Editor at Large Punctuated Written English

Vampire Weekend – Oxford Comma

This song is against most of the things I stand for on this blog. And I love it.

You may need some context for this one: the “Oxford comma” is more likely to ring a bell under its other name, the “serial comma.” Both terms refer to the final comma in a series, the one that comes immediately before the “and”:

While the Oxford comma is not required, some believe that to leave it out is a silly, arbitrary, and unnecessary choice.

The song hasn’t been released as a single yet, but the grammarian elites have already started talking about it. Follow both links. They’re brilliant.

Full disclosure: I agree with the band (at least, their first line) on this one. I’m not made of stone, people.

Editor at Large Punctuated Written English

It’s the April Fool’s Aftermath!

As I’m sure most of you have figured out by now, yesterday’s post was a joke for April Fool’s Day. There is no Peter Andrews of the media relations department at Merriam-Webster online. If you look up “its” in the dictionary, you’ll still find multiple definitions for the iterations that go with and without an apostrophe. The multiple incorrect usages in my entry–Its a legitimate spelling, because M-W says that its so–are just as wrong today as they were Monday.

What surprised me was how much this posting struck a chord with readers. I expected surfers to be on the lookout for pranks yesterday, but it seems as if this English error really has spread across the web like kudzu. So prevalent has the “its/it’s convergence” become (thanks to for helping me describe it) that my report of Webster’s formal approval was taken without question by all who came across it.

[Insert standard I’m-no-prescriptivist disclaimer here]

I’m really not. I happily contribute to the flourishing of hopefully as a speaker-oriented sentence adverb in popular speech and Internet comments. There’s no other word like it. I enjoy beginning written sentences with “and” and “but.” Realizing that a word like “gift” is now accepted as a verb, insofar as it’s become the root of a gerund favored by PR parasites in Hollywood (see “gifting suite”, “gracious gifting”), excites rather than enrages me. I’m into that whole full-stop. In sentences. Thing. Used sparingly, it can do great things for your style.

BUT. When someone sends me an e-mail with “Its official” in the title, I don’t expect an e.e. cummings masterpiece from some brave linguistic trailblazer. I am loath to click on that slothful subject line. I dread opening that hastily typed, impulsive missive, sure to come from some self-interested slacker who is either too important or too absent-minded to respect the rules of grammar in a letter from one native speaker to another.

Grammar. Because how else would you spot spam?

Editor at Large Punctuated Written English

Its a Legitimate Spelling: Webster’s Agrees

Merriam-Webster online issued a press release today stating that “it’s” and “its” will now be found under one combined entry in the famous reference dictionary. From Peter Andrews, head of media relations for the lexical conglomerate:

Given the heavy influence of the Internet on modern American spelling, we’ve decided to accelerate our normalization process. The ‘its/it’s’ convergence is the natural result of a long erosion in the importance of the apostrophe. We’re taking a good hard look at the rest of the contractions for our 2009 edition, but we believe that ‘its/it’s’–now just its–merits immediate attention.

What M-W calls the “‘its/it’s’ convergence” has until now been one of the top grammatical errors in English. Native speakers and English learners alike will substitute one for the other, when each actually has a clearly distinct meaning.

It’s is a contraction of it is:

It’s a pity she arrived so late. = It is a pity she arrived so late.

Its is a possessive pronoun of indeterminate gender, as opposed to the gender-specific his or her. “Its” is often used to in reference to babies, and in American English “its” will often refer to collective nouns such as “company” or “team”:

The company revised its code of conduct.

As we’ve been through before on this blog, the nature of language is change. One of my tasks as an editor is to stay on top of which changes have passed into common usage and in what context this altered language is acceptable in a text.

Just because M-W says that its so, however, does not mean I will begin applying it as a norm. Especially because this post is an APRIL FOOL!

Punctuated Written English

A Pop-Culture Moment for the Semicolon?

The New York Times tried to bury the story in its N.Y./Region section. But by early this morning, it was the paper’s most frequently e-mailed article.

Was it a commentary on hometown girl Lindsay Lohan’s nude photo shoot? An elegy for former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani and his presidential aspirations? Hardly! The Times took a moment yesterday to recognize the semicolon; readers echoed the encomium around the web.

The punctuational love-fest came from Times reporter Sam Roberts’ account of the positive reception afforded to an NYC Transit anti-litter poster on the subway:

“Please put it in a trash can,” riders are reminded. After which Neil Neches, an erudite writer in the transit agency’s marketing and service information department, inserted a semicolon. The rest of the sentence reads, “that’s good news for everyone.”

Roberts retains an appropriate air of neutrality throughout the piece, writing that “in literature and journalism, not to mention in advertising, the semicolon has been largely jettisoned as a pretentious anachronism,” and that “Americans, in particular, prefer shorter sentences without [the semicolon].”

Oh yeah? Tell that to the thousands of readers with whom this article has struck a chord. Tell that to my boyfriend, who confesses that the semicolons in my e-mails won his computational linguist heart.

Or just tell it to the NYT. A rudimentary search turned up semicolons in three articles in the last two days, including one usage that probably should have been a comma.

Is the world going semicolon crazy? And if it were, dear readers, wouldn’t it be great?