The uses of grammar

I this month read – and happily clipped – a New Yorker article explaining and defending, among other niceties of punctuation, the magazine’s insistence on the “serial” comma (following the last and of a series).

A kindred soul! I’ve seen recently too many defenses of sloppy editing, punctuation and word choice. In an era of compressed texts and tweets, it is argued, the finer points of communication are for old fuddy-duddies; the younger generation intuits fine distinctions from context.

Nonsense. Language must be rigorously used to be precisely understood, whether in novels or short stories or news articles.

I remember fondly learning the difference between rebut and refute from a grizzled copy editor at The Hartford Times, a WWII veteran who lacked my B.A. but was a better wordsmith. To be an objective journalist, he explained, I shouldn’t imply who might have won an argument: I could report that A rebuttedcountered – B’s argument, but not that A had refuteddisproven – it.

Alas, such niceties fade. Dictionary.com nowadays agrees that refute means “to prove to be false or erroneous,” but allows rebut to mean not only “to oppose by contrary proof,” but also (as a third choice) “to refute by evidence or argument.”  !!!  Another loss of verbal precision, and with it the ability to guard the journalist’s impartiality.

My copy editor mentor taught me not to use other verbs. A shouldn’t point out B’s error, for instance: That implies there’s something there to be pointed out; use claim or charge. Similarly don’t use call attention to. You can probably think of other examples yourself.

Sadly, newspapers can’t afford to hire as many copy editors as I remember. Even the New York Times is eliminating one of six routine stops on a typical article’s review before publication. We can expect to see more imprecise or misleading phrasing in print — and even more online, where precision too succumbs to haste.

And don’t get me started on the disappearing subjunctive mood, to express doubt, conditionality or improbability. In the right context, I think anyone can still understand the difference between “Tom may have broken Joe’s jaw; they headed to the ER” and “Tom might have broken Joe’s jaw had not Charlie intervened.” But there are far more instances where was/were, may/might, can/could, will/would express subtleties that are too often lost by a generation that didn’t spend much school time studying grammar or parsing sentences.

Going back to the serial comma, sometimes called the Oxford or Harvard comma: The New York Times reported this month on a labor case that turned on the ambiguity of a Maine state law that failed to use a final comma. Read it here.

The New Yorker’s Daniel Wenger, the kindred soul I mentioned initially, offers several amusing illustrations of ambiguity when the serial comma is omitted. Among them, my favorite: “This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

Texters and tweeters, en garde! You may be missing something, or failing to convey your full meaning. Let’s hear it for grammar, punctuation and punctilious use of words.