The Opinionated Grammarist
by Ian Doescher
As Pivot’s main copywriter, a lot of text comes by my desk, and for better or worse I’m the person who gets asked about all kinds of things. Being a copywriter doesn’t just mean creation; more often it means being an editor. Recently, I was asked to cut a piece about 500 words in length down to 200—it was a challenge of concision. You should try it some time! Now, I don’t claim to be an expert in writing and grammar, but I do claim to have a lot of opinions about grammar. Here are some of the things that get me most fired up about grammar.
- Commas. Read these two sentences: “Pivot offers marketing, research, web and training services.” “Pivot offers marketing, research, web, and training services.” There is very little difference between these two sentences. They mean the same thing. They are both perfectly acceptable… unless you happen to have strong opinions about grammar. One of the sentences uses the serial comma (or Oxford comma)—the comma right before “and training services”—and one does not. I do not believe in the serial comma. In general, commas get overused, and the serial comma is just another unnecessary break. Thus I believe. And this one gets me in lots of trouble at Pivot.
- Spaces after a sentence. I prefer two, and I know this makes me old school (to put it mildly). I started taking typing classes—on a typewriter!!!—in elementary school, where two spaces was the norm. Now, I can’t stop! The original reason for putting two spaces after a period was because letters all were the same width, so two spaces after a sentence helped break up sentences visually. My brain grudgingly accepts that—because modern fonts have letters of varying widths—the original reason is no longer valid. My fingers don’t care. They type a period and then without even a conscious thought it’s <tap><tap> into the next thought. Two spaces after a period is dead. Long live two spaces after a period!
- Dashes, colons, ellipses and parentheses are the nectar of life when it comes to writing. Let’s be clear: I’m self-aware enough to admit that my writing—in general—tends to be a little too full of these punctuation tricks (though I love them)… but so it goes. Dashes, colons, ellipses and parentheses help give writing a conversational tone, because they allow you to add quick pauses, asides and wanderings to your writing that are similar to actual speech.
- Spelling is a dying art. Full confession: I was a spelling bee geek when I was a kid. I made it to the city-wide competitions where you got to skip school and be on the radio all because you knew how to spell. And I still remember the words that got me out—cemetery (not -ary at the end!), appalled (which I still can’t spell), and so on. Yes, I am one of those luddites who painstakingly types out a text message, then goes back and edits the text before hitting send. I admit that I am not my best self when I spot a spelling error—that’s when Mr. Superior comes out and thinks he’s better than everyone else in the world. I’m not proud of it. But spelling is very important to me, and I include the whole issue of your vs. you’re and its vs. it’s in this category. Okay, rant over.
- A well-used semicolon is a thing of beauty. A professor of mine in graduate school told us, essentially, that we shouldn’t even try to use semicolons, ever, because no one knows how to use them correctly. Here’s the basic rule as I understand it: semicolons separate two statements that could be complete sentences on their own, and the second sentence is generally related to or dependent on the first. Here’s an example: “I couldn’t look her in the eye; I didn’t want to see what I would find there.” Could each half of that statement be a complete sentence? Check. Is the second half dependent on the first? Check. In other words, you could write that sentence like this: “I couldn’t look her in the eye, because I didn’t want to see what I would find there.” But you replace the “because” with a semicolon for stylistic reasons. And when you do it right, it’s beautiful.
- An exclamation point is a smile. Who here is guilty of overusing exclamation points in their emails? Me! I’m that guy! Why? Because I want you to be happy when you’re reading an email from me! Hey, that Ian Doescher guy is writing to me again! Yes!!! Okay, for real, don’t overdo your exclamation points (do as I say, not as I do). But remember that a well-placed exclamation point can be a cool, refreshing drink in a barren desert.
- Sentences starting with “And” or “But” are just fine. It’s good enough for conversation, it’s good enough for copy. ‘Nuff said.
These are some of the things that put me in my grammar happy place. What about you? What are the things that raise your grammar blood pressure? What do you wish you knew more about? Casey Daline, Pivot’s Project Manager, sent me this great article titled “8 New Punctuation Marks We Desperately Need.” Which ones would you use? Feel free to share in the comments or email me and let me know.