The Oxford Comma

commaAn Oxford comma is quite possibly the most debated bit of grammar. What? Controversy in grammar? Let me explain.The Oxford comma is that last comma in a series of three or more items.

Example: I went walking with my dogs, John, and Bob.

That comma after John is the Oxford comma. Some people think it’s unnecessary, but look what happens to the sentence if it’s taken out.

Example: I went walking with my dogs, John and Bob.

In the first example I am walking with my dogs and two people named John and Bob. In the second, my  dogs’ names are John and Bob.

The Oxford comma is primarily used in America, while in England it’s not used. It’s also not used in journalism. Prominent style guides like Strunk & White’s Elements of Style use it.

I’ve always been taught that a series of items needs the comma before the and, so I use it. I also teach it. This year is the first year I’ve had students question me on the Oxford comma. Oh, they didn’t know what it was called, and they didn’t know it by name, but they’d been taught it isn’t necessary. I told them, with gritted teeth, that I would accept the punctuation either way. This is hard for me since I am a punctuation perfectionist. I see their sentences without that comma and want to go all red ink on them.

Now the school year is ending and I feel it is my duty to fully explain this controversy. My students are used to punctuation being black and white: Capitalize the first letter in a sentence; put a period at the end; comma in a compound sentence. For the first time, they will be given a choice about a comma. I won’t tell them it’s wrong to use the Oxford comma, but I will give them the ultimate directive: Put a comma if it is needed for clarity. If the sentence makes people wonder what you mean, like in my example, put the comma. If you don’t want to think about whether your comma is needed or not, put the comma. If you want to get an A+ in grammar always (in America), put the comma. If you go to college in England, don’t put the comma. There. Grammar clear as mud. You’re welcome.


Yes, Grammar Matters

Click the picture to read the full article

In today’s San Jose Mercury News, the Sunday Homes section, an article by Erik J. Martin validated my entire DOL program (which often causes major parent complaints for its insistence on details). Martin writes about a study that examined more than 100,000 listings for homes priced at a million dollars or above. Those listings with perfect grammar and spelling dramatically outperformed other listings.

What this shows, according to the article, is that an agent with a grammatically perfect listing makes a better impression on buyers. That agent clearly cares about their work and is much more organized. Former students of mine are laughing now because they’ve heard this before. From me.

How refreshing to find such attention to detail out there in the real world. In today’s fast-paced Twitter and text era, abbreviations and ‘convenient spelling’ abound. I knew there was still a place for proper English, and I’m going to frame this article for my classroom wall.

Erik J. Martin was never a student of mine, although he clearly got a good education. Why then is his title not capitalized correctly?


Caring Less

imagesA scathing I couldn’t care less is a great way to handle a put down. Recently, though, I received an email asking the difference between that phrase and I could care less. They seem to be used interchangeably, but in fact their meanings are quite different.

The website World Wide Words says this about the phrase: A bit of history first: the original expression, of course, was I couldn’t care less, meaning “it is impossible for me to have less interest or concern in this matter, since I am already utterly indifferent”. It is originally British. The first record of it in print I know of is in 1901, in a story published both in the Church Standard and the Sunday Magazine. It seems to have reached the US in the late 1940s and to have become popular in the latter part of that decade. The inverted form I could care less was coined in the US and is found only there. It may have begun to be used in the early 1960s, though it turns up in a written form only in 1966.

But the phrases have come to have the same meaning in modern colloquial usage. Some people think that slurring of the negative ending caused couldn’t to become could. I know that sloppy pronunciation occurs regularly with words like fattest being said like fattess, so I can see that couldn’t might have changed to could.

A person using this phrase is most often being sarcastic. The sarcasm changes the emphasis on the words. For example, you might say I couldn’t care less, but with the other phrase you would say, I could care less. If you were to emphasize could in the latter phrase, it would have its literal meaning: that you care.

So if you really want your listener to understand that you don’t care, say I couldn’t care less. If you don’t care, then it is impossible to care less. Only if you DO care could you possibly care less. Yes, this is one of those grammar things that bugs me. Therefore, I COULD care less.


Poor Me, I’m a Grammar Guru


Part of my new Grammar Monday feature–because who doesn’t want to wake up on Monday morning to grammar?

In sixth grade, I learned how to diagram sentences. We cut apart all the independent clauses, identified subjects and predicates, and circled parts of speech. For some reason, this all came very easily to me. I openly read a novel and when my teacher (hoping to embarrass me in front of the class) asked me a question, I looked up from my book, answered her, and went back to reading. Finally, she gave up and handed me a suggested reading list.

Currently, as a teacher myself, I shudder to think what my brazen action said to that teacher about my scorn for her teaching of grammar. Nonetheless, to this day I am very good at spotting errors in capitalization, usage, punctuation, and spelling (also known as CUPS). People have affectionately (mostly) called me Grammar Nazi, Grammar Guru, and Grammar Cop. Let me tell you, it is not easy to have that reputation.

First of all, people constantly ask you for advice. My husband wants me to proof emails about technical stuff I know nothing about. Author friends seek my advice on editing their novels. Former students email me with questions. While I don’t mind helping others, especially because it’s easy for me, this has the drawback of putting an incredible amount of pressure on me to be right all the time.

That leads to my next issue with being a Grammar Guru. People are always looking for me to make errors. Parents email me with mistakes in report card comments. Students crow when they find an error on a Daily Oral Language exercise. My first novel is 310 pages. When it was first published, I eagerly awaited the editor’s feedback. She found 51 errors in the whole book. I was very proud of that. Then a student pointed out that most of the errors were commas in compound sentences and shouldn’t I know that since I expected them to do it right?

Finally, a drawback to being good at grammar is the physical pain it causes when you see errors in advertising or public signs. An old advertisement for tires claimed Something special rides on Michelin’s. I wanted to run a campaign of painting out those apostrophes on every billboard in town. For five years, Apple computer ran a series of ads that advised people to Think Different. Umm if you are telling people how to think, that’s an adverb and should be Think Differently.

So please look with kindness on Grammar Gurus you may know. We are human. We may feel different pain than you do, but it is pain. Don’t hate.


Its or It’s?

anpencil3Whether I’m reading or editing student work or adult work, one of the most common errors is the improper use of its.

When teaching possessive, teachers usually say, “To make it possessive, add an apostrophe.” That’s true if you want to say Susie’s book or the dog’s bone. It’s also true if have a plural noun and need to say the dogs’ bones or the kids’ desks. Even I have repeated the mantra possessive has an apostrophe.

Rules in the English language are meant to be broken. Students have been known to ask, “If there are so many exceptions, how can they call it a rule?” Even so, one exception to the possessive rule should be memorable.

Its is the only possessive that has no apostrophe.

I want to look at its flower.

How can it wag its tail?

I think its hat is green.

The gods who designed the English language couldn’t put an apostrophe in the possessive its for the same reason Disney couldn’t give Hades his real Greek name in the movie Hercules. The correct Greek name was already in use–Pluto. How could Disney create a new bad guy and name him after the lovable dog? Likewise, its cannot have an apostrophe because the word already exists with the apostrophe.

It’s is a contraction. When you use the word it’s you always mean ‘it is.’ Always.

It’s going to be a hot day.

I want to know if it’s making a mess.

Can you tell me if it’s happening today?

So, very easy. Only use it’s if you mean to say it is. That’s it. No exceptions.




Lots of adults I know are as afraid of apostrophes as my students. They are constantly asking, “Does the apostrophe go before the ‘s’ on this one?” Some give up and never write possessively about any noun ending in s.  That is hard if your main character is Chris. You’d have to make him own absolutely nothing. Or, you could refer to his belongings as ‘the coat that belongs to Chris’ and annoy all your readers. I have a better suggestion. Why not learn, once and for all, where those dratted splots of ink go?

There are two uses for the apostrophe, to show possession and to form a contraction.

First, remember to never use an apostrophe for a plural noun. Plurals NEVER have apostrophes. There are two rules for possessives. ONE, put just an apostrophe by itself after a plural noun that ends in s. No extra s here, please! Example: The dogs’ bones are meaty. In this example, there are many dogs and they each have bones. TWO, put ‘s after everything else.  ALL singular nouns, whether they end in s or not, get an ‘s. Example: Chris’s dogs love the couch’s soft pillows. Here you have one Chris who owns many dogs. One couch has many pillows. Also, put ‘s after any plural noun that does NOT end in s. Example: The children’s friends enjoyed the mice’s soft fur. In this example, there are many children and many mice.

Second, you use apostrophes in contractions. The mistake here is that sometimes people change the spelling of the base word when they add the apostrophe. Remember that the apostrophe acts as a place holder for a letter that has been removed. For example, didn’t is a contraction of did not. You just smash the two words together and replace the o with an apostrophe. So must not becomes mustn’t, NEVER musn’t. You don’t change the spelling of must, you just replace the o with an apostrophe. (Yes, that’s don’t–do not–and that’s–that is).

AN EXCEPTION to the entire apostrophe world is it’s. Use it’s only when you want to say it is, never as a possessive. Example: It’s hard to separate a dog from its bone. Yes, you want to say It is hard..., so you use the contraction. The possessive form is without the apostrophe–its.

Try these:

1. I went to (Marcus’s/Marcus’) birthday party.

2. (It’s/Its) a fine day to be writing.

3. My three (dogs’/dog’s) tails are always wagging.

4. I willn’t/won’t give up easily.    *Hint: This one’s tricky.

5. My Math (book’s/books’) cover is torn.

Post your answers as a comment!

On my Kindle: Shaxoa’s Gift by DelSheree Gladden

*Okay, this was evil of me.  Willn’t is not a word.  It’s won’t. Don’t use willn’t. It will cause your English teacher’s eyes to roll back in her head, and she might stop breathing and fall on the floor, her face purple with rage. That’s not pretty.