Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy, Content Design & UX.

New Ryerson Course: Grammar and Punctuation

I have a dirty little secret when it comes to being an editor: I rely on my ears to edit text, rather than a thorough knowledge of grammatical rules.

Or rather, I have done so in the past. This secret is no longer quite so dirty because I’m taking (yet another!) course at Ryerson, this time on grammar and punctuation. It started in early September, and I’m now nearly halfway through it.

I didn’t take the course while I was completing my certificate because it was only a half-length one for no credit – it didn’t make sense to take it then. Now, much to my chagrin, the University has decided to convert it into a full-length course that goes towards completing the certificate – a year-and-a-half after I finished the program. However, the utility of such a course is hard to deny, so I’m attending class every Tuesday night until mid-December.

Several things about the course have been surprising. For one thing, I thought my knowledge of grammar would prove to be rudimentary, but it appears that it isn’t so basic after all. Thanks go to a lot of people for that, including my old French teachers, my high-school Latin teacher, and Mignon Fogarty of Grammar Girl fame. Despite this, it’s surprising how hard my reliance on things just “sounding right” has been to break, especially after learning which grammar rules are correct despite contradicting my ear-sense.

I’ve discussed grammar topics before, like my stance on the serial comma. But there are other grammatical debates I have a clear stance on. For example, I’m a staunch advocate of “they” being used as a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun, considering that gender-neutrality is in the bones of English’s linguistic forebears. Beyond all this, though, there are plenty of things about grammar I still have yet to learn (and develop an opinion on).

So what about you? What sort of grammar rules do you hold dear, or feel are outmoded?

Modifiers: they only want to help!

A few days ago when I was browsing The Economist online (I know it sounds odd, bear with me!), an advertisement caught my attention:

Champagne only comes from Champagne.

It turns out that the ad promotes the proper labelling of wine so that only those wines coming from the Champagne region of France can be given the appellation “Champagne.” Fair enough. I can understand why they chose to phrase the ad in this way: it sounds mysterious, or at least somewhat cryptic, at first glance. Plus, it’s short. I’m sure that the copy writers behind this ad  calculated the word order and repetition for maximum impact. Whatever the intention of the ad gurus though, it got the portion of my brain that is hypersensitive to language going: “it only comes from Champagne in the sense that it’s grown there, in comparison to being fermented, aged, or imported from there?”

It appears to me that this ad, whether intentionally or not, has fallen victim to one of the biggest stumbling blocks in the English language: misplaced modifiers. In particular, the word “only” is a very thorny modifier capable of completely altering a sentence’s meaning when placed in front of the wrong word. My favourite example of this is one I culled from an old edition of Reader’s Digest when I was but a mere lass:

He told her that he loved her.

Now, take that sentence and see how the meaning changes when the word “only” is inserted into the text in varying locations.

  • Only he told her that he loved her.
  • He only told her that he loved her.
  • He told only her that he loved her.
  • He told her only that he loved her.
  • He told her that only he loved her.
  • He told her that he only loved her.
  • He told her that he loved only her.
  • He told her that he loved her only.

Obviously, all of these sentences are grammatically correct, but each sentence conveys an entirely different impression about the relationship between Him and Her. For example, let’s look at the two sentences where “only” precedes the word “he.” Although the “only he” word order is the same between the two sentences, the writer could be saying respectively that 1) both He and many others love Her, but that He was the only one brave enough to tell Her so, or 2) He the only one who loves Her, and no one else. How confusing if you happen to misread it!

Being sloppy with your modifiers can only lead to pain. Besides sounding odd by having such a distinctive word repeat itself so soon, the ad’s placement of “only” causes ambiguity: what if there are other things that happen to Champagne (the wine) when located in Champagne (the region)? Besides, what do they mean by Champagne “coming” from Champagne? Do they mean the growth and harvest of the vine? The pressing of the grape? The fermentation process? The bottling and corking process?

I can think of no way to rearrange this sentence without making it longer and uglier, so I applaud the writers behind this for keeping it short. But it still irks the hell out of me.

Update: I revised and republished this post on LinkedIn Pulse in 2015.

Language Post #1: The Serial Comma

When I first posted on this blog, I mentioned that I also wanted to use this space to foster a discussion about grammar, punctuation, and many other issues surrounding language usage. For a while, I hemmed and hawed about how to start, and figured that one of the things I gave a lot of though to (and had a lot of internal debate about) was the serial comma.

Then I got a mass mailing from the EAC asking members to vote about their opinions on the serial comma, which would then be published in the next volume of their publication Active Voice. Since I had been mulling over posting about it, this just sealed the deal. So: a discussion of the serial comma it is!

To those who don’t know, the serial comma (also known as the Oxford comma, don’t ask me why) is the comma placed before “and” or “or” in a series of listed items. I’ve made use  of it at the end of the first sentence in this post: “I also wanted to use this space to foster a discussion about grammar, punctuation, and many other issues surrounding language usage.” As a comma-happy writer, I used to think that the serial comma was unncessary – that the use of “and” or “or” in the phrase in question indicated clearly enough the proper speaking rhythm. There are many people who continue to feel the same way.

However, I have come to the realization that when I write, or when I read what is written by others, that even the slightest ambiguity in cadence or rhythm disturbs me. As well, the copy editor’s job is to review text and make sure that any grammatical or syntactical ambiguities are removed in the text in question, and many times adding a serial comma makes sentences clearer, especially when the items in a list consist of conjunctions, are long, are participial phrases, or when parallelism needs to be reinforced. Here are some examples:

  • Otis’ favourite chores are grouting the bathtub, sweeping and cleaning the litter box, and dusting the bookcases. Here, the serial comma is imperative, or else the end of the sentence would read “sweeping and cleaning the litter box and dusting the bookcases” – which just makes you sound like you’re five years old. We want readers to understand “sweeping and cleaning the litter box” as a single discrete chore.
  • Adding a serial comma makes sentences clearer, especially when the items in a list consist of conjunctions, are long, are participial phrases, or when parallelism needs to be reinforced. A trick I often use to understand long lists and to see whether their grammatical constructions are sound is to remove items from a list and see if the resulting sentence scans properly: “Adding a serial comma makes sentences clearer, especially when the items are long” or “especially when parallelism needs to be reinforced.” Because “consist of conjunctions,” “are long,” “are participial phrases,” and “when parallelism needs to be reinforced” all have multiple words, adding the serial comma here reinforces that all items in this list individually make sense when preceded by the word “when.”

Here’s an example of where I don’t think the serial comma is necessary:

  • I would like to give my thanks to Bob, Lorraine, Delia, Cory and Otis. Here, the items being listed are so short and unambiguous that the serial comma just adds clutter.

So, to sum up: serial commas aren’t always necessary, but they often make for easier reading. It is best to use them when the items being listed are long phrases, or when not doing so would invite ambiguity.

Edit (November 30 2009): Of course, in the interest of consistency, once you are copy editing a document, decide whether or not you wish to use the serial comma and STICK WITH YOUR CHOICE. Put it on your style sheet. This is one of the biggest reasons why I’m pro-serial comma: because there are so many more instances where I think it’s needed than where it isnt, it’s easiest to just use it and be consistent.