Grammar Guide

Posted by Always Write at 3:05 AM Tagged with: , ,
Feb 222011

In homage to the hilarious Dave Barry, I thought I would clear up some popular grammar misconceptions by answering grammar questions sent in by readers. Let’s get started!

What is the serial comma, and why should I care?

The serial comma (also known as the Oxford comma, since that’s where it went to college) is the last comma in a list or series such as “red, white, and blue.” Some people don’t use it, mainly because … I don’t know, pressing the comma key a second time in a single sentence is really hard? Sure, most times it’s not really critical, but sometimes it can make a big difference, so it’s best to use it, for clarity. Consider if your wife saw you post one of these two status updates on Facebook:

I had sex with an amazing woman, my wife and my best friend.


I had sex with an amazing woman, my wife, and my best friend.

The first one is clarifying that the amazing woman is your wife, who is also your best friend. The second one sounds fun but will have you looking for a good divorce lawyer.

What is the deal with people using quotation marks incorrectly?

I’m glad you asked. This is a pet peeve of mine. You see this all the time on signs at restaurants and stuff. When you put something in quotes, you should either be quoting another speaker or using the quotes to mean that something might not really be what it’s claimed to be — like if you say that O.J. Simpson is “innocent” or that Sarah Palin is an “author.” But when a restaurant touts their “Fresh” Fish, I eat elsewhere.

Is proper capitalization really a big deal?

Yes. Proper capitalization is the difference between helping your Uncle Jack off a horse, and helping your uncle jack off a horse.

y r u so srs abt this grammar stuff? its no big deal

Get the hell off my blog.

I always get confused with your and you’re and there, their, and they’re. Help!

First of all, that’s not in the form of a question, but I want to help you out, because there’s no quicker way to look silly than to use one of these words incorrectly. Words that sound the same are called “homophones,” which means that they have negative attitudes toward words of the same sex getting it on. If you don’t know the difference, spell out the words instead of using contractions. Doesn’t “I hate you are stupid blog and you are stupid grammar rules” sound dumb?

Why doesn’t anyone know how to use apostrophes anymore?

Thank you, dear reader, for bringing up this vitally important issue, which I think should be one of our nation’s top 3 priorities, along with curing prostate cancer (or at least finding a better way to check for it) and instituting a college football playoff.

What do all of these examples have in common?

Sale on SUV’s

2-for-1 drink’s

I told my parent’s that school is for loosers

If you answered “they are all abominations,” you get a gold star. Apostrophes are used to indicate a contraction, or possession. Not just because you pluralized something and felt like hitting the apostrophe key since you saved a keystroke by skipping a serial comma earlier.

Well, that’s all for this edition of David’s Grammar Guide. Leave your grammar questions in the comments below, and try not to think too much about how “fresh” that fish you had for lunch really was.

5 Responses to “Grammar Guide”

Comments (5)
  1. Alice says:

    Thanks for posting this! The abominable apostrophes are a shared pet peeve, and the examples you gave were hilarious.

    • Always Write says:

      Alice, thanks for stopping by and for the kind words! You definitely get a gold star. You actually helped inspire this post by pointing me to the hilarious “The Alot Is Better Than You At Everything” post. I figured you were a grammar snob after my own heart!

      • Alice says:

        You’re very welcome. It’s not snobbery; we’re merely upholding standards that have been tossed by the wayside. They currently live somewhere between modesty and the ability to focus on one thing at a time.

  2. J. R. Tomlin says:

    In Britain the “serial” comma is not used unless it is needed for clarity. It is simply American to insist that however Americans do it is the only “right” way.

    A serial comma is generally redundant since the AND show that you are continuing the series. often causes more confusion than it ends. You were rather selective in your choice of example. In one rather well-known instance The Times published a rather hilarious description of a Peter Ustinov documentary, stating that it contains “highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod, and a dildo collector.”

    The serial comma made it appear that Nelson Mandela was an 800-year old demigod although appreantly, I am happy to say, the redoubtable bishop is NOT a dildo collector.

    So I would say your regard for the serial (or Harvard) comma is perhaps misplaced. There are times when it can help avoid ambiguity. In those cases, it should be used. If it does not avoid ambiguity, I eschew it as redundant.

    Or consider

    They went to Oregon with Betty, a maid, and a cook.

    This is ambiguous because it is unclear whether “a maid” is an appositive describing Betty, or the second in a list of three people. On the other hand, removing the final comma –

    They went to Oregon with Betty, a maid and a cook –

    leaves the possibility that Betty is both a maid and a cook (with “a maid and a cook” read as a unit, in apposition to Betty). So in this case neither the serial-comma style nor the no-serial-comma style resolves the ambiguity. A writer who intends a list of three distinct people (Betty, maid, cook) may create an ambiguous sentence, regardless of whether the serial comma is adopted. Furthermore, if the reader is unaware of which convention is being used, both versions are always ambiguous.

    • Always Write says:

      As someone who uses the spellings “armour” and “judgement,” I’m certainly not one to say “the American way is always right.” (Although, when writing in America or for an American publication or market, generally one should follow American rules. But the same would apply when writing for a British market, where British rules should be used.)

      And, yes, it IS possible to craft sentences with serial commas that contain ambiguity; such sentences should be re-written. As you say, your last example is ambiguous with or without the serial comma, and is therefore just poor phrasing. In fact, both examples could be misinterpreted as appositions and are thus similarly ambiguous, with or without the serial comma (without the serial comma your Mandela example is even worse!), so I don’t see that as an argument against it.

      The practice of removing serial commas began with newspapers trying to save space in narrow newspaper columns, when extra commas x hundreds of pages x millions of copies resulted in higher printing costs. In any other scenario (I don’t pay by the column-inch when posting blog entries, for example), I don’t see any good reason to REMOVE the comma. Yet, there are many more examples of where the serial comma aids in clarity, such as:

      For breakfast, I ate cereal, peaches and yogurt and strawberries.

      Adding the serial comma would clarify whether I ate peaches and yogurt, or yogurt and strawberries.

      Since I think it generally improves clarity, doesn’t add ambiguity where it didn’t already exist, has no applicable reason to avoid using it, and is the established rule in America (with the exception of some newspapers), I use it and recommend its use. But you are correct that it is used less often in Europe than in America (although the Oxford University Press style guide does endorse its use). 😉

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© 2010 David Derrico