English: the packrat's dream

Street art, Raleigh, N.C.By Ross F. Collins, professor of communication, North Dakota State University, Fargo

The English language is a packrat's dream. Hardly a word goes by that Anglophones won't snatch from the world wordstream and toss into the lexicographic pile, regardless of origin--or even sensibility. (Selfie? Come on, people.) English language developed with baggage, though. A big sack o' words came down from conquerors both French and Latin, those grafted onto German and Dutch rootstock. The language apparently acquired a taste for girth, because since then it's seldom seen a word it didn't covet. It has ballooned into an estimated quarter million words. Is that the most prolix accumulation of any language? We're not sure. But probably.

Anglophones nevertheless try to saddle all that free spirit with rules, which we call grammar. And when it comes to that, English-speakers can get pretty opinionated. Make a mistake and you face not only shame, but social media’s ridicule. That's because rules are sometimes controversial. People have opinions. Strong ones.

Ross's five top controversies of English grammar.

1. The Oxford comma.
This is also called the serial comma. You use it when you want to string together a list of nouns, such as "He went to the grocery store for parsnips, kale, and chocolate bunnies." Question: do you need a comma after the second item? Answer: maybe, and maybe not, but the debate over this issue is probably most heated of all English grammar's enduring controversies. The Associated Press is among many presumed modernists decreeing its general demise but, sticklers sniff, not so fast. Sometimes you need the second comma to avoid confusion: "Chelsea sought advice from her parents, President Obama and Miley Cyrus." At North Dakota State a few years ago, a college meeting turned bickery regarding the usage policy for serial comma in our College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences. Confusion has since reigned; today the university's website indexes it with the comma, but the college's home page bravely has eliminated it. If nobody's happy, everybody's happy.

2. Hopefully.
English speakers commonly use constructions such as "Hopefully, I'll win the lottery this week." But that is supposedly incorrect; "hopefully" with an "ly" ending is an adverb, so must modify a verb or adjective, such as "She faced the future hopefully after buying five lottery tickets." A lot of us trendier grammar gramps say, hey, it's a new millennium. Let's go with the show and use hopefully the way people are inclined to use it anyway. But a determined rump of purists will unfriend you on Facebook for such etymological defeatism—or would do that, if they admitted to using the ridiculous made-up verb "unfriend."

3. Two spaces after every sentence.
This dates from typewriter days when monospaced sentences needed such separation. Surprisingly, a supposedly extinct practice still gets some people into great lathers of debate. Graphic artists have long ago given up, just deleting all those extra spaces as they prepare copy for print. But some people continue to stubbornly thump the space bar twice a period.

4. Possessive apostrophes.
A few years ago some British city officials decided officially to do away with the pesky possessive apostrophe on street signage. King's Heath duly became Kings Heath, St. Paul's Square, St Pauls Square, Regent's Park, well, you know. Purists fulminated, and the ensuing snit continues. It's all the more confusing because sometimes it's grammatically blessed to delete the apostrophe if the phrase doesn't really indicate possession. For example, Driver's License is usually spelled Drivers License. (Although North Dakota has tried to dodge the controversy by just calling it "Driver License." I'm not sure that placates grammar sticklers.) Related languages such as French and Spanish helpfully use no possessive apostrophe at all, leaving Anglophones to possibly show pride in their quirkiness by becoming unwilling to give up those little linguistic flyspecks--despite that we humble folk consistently screw them up.

5. Prepositions at the end of a sentence.
We've all heard Winston Churchill's droll thundering when confronted with this old rule: "That is the kind of pedantry up with which I will not put!" We're not really sure if he actually said that. But we presume he did, because it's just the kind of thing he would say, isn't it? You'd think someone of Churchill's stature would put an end to the controversy. But some of the more prickly of the Anglophone community still don’t like to see at the end of a sentence these modest little words designed to show relationships among nouns and pronouns. It seems to be something they're just going to have to live with.

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