In the past few days I’ve seen string of Facebook posts—and elsewhere—about the validity of using the so-called Oxford comma. And once something like that appears on social media, Pandora’s grammar box is well and truly opened. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion about what is correct grammar or otherwise. Such passions inflamed!
Since I started this blog back in February 2012, I reckon I’ve written 200,000 words or thereabouts. I hope many—most?—of my readers appreciate my writing style. I actually get quite a buzz from writing, and it’s always a pleasure when a piece that I’m tackling comes out as good as I had hoped, better even. I’m the first to admit that’s not always the case. I try to keep my style informal, informative, but—as far as I detect—grammatically correct (whatever that really means). And for someone trained as a scientist, and all the scientific writing principles that were drilled into me as an undergraduate (stay remote, young man), moving into a informal mode has not been entirely pain free.
When I worked at IRRI and had responsibility for all donor relations, I soon realized that we would fail to engage with the donors if we sent them reading material written in rather turgid science-speak. What was required was a lighter touch: keep the science true to itself, but just explain it in terms that are more easily understandable and accessible to a wider audience. I guess I had some experience of what this is all about when I lectured at the University of Birmingham during the 1980s. Most of my teaching was to graduate students, the majority of whom did not have English as a first language. You just had to find ways of explaining sometimes complex ideas in more straightforward terms, often using analogies to get the point across. It was a good training.
I read all the time, and always have a book on the go: invariably some history tome, hardly ever fiction, sometimes biography. I’m convinced that if you want to improve your writing it is necessary to read the output of others. I’m always amazed how quickly I seem to storm through one book, and struggle with the next. Most often it’s just down to the author’s writing style. I commented recently how easy I found a book by Bernard Cornwell about the Battle of Waterloo. He brought his fiction author strengths to an enjoyable non-fiction historical account. The narrative just flowed, and he used many of the fiction writer’s tricks to keep the reader interested in what happened next.
I always have three books to hand: a good English dictionary; Roget’s Thesaurus; and a book about writing styles and grammatical use (I find Martin Cutts’ The Plain English Guide very helpful).
And this brings me on to the focus of this particular post. The apostrophe. Such a useful, idiosyncratic, and controversial grammatical tool—only found in English as far as I could determine. Used correctly, what a beautiful addition to language. But its misuse (or should that be it’s?) just highlights what poor grammatical training and discipline results in. Added when it shouldn’t be, and forgotten when its presence is an absolute necessity.
But I have been intrigued, as I said these past few days, over a string of stories about the need for the Oxford comma, the one you place before ‘and’ in a list of items. Is it necessary? I would have to review all my writing to check what my practice is. I think I probably use it when necessary to ensure clarity of meaning and omit it when I feel it really is not necessary.
I’m also a fan of the em dash (not to be confused with the en dash)—I’d rather use this grammatical aid than parentheses. I’ve just discovered there’s an em dash in the special characters menu here in WordPress! Maybe I use the em dash a little too frequently, but not as much as I saw in another book I read recently. Used judiciously, the em dash is a great addition to any writing. But the author of that book must have used five or more per page. They appeared to leap off the page.
Anyway, I believe that we can always keep improving. Keep the dictionary and thesaurus to hand (and a mouse click away from the spellchecker). There’s a real elegance to good writing.