:
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.
The argument (successful as it turns out) is that “distribution” is part of the “packing for” phrase. In my not-so-legal mind, that would require a conjunction to appear after “storing.” On the other hand, putting the comma after “shipment” would have saved everyone a whole bunch of time, effort, and money.
This just goes to prove that commas can have a huge impact on life.
*This link might not work if you’ve gone over your free limit of news stories. ☹
The comma stood on the corner, bleating, “Please, can someone help me? I know I belong somewhere, but I can’t quite remember where.”
Devon Taylor, copy editor, sat at the counter of the diner across the street and watched as passers-by skittered around the pitiful punctuation mark. They looked away determined to not notice it.
Devon (destined to become The Nib) couldn’t really blame them. Commas were notoriously slippery creatures. But there was something about this comma that made Devon think it was truly in trouble.
The editor set down the empty coffee cup and wandered across the street.
“What brings you to Conjunctionville?” Devon asked the punctuation mark.
“Oh! Thank you for helping,” the comma was practically hopping. “I think I’m supposed to meet a couple of independent clauses for a job, but I can’t remember all the details. It was supposed to be set up by the FANBOYS. I read over a couple of news stories, but they don’t seem to want commas hanging out with conjunctions that link independent clauses. I just don’t know what to do.”
“I’m a copy editor, and I’ve noticed more and more news sites (like our competition, the Pencil Post) have been leaving you guys out between independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction. I thought it was some sort of cost-cutting move.”
The comma, dejected, said, “I was convinced I’d always have a job. Sure, those Oxford commas have it rough what with some people using them and some not. Who thought anyone would eliminate commas in compound sentences?”
“Well, the Associated Press Stylebook sure doesn’t,” Devon said. “It specifically states you should be in there, and most news organizations follow AP – or at least say they do.”
Devon’s heart went out to the comma which was, by now, in tears.
“Look, I have a connection at the Department of English Language Offenses. It’s just two blocks down the street on your right. When you get there, ask for Detective Dis Connect. Maybe he can help you. Tell him Devon Taylor sent you.”
The comma confidently strode toward the DELO. Devon wasn’t so sure it could be helped. The world was changing, and writers seemed to be getting lazier.
“This is it, the Hunt & Peck,” Sgt. Dis Connect said.
He opened the door and let Grammar Smith walk in before him.
Grammar peered across the dim barroom. There wasn’t much going on. A few Oxford commas were in the corner, hunched over their drinks, commiserating over their lot. Slumped at the bar, nursing a cocktail, was Grammar’s prey.
“Henrietta Hyphen?” Grammar asked as she and Dis approached the bar.
“Who wants to know?”
“I’m Inspector Grammar Smith of the Department of English Language Offenses. This is Sgt. Dis Connect.” They flashed their badges.
“We’d like you to come down to the station to have a chat,” Grammar continued.
“Why?” Ms. Hyphen wasn’t exactly belligerent; she was just strongly uncooperative.
“We’ve had a complaint that you assaulted a news reporter.”
“Are you kidding me?! She actually filed a complaint? That idiot was making my life miserable. She couldn’t decide when she wanted me and when she didn’t. What an airhead!”
“What do you mean?” Grammar asked.
“She kept tryingt to throw me in places where I didn’t belong. She’d write someone was ‘24-years-old’ or, even worse, ‘18-years old.’ Then she’d write ‘the 4 year old boy’ which is totally wrong. Yeah, I got huffy and gave her a shove, but that’s not assault.”
“Hold on a second,” Grammar said. She consulted the AP Stylebook site on her tablet. (She’d been tricked before by “backyard,” which the AP says should always be one word.)
Under “ages,” she found that hyphens should only be used when an age is being used as an adjective before a noun or as a noun: the 25-year-old scotch, the 5-year-old, or the 105-year-old square dancer.
However, it should be The United States is 241 years old.
“Well, the reporter was wrong and doesn’t seem to understand how to properly punctuate compound adjectives. However, you still shouldn’t have put your hands on her,” Grammar said. “I’ll put this down as unfounded, but stay out of trouble.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Henrietta turned back to her drink.
“Inspector Smith! Inspector Smith!”
Grammar Smith looked around, but couldn’t quite see who was calling her name. She felt a tug on her jacket and looked down. There was a small boy with tousled hair and a quizzical look gazing up at her.
“Hello there. Who might you be?” Grammar asked.
“I’m Ellison, and I want to know what the ‘h’ is doing in ‘honor.’”
“What?” Grammar didn’t quite understand.
“Well, why is the ‘h’ there? It doesn’t make a sound. It isn’t doing anything,” Ellison declared. “It seems pretty suspicious to me.”
“That’s a really good question. In this case, the ‘h’ tagged along when the word migrated over from France and started living in English,” Grammar explained. “There are other foreign words we’ve adopted where the ‘h’ is in the picture, but doesn’t do any work – words like heir, hour, messiah, Hannah, ghetto, and ghost.
“In some words, like shepherd and exhaust, people got lazy and now just ignore the ‘h.’ But sometimes the ‘h’ doesn’t seem to be doing much, but it keeps people from getting words confused. Think of ‘hour’ for time and ‘our’ a way to show we own something. “
“Like ‘whit’ and ‘wit’?” Ellison asked.
Kid’s got quite the vocabulary! Grammar thought.
“Yes, Ellison, that’s right.”
“Are there other letters in words that you don’t hear from?”
“Yes, Ellison, lots and lots. Unfortunately, I have a meeting to get to. Detective Dis Connect over there can explain all that to you.”
Grammar pointed Ellison in Dis’s direction, gave him a slight push, and watched as the boy eagerly toddled over.
I am so evil! Grammar thought quickly heading in the opposite direction.
Special thanks this week to my Lucas muses. 😀
Normally, I try not to nitpick grammar when I’m reading.
- I’ve given up trying to convince people that the past tense of the verb to lead is actually led.
- The indiscriminate (and incorrect) use of then and than barely fazes me anymore.
- Commas, well, the fight for their proper use is a lost cause at the best of times.
However, I get really miffed when professional writers (yes, they get paid) consistently make careless errors.
What set me off this time was the misuse of compliment when people meant complement. Seriously? How hard is it to remember that the “e” version is used when you mean something completes something? Otherwise you’re just saying something nice or giving away swag.
There were four stories last week – in such online publications as the New York Post and Forbes – that had it wrong. One story had it incorrect multiple times! Those were just the ones I tripped across.
That was the spark that ignited my latest explosion.
A piece on The Hockey Writers (my underlining) blog said a player was doing well but needed to “flush out his game.” Does that mean get rid of everything the player knows and start again? Or did the “writer” mean the player should flesh out his game? If you’re going to use an idiom, use it correctly.
Speaking of using words correctly, here is an item I came across in a South Carolina daily:
A pedestrian was killed Tuesday night after colliding with a car on U.S. 21 just south of Rock Hill, state troopers said.
Now, the verb “collide” indicates that its subject is in motion toward what it eventually hits. This gives the unfortunate impression that the pedestrian ran toward the vehicle.
What about this sentence from a long-time sports writer at the New York Post?
The Rangers created numerous glorious opportunities off turnovers in the offensive zone and neutral zone forced by pressure and off quick puck movement off the rush.
Huh? I follow hockey, and I still can’t understand this sentence.
If you’re a professional writer, put some effort into making your writing correct and clear. Otherwise, for heaven’s sake (not to mention the sanity of thousands of grammar geeks), get yourself a good copy editor!