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Thursday, December 3, 2009

Writer Mag Column 13: Three Grammar Myths Part 2

Ditch imaginary grammar rules, part 2

My last column dealt with three invented grammar rules, and I showed you why you don't need to follow them blindly. I want to clear up more misconceptions about grammar, so without further ado, here are three more fake rules.

Fake Rule 1: You must always use a comma before the last item in a series.

Punctuation rules are cut and dried. You must put a period at the end of a sentence. An end parenthesis is required if you've used a beginning one. And so on.

Punctuation rules are also complicated, but there's one rule you don't have to worry about anymore. It's called the serial comma, and it's not a rule but a style choice. Although The Chicago Manual of Style and The Elements of Style tell you to use a comma before the last item in a series of three or more items, you really don't have to. If, for example, you're writing that your character was wearing a hat, a purple necktie and a pair of shiny shoes, no comma is required after the word "necktie." Of course you can put one there if you want, but it's not mandatory.

Two caveats:

1) Once you've chosen which style you like, you need to be consistent. This means that if you prefer to use the serial comma, you should use it at all times, not just sometimes. If you prefer not to use it, then don't.

2) If readers could become confused by your list, use a comma before the last item—even if you are consistently not using the serial comma. Although you will no longer be 100 percent consistent, you'll be 100 percent clear.

For example, let's say you're writing about two married couples (Olivia/Ben and June/Chris) and a single woman (Jennifer) who had dinner together. It might be hard to tell who is with whom if you don't use the serial comma:

Olivia and Ben, June and Chris and Jennifer met at the restaurant.

If you want to make it clear that Jennifer arrived alone, you should add the serial comma:

Olivia and Ben, June and Chris, and Jennifer met at the restaurant.

Fake Rule 2: You're not allowed to use "since" to mean "because"; nor are you allowed to use "while" to mean "although."

Well, you can. Most of the time. Strict grammarians may not like it, but "since" and "because" can be synonyms, as can "while" and "although." My dictionary confirms it. Since we don't want to absentmindedly do away with perfectly good synonyms, let's keep them around. Here are some perfectly good sentences with "since" and "while":

"Since I love you, let's get married," he said.
"While I love you, too, I don't want to commit," she answered.

This conversation would be just as sad with "because" and "although":

"Because I love you, let's get married," he said.
"Although I love you, too, I don't want to commit," she answered.

Fussy grammarians might be a teensy bit right in some cases, though. "Since" and "while" do have other meanings, and you need to ensure you don't write an ambiguous sentence. You'll often use "since" to refer to how much time has passed, as here:

Since yesterday, all I've thought about is you.

You couldn't use the synonym "because" in that sentence. The same goes for "while" when you mean "at the same time as":

I thought about you while I was moping around.

"Although" would not make sense there.

Sometimes, readers may be unsure which sense of the word you mean, and that is when you should avoid using "since" and "while" to mean "because" and "although." The following two sentences could be interpreted in two ways:

Since they spoke, she's had second thoughts about her answer. ("Since" could mean "from the time that" or "because.")
While I loved her, she was not good to me. ("While" could mean "during the time that" or "although.")

Therefore, in cases where readers could interpret your meaning in two ways, stick with "because" or "although."

Fake Rule 3: You're not allowed to use "over" instead of "more than."

No actual grammatical rule states that "over" cannot be used instead of "more than" to mean "in excess of." It seems that some grammarians object to "over" simply because they're used to doing so. It's just a tradition, and it's time to break it.

Go ahead and choose whichever one sounds better in your particular sentence. For example, you could say you ran "over a mile" or you ran "more than a mile." Either way, you'd be a bit tired. You could also say the price is "not over $5" or "not more than $5." In these cases, either choice sounds fine.

Other times, one or the other will sound better. With ages, "over" usually sounds more natural:

Unfortunately, I am now over 39. (Not “I am now more than 39.”)

On the other hand, “more than” sounds better than “over” in this sentence:

His salary went up more than $1,000 a month. (That's quite an achievement, and it sounds more natural than “His salary went up over $1,000 a month.”)

In these last two columns, you've seen that it can be fun to ignore grumpy grammarians. From now on, though, I'll probably return to being a bit grumpy myself. I hope you won't ignore me!

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