Is Grammar Out of Style?

The New York Times Book Review, 12/22/19

Last month the Apostrophe Protection Society called it quits, saying that “ignorance and laziness” have won the battle for the proper use of the apostrophe. I can’t say I blame them, especially when I regularly see the wrong “it’s/its” in such respected publications as The New York Times. While such errors could (and should) be blamed on a lack of copyediting staff (a sad state of affairs across all types of publications as media owners seek to cut editorial costs), it’s actually not that hard to discern between the two. Certain apostrophe issues can be tricky, I grant you, but not that one.

Why does the apostrophe, or all grammar and punctuation for that matter, matter? Its most important function is to improve clarity and understanding. Look at classical texts in the original Latin or Greek — there’s no punctuation, and words run all together with no signals as to what is a sentence or a paragraph. Or, closer to home, surely you have run across someone on social media who Randomly Capitalizes words and Writes in a Series Of run-on sentences That really Make It difficult to Get Through What they Are trying to Say, because Our attention Is confused By the Signals That punctuation Provides, We’ve All seen This, right?

The apostrophe is a great example of the debate between prescriptive and descriptive grammar. Prescriptive grammar refers to the way that language should be used, or the “rules” of language. (Who makes those rules is a whole other can o’ worms.) Descriptive grammar refers to the way people actually use language. For example, the phrase “I could care less” drove some people crazy because it directly contradicts the “proper” phrase, “I couldn’t care less,” which means that your level of indifference is the greatest it could be. Yet over time, “I could care less” became accepted, because everyone knew what it meant. The same could be said for who versus whom — even if you use the wrong one, you’ll be understood, even if you get a snippy correction from a stalwart prescriptivist.

It seems that the apostrophe is going down the same route. However, there are still some instances where using the wrong “its” could be confusing — for example, “its time” might refer to something’s moment or era, rather than meaning “it is time.” But presumably the context would make that clear.

However, proper punctuation is still important for readability. Consider this sentence in the Travel section of The New York Times from December 29, 2019:

While reading this paragraph, I was tripped up by the lack of a comma between the two clauses in that sentence. Anything that disrupts the flow of reading, even for a split second, is a problem. Punctuation helps with this. Isn’t this better?

Still, even someone like me, who leans toward the prescriptivist end of the spectrum, can be flexible. The brochure below was a recent topic of discussion in a Facebook group for copywriters — specifically, whether there should be a comma or some other punctuation after “shop.” I and several others thought it was fine without, as the line break is a sufficient indicator, and this is more of an ad-style headline. A comma would be distracting.

(Pot became legal in my state January 1. Smoke ’em if you got ‘em!)

Admittedly, figuring out when it’s OK to break the rules is confusing. The reality is that language is a living thing (notice how no one speaks Old English anymore?), and it is changing all the time, which means there are going to be disagreements and inconsistencies. Part of the reason English is so successful is that it adapts and incorporates new words, new grammar rules, and new ways of speaking. Languages that are inflexible become cumbersome and artificial, leading to their use only in the most formal of settings. Look at what happened to Latin.

What to do? Keep in mind that the spoken language will almost always be less formal than writing. Strive to follow rules that make writing clear and consistent. I hope we don’t entirely lose the distinction between its and it’s, but there are plenty of other grammar hills to die on.

Writer with deep thoughts on writing. Content creation, strategy, and crack editorial skills, all in one package.

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