We’re giggling about a blurb we read recently indirectly complimenting oldies: “As I watch this generation try to rewrite history, one thing I’m sure of. It will be misspelled and have no punctuation.”
Bunches of articles recently underscored that point with the headline: “People do grammar bad. Google’s AI is hear too help.” The headline substituted the homonym “hear” for “here”…the one with an “a”…as in what your ears do. And, “too” instead of “to”? “Too” means “also” or “in addition.” This sentence calls for “to,” a preposition. To be or not to be! The media was having fun highlighting a new service aimed at improving spell check and grammar when communicating via Gmail.
Take the period. Periods are no-brainers. They end things, period. Question marks ask a question. Oops! Unless you are a young person who is an uptalker—one who ends statements with an upward inflection that make them sound like questions. Apparently, kids do it when they’re not quite sure if what they are saying is true, clear enough, or could tick off their audience. Or, if they are Valley Girls.
Exclamation marks may be overused, but they effectively express emotion—something funny, exciting, or disgusting!!! Okay, we’ll plead guilty on that one. Even semicolons become clear when it’s explained they connect two related sentences. The colon is an issue for another day. We are always thrilled when we say “colon” and listeners do not assume we mean a body part.
It’s the use of commas we want to focus on today. To use a comma or not use a comma can be a challenge for any writer. Commas deserve special attention because they can make a critical difference to meaning or intent…..even legally.
Specifically, our focus is on the controversial Oxford comma, the comma preceding “and” in a list of three or more items. As in: All’s fair in love, war, and divorce. It invokes arguments and controversy. It’s been dropped from many style books used by newspapers and publishers. It shouldn’t be.
There are some famous, or infamous, examples of the power of the Oxford comma. Many people are familiar with the book Eats Shoots and Leaves, written by former editor Lynn Truss, who is gravely concerned about our current grammatical state. She hoped her book would stir more people to become punctuation advocates.
The book’s title is an attention getter. Are we talking about an individual who eats, shoots someone or something, and leaves, or someone who eats greens? Ayn Rand, the founder of Objectivism, was reportedly hot on the Oxford comma. A linguist emphasized this with the example: This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God. Hmmm. Is the book dedicated to all three? Or, without the Oxford comma after Rand’s name, are the book author’s parents Rand and God?
A missing Oxford comma cost a Maine dairy company $5 million after its delivery-truck drivers sued the company for unpaid overtime and lost wages. We are guessing that lawyers are now paying increased attention to the Oxford comma after reading about the exorbitant cost of that missing comma.
The intensified use of texting and tweeting and emailing contributes to shorthand that is an assault on punctuation…and spelling and good writing. Love the term disemvoweling, which describes the elimination or reduction of vowels in texts. OMG!
Our wrinkled wisdom for today? We recognize American English is a living language, but please join us and become punctuation advocates. Embrace the Oxford comma! Buy Truss’s book for your kids and grandkids so they can learn to punctuate properly, write a resume that demonstrates an understanding of good grammar, and increase their chances of getting a well-paying job. Teaching cursive writing is going the way of the buggy whip. Don’t let punctuation and grammar become a dying art. Poor punctuation promotes misunderstanding and ambiguity. Let’s eat Grandpa. Huh?? Oh, you meant to write, let’s eat, Grandpa. Whew!