Reporter's Notebook

Your Grammar Gripes and Guilty Pleasures
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Atlantic readers and staffers debate the value of the serial comma, the limits of wordplay, and more.

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Does Grammar Pedantry Perpetuate Ignorance About Language?

That’s the charge leveled by one reader, J., who responds to my grammar confession from earlier this week by advising me to “battle the misinformed pedantry of the peevers”—and points out a number of ways in which I’m guilty of misinformation myself. But first, two more readers offer their defenses for linguistic laxity.

Knox, a self-described “ambiguity ally,” says her attitude to English was shaped by growing up in a family of dyslexics:

In my younger years, I thought I had missed out on the family superpower. Today, we’ve come to terms with the differences: Acute writing skills are as much of a wieldable power as the extraordinary three-dimensional thinking that can make reading more difficult. But in the name of intellectual stimulation, debate around the importance of grammar and spelling still arises at the dinner table.

My youngest brother has a favorite defense; he likes to define “a word” with a sly smile and a hefty dose of side-eye. “Well. Don’t you know the definition of a word?” (He’ll pause for dramatic effect.) “According to the dictionary,” a stab at my English degree, “a word is a unit of language that functions as a principal carrier of meaning. The purpose of a word is not grammatical accuracy but a mode of conveying meaning. So, if you understood what I meant, then my mastery of language is intact.”

I’ll argue with him in the name of a good dinner debate, but truthfully I can't help but agree. The English language for me is less a network of rules and codes and more a tool for impact. However, the upshot here: It’s always the combination of the two—the codes and the meaning—that will craft the highest-impact message.

George takes a similarly laissez-faire approach:

Years of teaching both English and French as second languages has convinced me that when it comes to usage, the bottom line is getting the message across. All languages (except dead ones) are in a constant state of flux and there is nothing any of us can do about it. It may seem at times that a language is “deteriorating,” but those who are most knowledgeable about language know that no language has ever “deteriorated.” All languages evolve.

I love to quote—perhaps not totally accurately—the inimitable “Mr. Language Person” (Dave Barry of the Miami Herald—retired) who reported an overheard conversation between Eileen and her friend. Eileen was complaining about being unable to go to the church social for lack of a ride. Her friend replied: “Eileen, ’f I’d a know’d you’d a wanna went, I’d a see’d you’d a got to get to go!” This is 100 percent wrong grammatically, but the message comes across perfectly. Why correct it?

But another defense of what I’ve described as “rule-breaking” lies not in rejection of grammatical rules, but in a more precise interpretation. Here’s J., whose point-by point response to my post begins by unpacking Ruby’s critique of the Atlantic Daily verbs:

In “croissants uneaten,” uneaten is indeed a verb—specifically a passive verb—not an adjective. A “croissant uneaten” is a croissant that no one has eaten. That is, the verbal sense is clearly intact.

Although it appears in many of the same syntactic positions as adjectives, uneaten does not meet most of the criteria for adjective-hood (an asterisk indicates that something is ungrammatical):

  • It is not gradable: *more uneaten, *most uneaten

  • It cannot be modified by words like too and very: *very uneaten croissants

  • It doesn’t work with a verb like become: *The croissants became uneaten.

To get a better sense of all of this, compare uneaten to a past participle that has clearly become an adjective, like embarrassed. To be sure, when we’re discussing past participles, the line between verb and adjective is sometimes hazy. All we can do is look at the evidence.


I too have sometimes wondered if “Verbs” would be better titled “Past Participles”

The past participle is one of the six forms that every lexical verb has. The title "Verbs" encompasses those six forms. Don’t let a few misinformed peevers cause you to change the name.

Forgive me, dear readers: I have sinned against grammar and in thy sight, and, as I might have expected, you’ve caught me. I’m referring to the “Verbs” section of The Atlantic Daily newsletter, which includes a series of four links attached to four (hopefully) sonically pleasing predicates. For example, our February 7 edition:

Valentines vocalized, Earth’s surface visualized, mysteries mesmerize, Rosie rises up.

The problem is that they’re not always, technically speaking, verbs. As one reader, Ruby, explains:

With respect, the phrase “croissants uneaten” contains no verb. Rather, uneaten is a verbal, a verb form that acts as another part of speech. In the phrase “croissants uneaten,” uneaten is an adjective that describes croissants.

Michelle asks for “parallel structure, please”:

While I loved seeing the Verbs section reinstated, I was a tad dismayed when “add up” appeared alongside “unimpressed,” “soured,” and “swiped.”  As a former English teacher, I always impressed upon my students the importance of parallel structure to assist readers in following along, which is perhaps why I found the shift from past to present tense jarring: Why not “Press unimpressed, sugar scientists soured, identity swiped, figures added up”?  I realize there is a slight difference between the phrase “add up,” which connotes “making sense,” versus “added up,” which suggests “tallying.”  Perhaps you should have selected another example since the first three verb forms function as past passive participles (adjectives), while the last is definitely a verb.

And Joseph looks even closer: “Please note that ‘unimpressed’ is an adjective, not a verb.”

It’s true! It’s true! I throw myself upon your mercy. (Being also at the mercy of Merriam-Webster, I have verified that preposition.) But what’s a would-be wordplayer to do? The rules of grammar are many and rigid, the headline-pun options comparatively few. I reserve the right to rebel for rhythm’s sake. I must claim my freedom to conjugate! And, well, it’s the little things in life that keep us going, and on a grim news day something like “press unimpressed” can be too much fun to pass up.

Yea, though I walk in the shadow of stylebooks AP, MLA, and Chicago—though I am passionately pro-Oxford comma; though I get distressed by misplacement of hyphens; though indeed, I too have sometimes wondered if “Verbs” would be better titled “Past Participles”—I am only a writer and only human, and I persist in doubt.

Calling all friends and foes of the serial comma! In just a few moments, we’ll be tackling the greatest grammatical debate of our time: Should you use an Oxford comma? Emma Green, having previously defended all-things Oxford comma, will be advocating for said comma on Facebook Live at 3pm EST today. Meanwhile, we welcome your arguments against, and you can submit them to me in real-time, so be sure to tune in!

While we wait, here are four arguments submitted by readers already.

The confusion argument:

Here’s a fun one for you. “I had a party last weekend. I invited the president, Barack Obama, and three of my friends.”

So: How many people did I invite? If the correct answer is five (which it is, because I invited the president of something other than the United States), that means that the Oxford comma created confusion that could have been avoided if I'd omitted it. “I invited the president, Barack Obama and three of my friends” clearly indicates that Barack Obama and the president, in this context, are separate people.

And before you say “this is a preposterous example where confusion could be easily avoided by an author with good sense,” realize that you now know exactly how I feel about every sentence trotted out in defense of the Oxford comma by its fans.

The “speedbump on an exit ramp” argument:

At the risk of offending E.B. White and William Strunk, Kill The Oxford Comma. It’s like a speedbump on an exit ramp. It jars you and serves no purpose. The word “and” already tells you the next word is part of the list. You don't need an unnatural pause before it.

And yes, I have 30 years in print journalism.

The “sometimes I use it, sometimes I don’t” argument:

I think it’s so funny how people get super heated about it! Sometimes it makes sense to use it and sometimes it doesn’t. So sometimes I use it and sometimes I don’t! (Which I fully realize is blasphemy to many. And I was trained as a journo to us AP style.) If the meaning of your sentence is changed by your punctuation, then you need to look at your whole sentence structure, not just the comma. It’s a symptom of unclear writing.

The racism/elitism argument:

I do. I care.

I care for the sake of the clarity, flow, and musicality of prose. I care because words matter, punctuation matters, and there is no other logical position besides being pro-Oxford comma. I care because I like jokes about my parents, God, and Stalin. (Actually, in that case, the joke only works if you take out the Oxford comma, which I refuse to do on principle.)

Some people, apparently, disagree—including those who follow the AP’s style book, which is most traditional newspaper reporters. I am prepared to do battle with these foes. This Friday, June 24, at 3pm EST, we will host a live video debate on our Facebook page: me vs. readers / internet riffraff, on the topic of the Oxford comma. Besides its merits, which are clear, the following questions may be considered:

Oxford comma or serial comma?

Best Oxford-comma joke?

Is this Vampire Weekend song actually coherent?

Have thoughts? Hate the Oxford comma? By all means, enter the fray: But beware: I have gotten into fights over the Oxford comma at weddings, in the Atlantic offices, and at bars. Bring it on. I have no fear, no doubt, and no shame about tedious pedantry.