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Writing Tips: Grammar

Prescriptive or descriptive view of grammar

Are you a grammar police officer? Do you believe a rule is to be followed, end of story; or do you believe rules are meant to be broken?

Don’t forget that rules are artificial constructs to help describe language and don’t always do a good job!

All languages go through change and if you go back in time to Chaucer or more recently Shakespeare, you will find quite a different version of English from today’s. Which one is “more correct”?

Context is everything. Let’s consider some of today’s alternatives and whether you think they are correct.

Test yourself

When might you find these? Think of context for each example as all of them can be correct.

  1. Two weeks notice vs two weeks’ notice (Note apostrophe)
  2. Oxford or serial comma: whether or not to put a comma before the final “and” in lists. Which one do you use and why?

I hope you are having fun teaching, learning, growing, thriving, and connecting. vs

I hope you are having fun teaching, learning, growing, thriving and connecting.

  • You can find it on the website which is www.aiwc.org. vs
    You can find it on the website, which is
    www.aiwc.org. (Note comma in second one)
  • I wish she was more communicative vs I wish she were more communicative. (was vs were)
  • Let me contact the person who you wrote to vs Let me contact the person whom you wrote to vs Let me contact the person you wrote to. (who vs whom)
  • A large number of people attended the first workshop – fewer than last time. vs A large amount of people attended the first workshop – less than last time. (number vs amount; fewer vs less)

Answer key

  1. Two weeks notice (context text message or informal email) or two weeks’ notice (Note apostrophe in formal messages.) NB The film title had no apostrophe.
  2. Oxford comma: whether or not to put a comma before the final “and” in lists. Which one do you use and why?

I hope you are having fun teaching, learning, growing, thriving, and connecting. (Most US writers and style guides prefer the Oxford comma.)

I hope you are having fun teaching, learning, growing, thriving and connecting. (Most UK writers and style guides, including the Editorial Manual of the United Nations, prefer using it only when needed to clarify.)

  • You can find it on the website which is www.aiwc.org. (Strictly speaking this is incorrect, as we use a comma before “which” for additional information. However, in a brief sentence like this the modern tendency is to omit it, as punctuation is declining and the sentence is not confusing.)vs You can find it on the website, which is www.aiwc.org. (This one will always be correct.)
  • I wish she was more communicative (If informal, this is more common.) I wish she were more communicative. (If formal, this is used.)
  • Let me contact the person who you wrote to vs Let me contact the person whom you wrote to vs Let me contact the person you wrote to. (All are correct, except perhaps using “whom + to” after it, as we usually put “to whom”. Using “whom” is more formal.)

A large number of people attended the first workshop – fewer than last time. (Grammatically correct version, used in writing.) A large amount of people attended the first workshop – less than last time. (Commonly used in speaking.)

Carol Waites (PhD)
Email:  carolswritingtips@gmail.com

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