Holy Writ

There is a lovely article written by Mary Norris, a copyeditor for The New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/02/23/holy-writ) that follows her from her peripatetic beginnings to her deep understanding of the subtleties of editing, particularly with respect to the comma. Commas and their presence or absence in a sentence, she insists, are not necessarily bound by rules, even those in The Chicago Manual of Style, before which most of us bow. It is such a pleasure to read her musings, especially since I agree with her, because it allows some personal “editorial discretion” in our work. Ironically, the subtitle, “Learning to Love the House Style,” suggests otherwise. Ms. Norris, the lucky duck, can call these authors and ask them their intent. The rest of us have to guess.

Strict Discipline

Ooh, baby. For wordies like me, there is nothing like the bracing plunge into The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition, available online for the mere bagatelle of $35 a year. If you have any questions that you’re embarrassed to ask anyone else you know, just log in, and there is virtually nothing grammatical you can’t lay to rest with the full faith and credit of CMoS, 16th.

Lose yourself in the lists: 5.191, words and the prepositions construed with them; 5.220, good usage versus common usage (and doesn’t that say it all?); 7.85, the hyphenation guide. In the world of CMoS, rules may be bent if ambiguity threatens. In the three-dimensional world, we consider ourselves lucky to count mere ambiguity as a threat.

The world is full of people for whom “Oh, you know what I mean” is an acceptable substitute for grammar, syntax, subtlety of word choice. After a couple of minutes spent wandering around the Internet, where sharp and incisive writing seems to have rapidly fallen out of favor, taking even basic proofreading down with it, it is comforting to know that I can find the careful consideration of the most arcane points of language in The Chicago Manual of Style.

The Serial (Oxford) Comma

The comma before the “and” is there for a reason; it even has a name: serial comma. Here is proof that it is necessary.

WRONG: I would like to thank my parents, President Obama and Lady Gaga.

RIGHT: I would like to thank my parents, President Obama, and Lady Gaga.

I think this example clears up any lingering doubts about the serial comma’s role in nuance of expression, don’t you? And I imagine that President Obama and Lady Gaga would agree.

Who Knows?

Okay, here it is: Who in clauses gets seriously tricky sometimes, and the easiest way to figure it out is to do a little rewrite in your head.

  • My new boyfriend, whom I met online…Clue: I met he? Nope. I met him. So whom. Him/whom.
  • Give the money to whoever comes to the door…Clue: It’s not what you may think. To whom? Afraid not. Logical, but wrong. Who is the subject of the phrase “comes to the door,” so it is not inflected.

In a very teensy nutshell, that’s all you need to know. I said it would be ugly, but it’s really not. Difficult, maybe, but worth it. Mental gymnastics won’t do a thing for your abs, but you will impress other smart people, which is also difficult, and also worth it.

Just between…We?

I used to have a client who insisted on saying, “Between he and I…” And I would routinely change it to “between him and me.” And then he would change it back. I finally threatened to quit working for him if he didn’t allow me to make him look good. That kept him in line for a couple of years.

I don’t understand why mixing pronouns and prepositions seems to be such a tricky business for so many people. In part, I am tempted to say, it’s because the public schools in this country no longer offer Latin, and so most people manage to avoid learning the subtleties of grammar that Latin offers (which is a damned shame, too, because I suspected then, and I know now, that Latin was the most valuable subject I studied). But those of us who took Latin know that the subject form of the pronoun (I, he, she, they) appears only as the subject of a sentence. Except for the possessive form (mine, yours, his, hers, theirs), everything else is an object of one sort or another (me, him, her, them).

But (and this is another sore point with me) today, many people seem to feel that the rules of grammar are mere suggestions (like speed limits and good taste). Never mind nuance and precision; as long as “you know what I mean,” everyone is satisfied. Well, I am not satisfied. Indeed, I am appalled. And I will make my stand, with whoever* cares to stand with me, between my beloved English language and the barbarians at its gate.

* I’ll discuss the who/whom confusion tomorrow.

To Whom It May Concern

I think that when “whom” disappears, it will be the signal of the end of civilization. Of course, by my standards, civilization started easing on down the road when people decided it was okay not to get dressed up for concerts and theater. But I digress.

The rules of who/whom are a little bit tricky—sometimes I have to think for a moment before being certain—but that little “who” running around naked just grates on my ear, and I want to clothe it in a decent inflection. Needless to say, it helps to have studied Latin.

It’s always who when it’s the subject of a sentence:

  • Who ate the last piece of pizza?
  • Who left the water running?
  • Who is that person in my seat?

It takes a turn for the complex when homophones are thrown into the mix:

  • Who’s calling?
  • Whose brilliant idea is this?

With a preposition, use the inflected form (whom):

  • With whom are you sitting?
  • To whom is this addressed?
  • The argument is between whom?
  • From whom is this package?

And then it starts to get ugly. Check back tomorrow.

The sexy semicolon

When did the semicolon make a comeback? It used be that it was one of those esoteric little punctuation marks that would brand the user as a smarty-pants, someone who possibly even knew the difference between who and whom. It was rarely seen, but when it did appear, it was in an appropriate context. Lately, though, I’ve been seeing it everywhere (like the tropical berry du jour that shows up in every overpriced product from lip gloss to nutritional supplements), appropriate or not. Yes, the world seems to have rediscovered the semicolon. The world, however, seems to be reluctant to learn how to use it properly.

  • I see it used in place of a colon, which is absolutely never right, regardless of similarity of name. It is related but not interchangeable, like fraternal twins.
  • It may sometimes be used instead of a comma—which it resembles—but only in certain situations. Think of it as the über-comma. It separates phrases that are themselves divided by commas.
  • It may be used to link two related sentences (i.e., two independent clauses) instead of separating them by a period.

So here’s how it’s done:

The bride was unable to decide which bouquet she liked best; she took snapshots of her three favorites: cabbage roses, mock-orange blossoms, and white peonies; daisies, lilies, and baby’s breath; and orchids.

Use it correctly and most of the world still won’t know how smart you are, but I will know, and what’s more important, you will know.

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