Commas. Apostrophes. Capitalisation. Amerrrricanizaaaaations. All so much pernickety detail, you might think. Does it really matter whether you pay service to the teachings of your old English teacher as long as the communication is clear?
But, you see, this is exactly what careful punctuation and grammar facilitates. Take the example in the title of this piece. It’s deliberately genteel – you’ll see a more ribald variant in a moment – but it illustrates the fundamental difference in meaning introduced by the absence of an apostrophe.
“Let’s eat, Grandma!” is an exhortation to taste your grandmother’s delicious home cooking. “Let’s eat Grandma!” is an incitement to crime and a surefire way to never taste her delicious home cooking again.
That’s all very homely, of course. But to put an edge on this (grand)motherhood and apple pie, think of it this way: it’s the difference between knowing your shit and knowing you’re shit. Which do you know?
The point I’m making here is that grammar and punctuation is, first and foremost, an aid to clarity of meaning.
Yes, it can be cloaked in the most precious and unhelpful snobbism; yes, it’s an imprecise art that can shift between rules and conventions according to context; yes, it can obstruct the iron will of salespeople to Capitalise Every Thing They Sell To Make It Sound A Great Deal More Momentous And Unique Than It Is. It’s all these things, but first and foremost it’s a guide to how we should read and interpret this most complex, subtle, and powerful language of ours.
Americans, sometimes, struggle with this. I’ve worked with many Americans who have insisted on stripping out almost all punctuation on the grounds that it is just one more sign the reader has to interpret and therefore makes the text more difficult to read.
Actually, there is a significant cultural justification for this: America has welcomed immigrants from so many countries that both its written and spoken language tend inevitably to simplification.
The iconic U. S. level crossing warning sign, for example – “Stop. Look. Listen.” – was designed by an engineer who knew he had only a fraction of a second to get a life-and-death message over to someone whose mother tongue may have been Italian, Russian, Yiddish or whatever else. It’s a fabulously effective example of how simplicity can immediately elicit understanding.
But my U. S. colleagues had missed the most important point of all – that appropriate grammar and punctuation can enhance meaning, not impair it (as seen in my examples above). Yet the spirit of their objection does raise a valid point: namely, that grammar and punctuation serve no useful purpose if they’re simply there for being there’s sake. In other words, grammar and punctuation must be context-flexible if clarity is to be the overarching priority. It’s about knowing the rules – but also knowing when to break them.
“Whom”, for example, has little place in today’s informal-sounding blogs. Disparate subjects and dangling participles are not always a deal-breaker, either.
(“Channel sales was the specialism that, with twenty years’ commercial experience behind him, was his new pet project.” is completely incorrect – the clause beginning “with” doesn’t know whether it’s referring to the person or the channel sales – but its meaning would be absolutely clear to most readers.)
Likewise, strict English usage often treats spoken phrases within inverted commas as a punctuation subset of the main sentence, ending them with a comma – “Let’s eat, Grandma,” they said – whereas “Let’s eat, Grandma!”, they said is much clearer, as it unambiguously shows completeness of the spoken phrase within the inverted commas that supposedly mark its beginning and its end. (In fact, even Fowler’s Modern English Usage defines the latter as the “logical” approach, as opposed to the traditional one.)
And don’t get me started on “and”. Serried ranks of schoolkids, now serried ranks of today’s businesspeople, learnt that you don’t put a comma before “and”. But actually, to enhance clarity and introduce a new idea, rather than just a new element in a list, you can. It’s known as the Oxford comma, is very simple to use, and, if you now look back a few words, has shown its worth in clearly introducing a new idea or sub-theme in this very sentence. Smarm.
What, then, of the transatlantic wrangling over “s” versus “z”? Does one kowtow to American zedism (or should that be “zeeism”?) or does one valiantly fight to preserve the essence (s-ence?) of doughty old English?
In point of fact, it’s really not this binary at all. Despite Microsoft chucking in their lot with the received wisdom and treating “s” words as British usage and “z” words as American usage in their Office 365 spellchecker, for example, the reality is that some words, by convention (and probably for obscure reasons of etymology) should actually be written with a “z”, even in British English, and some not.
Again, I take my lead from Fowler, who simply says that it is widely accepted, strict rules apart, that British English writers will routinely substitute “s” for “z” – so we should all just get used to it. Audiences recognise it as part of our identity, like driving on the left, tea with milk, cardigans and tiny fridges.
(And, in any case, despite what some of my erstwhile U.S. colleagues seem to think, we can’t just flick a switch in our heads and write American, because, apart from the limited lexicon we’ve gleaned from the telly, we have no idea which words we use are words that Americans don’t!)
Again, the point is this: grammar and punctuation are constructs to enable you to deliver maximum clarity in most circumstances. But not all. So don’t be afraid to do something naughty to make a clear, strong point.
I refer you to the last of Orwell’s celebrated rules for writing: break any of the rules sooner than write anything outright barbarous. (If you want to know what “outright barbarous” means, get in touch and we’ll explain!)
And please, at least get your apostrophes right. Your granny is a decent person and deserves better.