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Style Corner: The Oxford and Other Commas

In a December 2017 edition of Style Corner I denounced the so-called comma splice – the practice of using a comma to separate two full sentences – with the simple advice “don’t do it” (at least in business writing).

Then someone kindly reminded me that in July 2016 I’d written another piece which suggested I was actually quite relaxed about the comma splice.

It was true. I had, and (at the time) was. I’ve now changed my mind, at least so far as business writing is concerned. So in case you’re wondering, I have amended that earlier blog and removed the offending, excessively liberal sentiment.

Then, in another valid challenge, I was reminded that some of the finest lines in English literature are actually comma splices. Dickens was not a bad writer, most would agree. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” – not a bad start to a novel!

With both challenges in mind, perhaps the proscription shouldn’t have been quite as definitive as I suggested in my December blog.

This blog goes on to talk about some other realms of comma usage, including the serial (Oxford) comma and other uses.

Bridge and Water

A Sound Experiment: Writing By Voice And Ear Alone

This blog is a sound experiment.

It will be written entirely by voice recognition – with keyboard-based editing at the end – and it will be written in less than an hour.

I don’t know how many words it will be but I am aiming for 1000. Another aim is to achieve a plain English standard based on Flesch readability metrics – without trying too hard.

I have two main objectives: (1) to test the efficiency of writing by voice recognition alone; (2) to see if the ‘sound test’ really does work. I am always telling my City, University of London students to listen out loud to their own work, to hear themselves reading it back. Is the ear really a better judge than the eye? Maybe I will know more by the end of this blog.

I’ll share some of my thoughts on that at the end and I hope you will give me yours too.

Orwell’s Politics and the English Language: A Largely Non-linguistic Defence

There were many reasons to enjoy the annual conference of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP) last September.

Hobnobbing with editorial mates and making new ones. Singing with the Linnets editorial choir. The opportunity to see two of my most admired writers on language speak on the same day. Oliver Kamm, “The Pedant” columnist in The Times and scourge of language sticklers everywhere. [“You at the back, Humphrys, concentrate!”] And Geoffrey Pullum, Professor of Linguistics at Edinburgh University, co-author of the best English grammar book there is, and evidence-based language realist and scientist beyond surpass.

At this point I have to make what amounts to a confession, in light of the previous paragraph.

I am one of millions who has enjoyed, been influenced by, read and re-read, quoted, referenced and taken to heart George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language. I even wrote my first Prism-Clarity blog on it. The same essay that Oliver and Geoff are on a conscious mission to debunk, rebut and vilify, on grounds of intellectual dishonesty, stylistic inconsistency and – on the linguistics front – naivety at best, incompetence at worst.

Hmmm. How to reconcile these conflicting life forces? Satan and God. Sun and rain. Oliver, Geoff and George.

Style Corner: One Space Or Two?

The question of whether to use one character space or two after a full stop is controversial for such a mild and unimportant topic.

It is also generational: kind of ‘baby boomers vs millennials’, as so many inter-generational disagreements are.

Don’t ask the Gen X-ers: they will probably just roll their eyes and shrug, as they do with all other disagreements between baby boomers and millennials.

In all seriousness it doesn’t matter too much. Although some advocates for each would argue that the other looks untidy, it is really a matter of fashion. Not grammar certainly, not usage, and barely style. Just fashion.

Which is not to say it is trivial. Content professionals can take it very seriously. Style guides carry opinions on it. It is worth knowing chapter and verse so you can make an informed decision.

But if someone who has decision-making authority over a piece of content – which could be a writer, a content director, an editor or even a publisher – really holds to the other one, let them. It really doesn’t matter. As long as they hold to it consistently and it is an unequivocal feature of their house or individual style guide.