Views / She Says

On contentious commas and the importance of grammar

I went to a party a few months ago with a number of friends including a fellow writer. In true nerdy, English-loving fashion, we spent half the night discussing our stance on a common grammatical debate: the serial comma. She was for, I was against; it got quite ugly.

Those who are passionate about punctuation will understand the dispute regarding whether or not a comma needs to precede the final item in a list.

Consider these two phrases:

“My favourite colours are red, white and blue.”

“My favourite colours are red, white, and blue.”

Omitting the final comma in the series doesn’t change the meaning at all, but I find the second sentence a little awkward to read. Ultimately, the serial comma (or Oxford comma if you’re a Vampire Weekend fan) is more of a stylistic issue than anything else. Interestingly, it may be a colonial issue as well: The British are far more likely to use the serial comma than their North American counterparts.

Are you bored yet?

Grammar lessons are something we all vaguely recall from our grade-school days: chalkboards filled with dull rules about comma splicing and guidelines for capitalizing nouns. Many of these lessons have been forgotten in an age of auto-corrected predictive texting and Internet speak, TBTH.

When you can have an entire conversation using emoticon characters — those adorable picture icons — is there really a place for your grandfather’s dusty copy of The Elements of Style?

There are still some folk who relish in grammatical nitpicking, but no one really likes those condescending know-it-alls who make a habit of correcting you when you use “who” instead of “whom” and roll their eyes at dangling modifiers.

But, while it might be dry, learning how to use the correct linguistic tools and conventions can also be a very empowering thing. Grammar gives you the power to say the things you want to say the way you intend to say them.

Totalling 448 pages, The Canadian Press Stylebook is a little impractical to carry around with you, but online sites like Grammar Girl are excellent resources for the grammatically challenged. Writer Mignon Fogarty offers brief tips, and answers questions about common grammatical mistakes or confusions such as the difference between affect and effect and when to use i.e. instead of e.g.

Grammar isn’t sexy or exciting, but it can help transform passive sentences into active statements and give us more control over the way we communicate with one another.

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