The Waves of Change in English

A couple of years ago, I traveled to Italy. When we were in Rome, the woman who was acting as our tour guide (a native of Rome) warned us to make sure we crossed the street in the marked crosswalks.

“We have traffic laws,” she half-joked, “but they’re more like guidelines.”

The same can be said for English grammar “rules.” We get ourselves into trouble when we remain inflexible about punctuation, usage, or even word meaning. It is because the language is forever in flux.

I like to think of English as a “mutt” language; its DNA is made up of lots of other languages, and it continues to change. All those invasions of the British Isles over the centuries as well as modern communication connections cause constant transformation of the language.

Like the tide on a beach, the way we use English ebbs and flows. This is what makes English so wonderful – and so very frustrating.

I was talking with someone this weekend on just this subject. We agreed that, in order to break grammar rules, we need to know and understand them first. All great artists break the conventions, but they need to know the rules first and have a purpose when they play with them.

In writing, it all comes back to clarity. Blindly following the rules, such as not ending a sentence with a preposition, can actually make things too dense.

Who are you talking to? versus To whom are you talking?

The second example is correct, but feels stilted and clumsy. On the other hand, if an unnecessary preposition shows up at the end of the sentence, it needs to be purged:

Where are you at? (One of my many pet peeves!)

Years ago, a former boss, now a dear friend, gave me the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage, printed in 1975. In only 40 years, we can see how English usage has changed in how and where we use words. Meanings especially are fluid. What was once considered slang has become an acceptable use.

For example, the panel of language experts the authors turned to pretty much agreed that “premiere” (a noun meaning the first performance of a motion picture, play, or television show) should not be used as a verb. Today, however, it is common to use it that way: The movie premiered to great acclaim.

This fluidity of language can drive us crazy if we let it. The main idea is to factor in purpose, audience, use, formality, and, above all, clarity when approaching writing. We never want to make the reader work overly hard to understand what we mean. We leave that sort of thing to lawyers.

So remember, if you are going to wander outside the English guidelines, do it with a purpose and always make sure the content is clear to the reader.


Wrangling Commas

Commas – they’re the most commonly used (and abused) punctuation mark.

There seems to be two schools of thought when it comes to writers using commas:

  • There are the comma sprites who sprinkle commas willy-nilly throughout their writing. These are the folks who take their elementary school teachers’ advice to heart and put a comma everywhere they might take a breath. (If all those teachers knew how many headaches they’ve caused copy editors, they’d cut it out!)
  • There are the comma misers who need an act of Congress to put a comma in where it belongs. Their writing (especially if they like long, compound sentences) are grammatical workouts for the reader. In the end, the reader feels lucky to have gotten out of there with her sanity, never mind understanding what she just read.

Commas scare many writers. They’re like strange cats – they can be friendly. On the other hand, they could tear you apart. You can convince them to do what you want, but you can never really tame them.

There are six rules for commas. Well, they’re more like guidelines. That’s why commas are tough to pin down.

Commas are used

  • before coordinating conjunctions to join independent clauses,
  • to separate three or more items in a series (including modifiers),
  • when using an address or date in a sentence,
  • after an introductory expression,
  • before a comment or question tagged on the end of a sentence,
  • around expressions that interrupt the flow of a sentence, and
  • around nonrestrictive (“scoopable”) clauses and phrases.

Check out extended explanations of these uses in “Six Comma Rules.”

The trouble with commas is that sometimes we need to slow down the reader to make a sentence clearer, but the situation doesn’t fit into these “rules.” What do we do then? We can put in a comma, but we have to have a good reason for doing it.

For example, we could say, “It depends on what is is.” Looks funky even if we write it like this: “It depends on what ‘is’ is.” For visual purposes, a comma is justified: “It depends on what ‘is,’ is.” (Notice the comma is inside the quotation marks. We live in the United States, and this is American English form.)

Here’s another one: “Those of us who can help to build houses for the homeless.” At first glance, this looks like a sentence fragment. But if we put a comma in the right place (between the verbs “can” and “help”), it makes sense: “Those of us who can, help to build houses for the homeless.”

Sure, working with commas can be frustrating. (Have you ever tried to train a cat to do anything?) But as long as you stick close to the guidelines and mindfully, knowledgably break them when necessary, you’ll be fine.