Wednesday, July 20, 2005

English gathers no moss

This summer I have introduced my 9-year-old daughter, Kelly, to my first love: Nancy Drew. Being the obsessive person I am, we started with the first book, The Secret of the Old Clock, and just finished the second, The Hidden Staircase--in that order. They are above her reading level, so I am reading them out loud to her.

Nancy has been updated for the new millennium, just like Aunt Jemima and Betty Crocker. She has a cell phone and doesn't wear knit skirts and pumps like the youth sleuth I read about. (I don't know this firsthand but rather from the book review pages of my local newspaper.) I avoided the updated, modern Nancy Drew books and checked out the 1959 versions from our local library. I wanted Kelly to experience the Nancy Drew I grew up with.

I'm thinking now this may not have been the best idea.

As I read aloud to Kelly, I saw so clearly what I tell my business writing seminar attendees. And that is, "English is a very dynamic language. It is constantly changing and evolving." To illustrate the point in my seminars I give two dictionaries to two different members of the group. One dictionary is the Webster's I used in college (printed in 1982) and the other is a Webster's from 1998. "Look up the work 'icon,'" I tell them. And what do you think happens? The 1998 dictionary has the wood panel, religious drawing definition PLUS the symbol used to depict a computer program's function added. This is completely missing from the 1982 Webster's. The dictionary people did not make a mistake. That meaning of the word didn't exist in 1982. Just as blog is not in my 1998 dictionary. (I have Word 2003 and it flags blog when I write it in text. Another example of how fast the language changes.) In fact, English is so dynamic, your dictionary is outdated if it's five years old.

This is a very important lesson for those people who count the time past since they studied English composition and grammar by decades and not years. What you were taught as "proper" and "acceptable" in 1960 or 1970--and probably even in 1980 and 1990--is not the way you should write today.

Let me share an example from Nancy Drew. Here is a sentence from the 1959 book as Carolyn Keene wrote in the vernacular of the day. As we meet up with our heroine on page 98, Nancy is trying to get to a summer house across a lake by boat to snoop around for the Old Clock, and the fickle motor has left her stranded.

Nancy knew that the tank held plenty of fuel, for she had checked this before departing.

When I read this sentence out loud, I stopped and put the book down. I said to Kelly, "Wow. This is just not how we write anymore." She asked me what I meant, and I launched into my English-is-a-very-dynamic-language speech. She cut to the chase and said, "Well, how would you write it today?" I said:

Nancy knew the tank had plenty of gas because she had checked it before she left.

Kelly saw the difference right away. And I hope you do, too.

Why? It has to do with the reader-friendly aspect of writing. Your reader wants to get your message quickly, in as little reading as possible. Language that doesn't sound familiar to your readers' ears may not make it to their brains for processing.

Just because you learned to write a certain way 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago isn't a good enough reason to keep writing that way anymore. (Personally, I have met only two or three high school and college English teachers who teach how to write for today's business world. Topic sentences in paragraphs are still a lesson plan. And yet topic sentences are useless in the real world.)

The simple fact is, English changes with the society it serves. You don't have to like the changes. You don't have to agree with the changes. But you have to give in to them if you want to be the most effective writer you can be. The alternative is what happened to Latin.

Virtually everything I bring up in this blog has to do with reader-friendly issues. There is a great deal of research on what readers like, what they prefer and what turns them off. And most of the reader-friendly tools are best practices used by newspapers and magazines. I'll share those in future posts.

Learn from them and successfully publish. Or perish.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Oxford comma is back

Commas. Ah, the bane of every writer's existence. Even veteran writers have had to argue, explain, and justify their use--or non use--of the comma.

As a writing coach for hundreds of business people over the last decade, I can tell you what I think. The comma is the most overused piece of punctuation in the English language.

Not only that, it is the one piece of punctuation that has the most subjective decisions surrounding it.

Grammar is not all black and white. It is not always cut and dry. We call this style. And it makes the Type A personalities groan. "No," they say. "It's either right or wrong."

No, it's writing.

In future posts I will share with you the black-and-white rules of commas (because they do exist, really). But today's post is about breaking news about a certain use of the comma. (Who'd have thought punctuation was news-worthy?)

One constant argument around the little curclicue on the baseline involves what writers call commas in a list. Here are two ways to punctuate the same sentence:

  1. My favorite typefaces are Palatino, Minion, and Albertina.
  2. My favorite typefaces are Palatino, Minion and Albertina.
The difference betwen one and two is the comma before the and. (Grammar geeks would tell you this "and" is a coordinating conjunction.)

Half the people out there read these sentences and say, "Oh, the top one is right." And the other half say, "No, the bottom one is right." They are passionate and unwavering in their responses.

And they're both right. Because this is not a grammar issue, it's a style issue. One style book will tell you to put it in (like E.B.White's The Elements of Style) and another will tell you to leave it out (like the AP Stylebook). I love both books.

Well, now in my writing seminars I can't tell both factions they're right. Now it's not so clear cut. To understand the confusion, we have to go back in time.

Sentence Number One (with the comma before the conjunction) is more traditional. The comma in this place is called The Oxford Comma. (I learned this pesky comma had a name in the fabulous book Eats, Shoots & Leaves.)

If Oxford makes you think of centuries-old, ivy covered buildings in England, you have the right idea. It is formal. It's old school.

As the language evolved (dare I say became more American-ized?) writers began dropping this last comma. Newspapers, written by trained journalists and edited by grammar and style freaks, led the charge, and contemporary writers followed the trend that less punction is better.

There was a time (circa Ernest Hemingway) when American writers wrote complicated sentences, packed with punctuation. Then we relaxed a bit, became contemporary, and the Oxford comma became the exception rather than the norm.

The nuns taught me in grammar school the Oxford comma was standard English usage. My journalism professors in college taught me to drop it.

Enter the lawyers. (Shakespeare said it best, "First thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.")

There was a legal case involving an inheritance. (This happened recently. I'm sure I could Google it and get all the details, but you could do that, too.) The exact details are not important, but in essence, the will was written something like this (I've inserted my siblings' names to protect identities that I don't even know):

I bequeth $90 million to be divided by my grandchildren Kevin, Joan and Peter.

No Oxford comma. Because it would only make sense that the rich grandma would want $30 million to go to Kevin, $30 million to Joan, and $30 million to Peter. That's fair, right?

Well, you don't know Kevin. He got a hot shot lawyer and contested. Said the granny all along meant for him to have $45 million and Joan and Pete to split $45 million. After all, his lawyer argued, the placement of the commas clearly separates Kevin from the other two and makes Joan and Peter a unit.

Go ahead and gasp. I did.

But here's the real wind-sucker. The courts agreed. Kevin got $45 million.

I don't really know what happened to the members of that family. But I do know that the Oxford comma has now been adopted by the Associated Press Stylebook. To a writer, particularly a journalist, this is the Bible. This is where we turn for answers. (

But, I also know not every paper is putting that extra comma in there. Papers can, and do, make their own style rules, even if they oppose AP. (Because of this, I pray for their salvation every night.)

As for me, I'm trying to change AGAIN. I always told my seminar participants and clients, "This is not a grammar issue. It's a style issue. Both ways are correct. You just have to pick one and use it all the time. Consistency is the key."

The rule I'm using for myself is that if the list of items has any legal implications at all (say for marketing writers who are composing sweepstakes rules), I am using the Oxford comma. But I can't sacrifice consistency. So I stick with the Oxford comma through that entire document.

You will have to come up with your own style on this issue--and stick with it. But you might be well advised to consult a lawyer first.

Are you glad the Oxford comma is back? If you never used it, will you? Let me know and I'll share the controversy in a future post.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Question marks and quote marks

So my friend, Pedro, calls me today as I was recovering from mowing the lawn in the heat of the day. (I live in Florida and it's July, so this recovery is important.) My 7-year old, Patrick, runs outside with the cordless phone. "It's Pedro. He says it's an emergency."

Pedro does sound a bit panicked as I ask him, "What's up?" It's a punctuation issue, he tells me.

I get these calls quite a bit. All my friends know I'm a stickler, a geek, a punctuation princess. "Okay, what's the deal?" I inquire, switching to my editor mode (a much better mode than yard maintenance crew, believe me).

"We're doing the T-shirt for Challenge for the Children," he explains. This is a big project. A fundraiser with the support of a big name music group. He's been working on it for months. Years maybe. "And the type on the shirt says Are You Ready For The Challenge? We put quote marks around The Challenge. We're arguing about the question mark." And then he paused.

"Let me guess," I said. "Inside or outside, right?"

"Yes," he gasps in amazement. My friends are always amazed that I know what the question is before I even hear it.

That's because the questions are always the same. Grammar, style, usage questions are as old as time. Journalism schools have been grilling budding writers with the same usage exercises for generations because the problems never change. For the most part, the answers don't either. But sometimes they do. I'll post an entry on that, I promise.

So you can get a picture of the issue, Pedro is questioning two ways to punctuate his shirt:

  1. Are You Ready For "The Challenge?"
  2. Are You Ready For "The Challenge"?

"The rule is," I say as I go into reciting mode, "if the question mark does not pertain to the matter being quoted, it is OUTSIDE the quote marks. Since you're asking a question--Are you ready for the challenge?-- and The Challenge? (with a question mark) is NOT the name of your event, the quote mark is OUTSIDE. It does not pertain to what's being quoted."

Pedro is glad to hear this because he was right.

Then I throw him an option--and this is a good option, so you should remember it. "Why not putThe Challenge in italics?" I suggest. That way it's cleaner (less punctuation is always better, after all) and no one will be confused.

So it would look like this:

Are You Ready For The Challenge?

After all, quote marks are for things people SAY, not for phrases we want to stand out. (This is a pet peeve of mine and I audibly scream when people put cliches in quote marks.)

Pedro likes this idea, and he thanks me, hangs up and immediately hits the PRINT button for his final artwork to be delivered to the silk screener.

But what about other puncutation with quote marks? Easy.

There are two marks that ALWAYS go INSIDE quote marks:
  • periods
  • commas
That's it. And there are no exceptions to that rule. EVER.

It's just going to depend for other marks like:
  • question marks
  • exclamation points
That's when you have to stop and ask yourself what the mark pertains to. If it pertains to what's being quoted, it's INSIDE. If it's not, it's OUTSIDE. Like this:

Was the envelope marked "Confidential"?

See, here you have to visualize that ink stamp, and recall that it doesn't say CONFIDENTIAL? (Like it's up to whoever holds the envelope to decide whether they can read it or not.)

But, in this sentence, things are different:

The client asked, "Why hasn't the PC been repaired yet?"

See, the client asked a question, and you're quoting the client, so the question pertains to the matter being quoted. So it's inside for that question mark.

Here the sentence is a bit more complicated, but the rule helps you figure it out:

Why did Bob say, "You don't need to attend the meeting on employee morale"?

The speaker or writer of this sentence is asking something, but what he's asking about (the matter being quoted) is a statement, not a question. So the question mark does not pertain. Outside it goes.

This is one time the rules won't let you down, I promise. I can't say that for everything, and I will post about it very soon.

What are your questions? What trips you up when you write? Let me know and I'll address it in a future post.

Write on.