In defence of grammar and grandma

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My wife used to have a poster in her classroom.

“Let’s eat Granny.”

“Let’s eat, Granny.”…

Punctuation saves lives.

The comma in that sentence makes all the difference.  Sarah cares strongly about good grammar and punctuation. She’s probably a better person to comment on it as mine tends to be lousy due to a mixture of poor eye-sight making proof reading hit and miss as well as a 1980s education where actually teaching things like grammar and maths seemed to be frowned upon.  However, I agree with her that good grammar and punctuation matter.

The debate about grammar has raised its head again because Theresa Coffey, the new heath secretary, is telling her department not to use the Oxford Comma. This is a comma used by some to indicate the penultimate item in a list before “and”.  It is specifically controversial because standard English presumes that the word “and” is enough to signal this. The Oxford comma is arguably a redundant comma.

Some people have argued that the comma helps to avoid confusion, it has been suggested that the sentence “I love my parents, Cliff Richard and Britney Spears” might be taken to mean that my parents are Cliff Richard and Britney Spears. I’m sceptical of that argument because the likelihood of a list causing that kind of confusion is probably rare and there are plenty of other clues as to why the two mentioned people are not my parents.

However, the debate has become a little bit wider than whether or not we should use the Oxford Comma. Some people are arguing that it is patronising and prescriptive for staff to receive such an instruction.  There is a view (I think the one that was prevailing in my school days) that we should stick to descriptive grammar and avoid prescriptive grammar. People need to be free to communicate as they wish. The rules are arbitrary. 

Part of the argument for this descriptive approach is that writing is a form of art.  We should therefore be able to express ourselves as we desire.  This is a faulty assumption because in fact, art is subject to rules and constraints. It’s the rules and constraints that help to give the artist discipline and bring order and beauty to their work.

Indeed, if there are times when art that breaks the rules in order to grab our attention, then it is exactly because the rules exist that breaking them enables the art to function.  I sometimes suggest to Sarah that she should have a unity of learning called “The parody of poetry.”  It arises from the dominant assumption that poetry doesn’t need to follow rules, it doesn’t have to rhyme or scan. Now, in certain languages and cultures, poetry does not rhyme, instead, other structures are used to shape the art (for example Hebrew poetry such as in the Psalms relies on parallel couplets) and there are other things such as metre, alliteration etc to provide form and rhythm separating poetry out from process. However, the traditional expectation in English poetry was that it would rhyme and scan. I would argue that it is the very expectation that poetry will normally do those things that enables it to catch our attention when it breaks the rules, for example:

Roses are red

Violets are blue

This poem is a subversive protest

You weren’t expecting that

Rules in language also serve a purpose in forcing us to think harder about what we are saying to encourage better communication. This is first about how we say things. For example, if we return to the example above of things I love, then I could insert an oxford comma into the list so it reads:

“I love my parents, Cliff Richard, and Britney Spears.”

However, I don’t need to because I can simply re-order the sentence to make it clear:

“I love Cliff Richard, Britney Spears and my parents.”

Yet, even as I’m thinking through the risk of being misunderstood here, the punctuation challenge is telling me something about the actual content.  The original sentence doesn’t work because it throws together three things that don’t really belong together in the same list.  If I love Cliff Richard, Britney Spears and my parents in the same kind of way so that they belong in the same list then the problem is far greater than a communication one.  It suggests that my love and affection is confused.  I might love Cliff and Britney in the sense that I enjoy their music (bear with me folks, it is just an example) but that is very different to the deep love and affection that I have towards mum and dad.  Having to think through how I am saying something should also help me to think about what I am saying.

Punctuation should give us pause for thought.

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