language in transition

Language morphs according to our needs. What was incorrect decades ago may now be correct.

Here’s one example of language in transition–pronoun-antecedent agreement. The following sentence is grammatically correct:

Everyone should bring his or her jacket to the game.

But if you utter this sentence, won’t you sound like a snooty reject from the English Honors Society? Yes. You will.

We say, “Everyone should bring their jacket to the game” because we’re talking, and we want to communicate–not stop and check whether or not our pronoun agrees in number with the antecedent noun.

But will your first-year writing college instructor deduct points if you write the second sentence instead of the first? Yes. Maybe. It depends.

Check out this talk by the Merriam Webster Word Nerds (my pet name for these language wizards). I love that these short videos focus on language in context–not on language as an absolute. Watch as Emily Brewster, Associate Editor at Merriam Webster, discusses “The Awkward Case of ‘His or Her.'”

My favorite illustration of language in transition occurs during Gentlemen Prefer Blonds, when the character played by Marilyn Monroe points to a poster with her name and says, “It is I.” If you’re like me, you hear that sentence and can’t believe it’s coming out of Marilyn’s mouth. But in the 1950s, this grammatically correct sentence sounded natural. No one sitting in a movie theater in the 1950s would have flinched. But when you answer the phone today, how often do you say, “It is I.” Again, echoes of that snooty English Honors Society outcast.



ah, the comma

No other punctuation mark causes as much writerly anxiety or editorial fierceness as this pesky little slip of ink.

You see, the comma tends to weave in and out of punctuation rules. “Do I really have to add that comma after the introductory phrase?” asks the novice writer. And the answer is…


If you feel like it. Sometimes absolutely. Does it sound right? Do you feel as if you need to pause there? What would your tenth-grade English teacher say?

As Bill the Cat on Bloom County used to say, “Ack!”

So which is correct–comma after an introductory phrase or not?

Today, I started a daily program of morning meditation.

Today I started a daily program of morning meditation.

Either sentence is correct. My comma-sense prefers the first.

And what about that contentious serial or Oxford comma, the one that goes before the final “and” or “or” in a series of items? “Last week, I wrote letters to old friends, my grandparents, and a former mentor.” “Last week, I wrote letters to old friends, my grandparents and a former mentor.”

If you’re in the Oxford-comma camp, you’ll joust to the death anyone who claims that second sentence is correct.

Here’s an example posted in “The Best Shots Fired in the Comma Wars” that defends the use of the serial comma:

“This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

I’ll stop here. For a rollicking read on this subject, check out Linda Holmes’ “Going, Going, And Gone?: No, The Oxford Comma Is Safe … For Now” at NPR.