Thanks to Maia Nolan-Partnow, our March featured guest writer and today's grammar expert!
I’ve seen a lot of talk on Facebook lately about serial commas, or, as the kids are calling it, “the Oxford comma.” Apparently now it’s the hip thing to have very strong feelings about whether or not to use a comma immediately before the coordinating conjunction when writing a list of items (Example: “Most of the people I know who have strong opinions about the Oxford comma don’t know that and, but, or, yet, so, nor, and for are called coordinating conjunctions”), and there are all kinds of clever infographics out there about the difference between eating with Grandma and eating Grandma and just how important a comma can be in these various ridiculous situations in which the presence or absence of said comma actually matters – which, quite honestly, is not really the case in most uses of the serial comma.
I’ve found this new trendy interest in the serial/Oxford comma really interesting. Why this one issue? Why bother caring about the Oxford comma when there are so many actual grammar and punctuation abuses happening around us every single day? (Or maybe this isn’t really a big trend and I just have exceptionally nerdy Facebook friends.)
I freely confess to being a stickler for grammar, punctuation and spelling. I was That Girl in graduate school – the one who would hand you back your draft after workshop with all the spelling and punctuation errors marked in red ink. (Yes, red ink. I know teachers are trending away from it because it seems harsh or confrontational. Do you know why editors use red ink? Because it’s easy to see. And the point is to make these mistakes easy to see and, consequently, easy to correct.) In journalism, I was the editor who would give someone a hard time in the newsroom about using “that” instead of “who” to refer to a human or an animal with a name, especially after I’d edited the same mistake out of three stories in a row. (I’ve also been known to read that particular entry aloud from the AP Stylebook for the entire newsroom to hear.)
Some writers – maybe even some of you reading this – don’t care that much about spelling, grammar and punctuation. They figure it will all work itself out in the editing process – or worse, they don’t think it matters that much. They think the exactness of the mechanics are unimportant compared to their brilliant content and meaning.
I have to be honest: If you are a writer who doesn’t pay attention to mechanics, I have a hard time taking you seriously as a writer.
I realize that sounds harsh, but this is tough love time. None of us are perfect, and I make mechanical errors, too. I’ll probably make a couple in the course of writing this post, as a matter of fact. (And with R.W. Burchfield’s permission, I “cheerfully ignore” the superstition that one ought not begin a sentence with a coordinating conjunction.) But I try really hard not to make those mistakes, and I always go back and look for any I may have missed. When I was at Alaska Dispatch and Brendan Joel Kelley was at the Anchorage Press, we used to read each other’s publications for errors. We kept a running tally on a whiteboard in the Dispatch newsroom until it got too heated for both of us and we had to stop for the sake of civility.
You see, as writers, we have a responsibility. We’re not just slapping words together any which way. We’re using the English language to improve the world by making people think and feel and learn. English is our tool, and we have a duty to protect it and use it properly. And sloppy mechanics, to me, are an indicator of sloppiness elsewhere in the writing.
Think about it: What would you think about a gourmet chef who didn’t know the difference between a paring knife and a santoku, or who tried to use a spatula to beat an egg? Or a doctor who just kind of guessed at the best use for an otoscope? Or a lawyer who never studied torts? Of course, there’s a big difference between some other jobs and our job. You don’t get to be a doctor or lawyer without proving yourself in an exam. The test of being a writer is sitting down and writing. As far as I’m concerned, part of that test is learning to use the English language in a way that is respectful of its importance as our primary tool.
For writers of my generation, there’s no excuse. We all saw “The Karate Kid.” We all know you have to be able to wax on/wax off and paint the fence before you can bust out the Crane. And if you’re from an earlier generation, I’m pretty sure you had to walk uphill both ways through the snow to grammar classes in which the nuns would beat you if you used a nonrestrictive element without putting a comma in front of “which.” At least, that’s what my parents have told me.
When I was studying for my MFA, some of my classmates would mention that they hadn’t had to study grammar in high school, or that they had never learned punctuation rules. I don’t buy that excuse. I was fortunate enough to have gotten a good foundation from excellent Anchorage teachers (thank you, Sally Carricaburu, for making sure we learned the difference between “who” and “whom”), but I also sought out answers when I didn’t have them. I memorized the AP Stylebook as a college student, I read Strunk and White (that’s how I learned to capitalize properly after a colon), and I looked things up. And I’m still learning. During my first semester teaching developmental English at UAA, I learned nearly as much as my students about the rules and terminology that govern the way we’re supposed to use language.
Ultimately, yes, what is most important about our writing is the content, the message, the way we string words together. But we are also the guardians of the written word. Our language has rules and structure, and we have to respect the importance of those rules. If we break them, we must break them intentionally, with purpose, and not because we couldn’t be bothered to learn them in the first place.
If you’re looking for a really great resource for mechanical education, I recommend Diana Hacker’s “Rules for Writers,” a relatively affordable and incredibly user-friendly guide to the guidelines that govern written English. If you want a free resource, get yourself to the Purdue University Online Writing Lab.
And if you really do have strong feelings about the Oxford comma, good for you. I don’t get it, but I suppose I’m supportive of any sort of passion for punctuation.
Maia Nolan-Partnow is an Anchorage journalist and blogger and a former editor of AlaskaDispatch.com who now works in advertising. She has a Master of Fine Arts degree in fiction from the University of Alaska Anchorage. You can find her online at MaiaNolan.com and follow her on Twitter at @myster.