You’d think that after several hundred years of successful use, a language would finally settle down into a rigid structure that everyone could agree upon. I can’t speak for others, but English is not one of those stable languages. This is very possibly a good thing, allowing for new words, new concepts, new blood constantly infusing a language to keep it forever fresh. We have Latin as an example of a rigid and structured language that was perfect for codifying all sorts of information, and then fell to the wayside as the Romantic languages began to grow. It is no coincidence that scientists still use Latin, much like computer programmers use C++. But when the scientist, or programmer, goes home, he’ll use his native tongue which won’t consist of “sum est while $var == 1.”

So maybe the flexibility of a language is necessary, but there should be something structuring it, and that structure should hopefully be stable. But, even here, English doesn’t quite have it together. Obviously, a rigid key to pronunciation would be very helpful. Every “g” should sound like every other “g” no matter where it ends up in a particular word. Of course, English, being a doggerel language, doesn’t contain a single letter that can’t sound different depending on it’s neighbor, or even the whim of society. The g in ghost sounds nothing like the g in gnome or the g in gin. Who pronounces prerogative “pre’-rog-a-tive,” which is how the word appears to be pronounced? I always say “per-og’-a-tiv,” and most folks understand what I mean. There are 40 some-odd different sounds (phonemes) in English, and only 26 letters, so it is understandable that some letters will do double duty, but the sheer amount of overlapping that these letters have, plus the ability for some letters accent others like the silent “e”, work in tandem with the next as in “th”, or the existence of letters that are seemingly redundant (“through”), make English a difficult language to master. And this is just with the pronunciation.

Maybe it is assuming too much to think that a language needs a stable pronunciation standard. English does very well with assimilating other languages, for which we can thank Latin, German, and French early in English’s fight for legitimacy. Each played a very big part in structuring Old and Middle English. In fact, Old English differed little from German. Our rules for grammar are still very similar to German, today. Ah, grammar, that is where we should get hard and fast rules determining the structure of English. Everything else is window-dressing, compared to the load-bearing beams of grammar.

But this may mean that we’d better move out of the English building. Grammar isn’t all that stable either, despite the insistence of 9th grade teachers everywhere. Its very structure, punctuation, is unsound. Look at the lowly comma. The dictionary that I use for style reference (yes, I use a dictionary for style reference, and my copy of Strunk & White is in storage) has 16 different ways the comma is used. The most contentious one is the comma’d list. Americans, in their quest for everything quicker, faster, and less precise, have almost unanimously decided to omit the comma before “and” or “or” in listing three or more items that run together. As seen above (“quicker, faster, and less precise”), I do not subscribe to that rule. I, it may be claimed, am comma crazy. I love to put commas all over my sentences. I believe, naively perhaps, that it helps to clarify my writing. But, taking the lead from journalists, most people not only don’t use the final comma before the conjunction, they actually revile it.

As a part-time graphic designer, I often come across clients who send me raw type, or handwritten notes, that I have to make nice and easy to read in some form or label or something. Even if these very wonderful clients do not include the comma at the end of a list in their unedited type, I dutifully include it for them, making sure that I do it consistently across the project. (Local consistency with grammar is probably more important than anything else. If I do something wrong, at least I always do it wrong.) More than half the time, I am told that I made several typographical errors, and could I please remove all the commas before the ands. Depending on the conditions—time of day, cups of coffee consumed, amount of money client is paying me, etc.—I either comply without comment, or I comply after a few choice words.

Every time I come across the final-comma-in-list-hating person, I do some research to check to see if the rule has finally been extinguished from the style manuals. I know it will be one day, maybe soon, but it hasn’t yet. The Oxford comma, that last comma in a list, is still a rule in English grammar, for the sake of clarity. An example to demonstrate the clarity factor is “I live with two dogs, my wife and my son.” Surely one could argue that this man has his priorities out of whack, but is he really calling his wife and child pack animals? A simple reordering of “my wife, my son and two dogs” would help the clarity, but so would “two dogs, my wife, and my son.” The main point of this is that the comma helps separate the items easier. Consider: “For a lunch today, you can have a sandwich with salami, roast beef, peanut butter and jelly, or tuna fish.” Take out that last comma before the “or,” and I might be suggesting a sandwich with peanut butter and jelly or peanut butter and tuna fish—lots of protein, but not terribly appetizing.

Still the debate rages on. No one has really given me a convincing argument to get rid of the final comma. Another contentious point is the proper spacing after a period. While this falls outside of grammar, it does point out the shadow of technology on the structure of a language. About four generations of students learned that, when typing, put two spaces after a period. Never has any typing teacher explained why this was necessary. It was never done with typesetting, that is making type for publications like books or magazines. The advent of the word processor and the personal computer should have put an end to the two-space-after-period rule, but the four generations of student have proven very stubborn. The only reason for the rule was that typewriters were monospaced. In other words, a lowercase i took up as much room as a capital W. This helped the manufacturers of typewriters standardize the metal striking keys, and helped bring the advent of touch-typing, which would have been impossible with typewriters with different sized letters. To help the reader, it was visually clarifying to put two spaces after a period, because there was so much space around the little dot. Without it, a decimal, 3.14, let’s say, wouldn’t look too different from a full stopped 3 followed by a 14 (3. 14). With computer fonts, or any varying-width typeface, the difference is easy to spot. There is no reason, at all, for the double space with computer typography, other than human stubbornness. But I digress.

The comma and period do have another standard rule in grammar that is codified and accepted and ignored. When quoting, itself oft-abused (a guilt I share), periods and commas always go inside the quotes. Now this, I have to admit, does not lend itself to clarity. While I stubbornly hold on to Oxford comma with cries of “Clarity!” the comma inside the quotes is actually a relic of typesetting rules. The comma outside of the quotes (“as in this example”,) just looks dirty. The comma tucks nicely into the quote marks, but when it hangs out outside of them, it is ugly, ugly. Computer programmers HAVE to put the comma outside of the quotes when programming phrases called “strings.” A list of strings will have each string separated by quotes and commas, as in: "Example 1", "Example 2", "Example n". If these examples had the comma inside, they’d be part of the string itself, so the comma would become part of the phrase. Messy.

But in the world of English grammar, commas and periods, as stated, always go inside the quotes. Titles? Yes, even in there. So, when I say, I love the song “Living for the City,” by Stevie Wonder, that comma has to go with the title, even though this does imply that Stevie put that comma in there, when in fact it was the rules codifying English grammar. But I have a feeling that this will be a rule that dies out. There is no reason to believe that computers, where quite a bit of typesetting happens nowadays, won’t be able to automatically “pretty-fy” the hanging comma or period, shoving it just slightly to the left whenever it comes after a quote mark.

It is part of the growth of grammar and the language, no doubt, that so many mistakes are made. I do hope not to see the day when dictionaries include “loose” as an accepted spelling of “lose,” but I’m all for the mutation of language. That even the structure of our language, grammar, can still be debated and argued about is one of the strengths of English. Mutable, greedy, and able to be put together in such pretty and novel ways, English is a language of growth, a language of synergy, of dynamic, proactive, out-of-the-box sematicalism. And, sure, that is often annoying in the business world, because how many words do we need for “new”? But it is a terrifically descriptive language, flexible enough to have changed dramatically over the past few hundred years, will no doubt change drastically over the next few hundred, and still remain quintessentially English.

6 thoughts on “English Rules

  1. Ironic, maybe, but I can re-edit my blog whenever I wish, so it no longer has a typo, thanks to your sharp eyes. So who has the last ironic laugh, Erick, hmm? Eh? Huh? Well? Thanks for the catch. –JR

  2. I enjoyed this essay. It’s true in many ways. I hope you’ll view my Website and try my “Clarity Calculator”. Also check out my book, THE CLARITY FACTOR, at amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, and others. Thanks, Ray DiZazzo

  3. “This helped the manufacturers of typewriters standardize the keys, and helped bring the advent of touch-typing, which would have been impossible with typewriters with different size keys.” I really hope there is some shade of sarcasm or humor in these words… The keys are the same size because our fingers don’t take up less space when we’re typing i than when typing w. The letters i and W take up the same amount of space on paper, however, because it would be a huge pain to make a mechanical typewriter that knew you were pressing I rather than W and adjusted spacing accordingly… For some reason I felt like I had to express all that, because I can’t let such a weird sentence go un-challenged… or something. :-) Great blog… many a laugh/thought at the site. Stephen

  4. Hey, Stephen, thanks for the comment. Glad you enjoy. Actually, you caught me using vague wording. When I talked about the different size typewriter keys, I was referring to the arms that impacted the paper, not the keys that we press to type with. Ah, both are called keys, damn it all. But the keys I meant are also called arms or legs or “metal things that mashed together and get jammed when you hit several letters at once.” That would have made my point clearer.

  5. Something that really bugs me are the people who have been misled by years of elementary school teachers to believe that any name ending with an “s” should not have an “s” added on for possession. (Not sure if that was all the correct terminology) Like if someone’s last name is “Johns,” then an object of theirs would be Johns’s object. But for some reason people have it in their head that this is wrong. The correct use (so far as I know–and I’ve done some research) is to only omit the “s” when plural and ending with an “s.” (Note that I tried to keep all my puncuation inside the quotes no matter how strange it feels =)

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