Every so often, my students will ask for my opinion regarding a writing matter on which I have no opinion – and that’s tough, because as anyone close to me can tell you, I have opinions on most things! But since these come up from time to time, and I will continue to resolutely not have opinions on them, I hereby present my nominees for the five most pointless debates about writing.
- Use of the series comma.
As my longtime and shorttime readers will know, I am a zealot for clarity in communication. Therefore, I favor the use of the series (or Oxford) comma: it just about never detracts from clarity, and often helps with clarity. For some examples on both the for and against sides of this interminable argument, you can look here. But nine thousand nine hundred ninety-nine times out of ten, this “controversy” boils down to a quibble over style. Make up your own mind on whether you are for or against the series comma, and either use it or don’t use it consistently.
- One space or two spaces after a period.
Look, I was taught that you put two spaces after a period to show the more pronounced pause, and frankly, I think it looks nicer that way. But my goodness do I ever have more important things on my mind. Most of the time, I’m only going to notice how much white space is between your sentences if that’s the most interesting part of your writing, in which case you have other, bigger problems. Choose your favorite way of spacing your sentences and do it consistently.
- “A historian” vs. “an historian.”
Usually this is a British English/American English divide. American accents pronounce the letter H with more force than British accents, to the point where you will hear some Brits talk about “an ‘orse.” But you do find that occasional American who thinks British things are by definition more righteous and proper, and my honest opinion in my heart of hearts is that Americans who insist on writing or worse, saying “an historian” are being insufferable. Once again, however, you’re going to both pronounce it and write it the way you were taught. Choose one and – are you ready? – do it consistently.
- Ending sentences with prepositions.
There’s an amusing joke that, in the version I first heard, goes something like this:
A young man from the Deep South arrived for his first day of orientation at Harvard. He spotted an older student at reception, approached him, and asked “Excuse me, do you know where I can park my car at?”
The older student looked down his nose and said, “Here at Harvard, we know not to end our sentences with prepositions.”
The young man nodded. “Got it. Do you know where I can park my car at, asshole?”
Now, we should of course distinguish between people who care about correctness (because correctness aids clarity) and people who are overbearing snots about correctness. But this debate is especially silly because there is no correctness argument to be made. It’s perfectly okay to end a sentence with a variety of prepositions.
Sometimes you should avoid ending your sentence with a preposition, because you care about communicating with elegance. “Marcia’s the girl I went to the movies with” is a worse sentence than “I went to the movies with Marcia” in every way. But there is nothing wrong with asking “Which movie did you go to?” rather than “To which movie did you go?” “Which movie did you see?” is superior to both of these, and often your sentence will flow better if you can get rid of the preposition on the end. But it’s really okay if you can’t avoid it, or even choose it, from time to time. On the other hand, if ending sentences in prepositions makes you feel icky, no one will make you do it. Trying to make this into some kind of debate with stakes is the sort of mindless pedantry I will not stand for.
This should not be a writing controversy, but I once had a conscientious student ask me for “moist” synonyms, not because the word bothered her, but because she had heard several times that it bothered other people. Nothing will convince me that the “moist” hand-flapping is not contrived Internet nonsense. It’s a fine and useful word, and if you really truly hate it that much, you personally don’t have to use it. End of discussion.
You will notice a pattern in my answers to these five questions: for the most part, they are matters of preference, not matters of clarity or precision. Preference is personal and therefore, in writing as in food or window-versus-aisle-seats, unproductive as the basis for an argument. Once you know the rules – the actual rules, not the made-up ones – you get to decide on your preferences, and neither I nor anyone else can tell you not to have them.