GrammarPhile Blog

The Great Grammar Debate: Results Are Surprisingly Lopsided

Posted by Terri Porter   Oct 20, 2016 7:00:00 AM


Thumbs up; thumbs downIn the aftermath of the final showdown last night between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, we offer a different kind of post-debate coverage — a look into where our readers stand on three grammar, style and usage questions that have long generated controversy … and apparently still do to some extent. Here, we present a summary of the responses from last week’s poll, along with a sampling of the numerous comments we received.

The results for all three questions were heavily skewed to one side, but the arguments for both sides of each issue were reasonable, on point and well-articulated. Most of the 123 respondents staunchly defended their position, but more than a few surprisingly acknowledged they could go either way or that they had changed their views after a longtime adherence to the opposite position.

If you have any arguments to add for one side or the other on any of these questions, let us know in the comments below. Now for the responses …

1. Should you use a comma before the conjunction at the end of a series (Oxford comma)?

About 73 percent of respondents favor using the Oxford comma. Here are some of their reasons:

  • I like it best — easier than adding the occasional serial comma for clarity. And it looks better.
  • Sometimes this comma is needed for clarity, sometimes not. For the sake of consistency, I prefer to use it always. It does no harm, and, in my view, consistency makes the copy more readable.
  • Yes, yes, and YES.
  • This change of omitting the Oxford comma never made sense to me. I was never clear how exactly the comma in place before the and for any series slowed down the reading process.
  • The arguments in favor of the Oxford comma are overwhelmingly better than those against. And I disagree with the argument that the comma slows the pace of reading because in many cases the ambiguity it creates causes readers to have to stop to make sure they’ve read something right.
  • Almost all the major style guides (CMS, APA...) require the use of the Oxford comma. The only style guide that does not require it is AP (Associated Press). I personally recommend the use of the Oxford comma to avoid confusing the reader.
  • The purpose of punctuation is to clarify. There is absolutely no room for confusion when the Oxford comma is used. End of story.
  • If we always use it, we don’t need to decide if it’s needed for clarity.

Just two of the roughly 25 percent who advocate using the serial comma only for clarity commented:

  • I used to prefer the Oxford comma in everything, but writing for a business has made me less of a fan. Less punctuation, more precision.
  • The and here serves as a comma. A comma would be redundant.

Two respondents selected the Other option: one who said the Oxford comma should be used sometimes, and one who would prefer to clarify any ambiguities by rewriting.

2. Should one space or two follow a colon or terminal punctuation?

Respondents to this question heavily favor one space (68%). Arguments included:

  • Two spaces is SO out of date! Although some court documents still use it.
  • I have reluctantly bowed to the one-space convention for business reasons. However, some typefaces make me rue this more than others, as not all typefaces present what I consider a pleasantly readable sentence separation with only the one space.
  • I’ve recently come to the same conclusion — that one space is sufficient for the computing age. But I came to it grudgingly and late.
  • As we are not typesetting anything on a computer, we should move forward. Also, two spaces just looks sloppy.
  • Double spacing accounts for particular waste in online text, especially in narrower right-rail columns.
  • One space makes a lot of sense, and I think gives writing a cleaner look. But it is hard to get used to. (I've been typing or keyboarding for at least 60 years.)
  • When I was learning to type many years ago in England, we always put two spaces after a colon or semicolon and three spaces after a period. I much prefer the current usage of only one space after any punctuation. Using only one space actually saves paper and time, particularly if it is a long document, so we are being ecological when we use only one space.
  • Punctuation evolves. Since there is no longer a need to improve readability, the two-space rule is obsolete.

The nearly 29 percent who favor two spaces had fewer comments but argued just as strongly for their position:

  • I prefer two spaces, especially with proportional fonts. One space with a proportional font doesn’t look big enough to me. I can live with one space using a monospace font because the space is so big naturally. Especially with the proportional font, when a sentence ends with some kind of abbreviation, it can be confusing with only one space. Note that monospace fonts, such as Courier New, are available on computers.
  • Definitely makes text easier to read.
  • Not all fonts are proportional fonts. Including the font I am using now. It is also easier to read when there are two spaces, precisely because one can spot the breaks between sentences more easily.

Four folks chose Other, saying:

  • Most of the time I use one space because of the change; however, I prefer two spaces. It depends on what is being typed.
  • I don’t mind either way. I haven’t noticed greater readability with two spaces.
  • Depending on the final product, the spacing could always be cheated if needed.
  • One space, unless you’ve learned to use two. Who cares?

3. Should we retain the subjunctive mood (e.g., If I were rich, I’d travel more) in American English vs. using past tense as the British do (e.g., If I was rich, I’d travel more)?

A whopping 85 percent wish to retain the subjunctive — some because they say it’s unequivocally correct and others because “it just sounds better.” Comments included:

  • I made this choice because that wording comes naturally to me and just sounds better, not because I’m snobby and hidebound, as the last sentence in the argument for B would make it seem [“Using the subjunctive is necessary if you want to speak and write correctly.”].
  • To hell with the Brits, I say.
  • Learn the subjunctive to avoid confusion.
  • If I were a rich man . . . Oh, I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener . . .
  • As a non-native English speaker living in South Africa (which adheres to the British standard), I find example A [“If I was a rich man”] illiterate.
  • Probably the most misused rule I notice. I will never be able to abandon were for was, and I will always cringe, as it was [sic], whenever I hear it misused.
  • I think using the subjunctive produces a more beautiful outcome. Plus, it enriches the language, making a more layered expression.
  • I agree that the subjunctive is not used by many people, but to me it still sounds and feels more correct. It’s okay to have rules that are correct grammar even though the public at large doesn’t use or understand them properly; and it’s okay to tolerate that misuse while still striving for greater correctness in formal writing.
  • The subjunctive allows the reader to distinguish between real and unreal situations.
  • The subjunctive is taught in most Germanic languages. It should remain in American English.
A little more than 11 percent voted to let the subjunctive die, but only one respondent commented:
  • The subjunctive is available only in a very limited number of cases, so it can’t be used consistently anyway. What would be the subjunctive of: If I had a lot of money, I’d buy a castle?
Two of the three respondents who chose the Other option commented:
  • The subjunctive is controversial, and you should use it when you judge it useful.
  • I use both.

So there you have it! Thanks to everyone who participated. If you didn’t get a chance to take the poll, or if you’d like to respond to some of the arguments noted here, feel free to leave a comment below.


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Topics: grammar, subjunctive form, spacing, Oxford comma, Comma

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