Published September 08, 2019 || Updated February 07, 2020
The English language can be brutally complicated to master. There are so many idioms, odd exceptions for seemingly every "rule" (grammar, punctuation, and spelling), word ordering subtleties, and more.
Let's examine, for example, the title of this post. The other day I wrote a bit of prose. It included this ambiguous gem—"The truth therein lies"—meaning, all commentary preceding the phrase contains some element of truth. But, if you cock your head 30° to the left, it could easily be misinterpreted to suggest instead that all preceding the phrase may have been presented as truth, but lie! Though it seems rather elegant to my ear, poetic even, this clever bit of wordplace can leave a reader confused if the context doesn't convey.
All of these permutations can be incredibly confusing. Depending on context and sentence construction, an author may be indicating that someone didn't tell the truth (lie, lies, lying), or they are prone on the floor (lie/lay, lay/laid), or they were rendered prone on the floor by someone else (lay, laid)! I still can't consistently choose correctly and am left to consulting the Internet or one of my style guides (more on style below). (By the way, lieing is not a word.)
Follow the links I posted above and read the articles. Then do it again. And again. Bookmark them, because you will forget.
The English language is full of such nuance. In grade school, we were taught to follow copious grammar and punctuation "rules", but perhaps those "rules" should be presented as something more akin to "guidelines." There's a reason a whole pile of style guides exist. The Chicago Manual of Style is well established within the publishing industry, for example, whereas the The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law (usually called the AP Stylebook, mercifully) is the default style guide used for much of journalism.
But there are so many others. It's maddening! You become expert—as expert as one can be—in maybe one set of guidelines, only to have an editor request to use another.
Note, after this latest incident, I'm purchasing a couple books by Grammar Girl's (Mignon Fogarty) so that they can sit proudly next to my copy of A Manual for Writers (Turabian, 9th ed.) and the other various grammar and style books I use zealously. In one of her books, Quick and Dirty Tips, she devotes an entire discussion to the topic of laying down the lies.
Oxford comma? Chicago style (and a bunch of others, but not the AP Stylebook). An ellipsis with spaces . . . ? Chicago. Without ... ? AP style. Em dash without spaces surrounding it—Chicago style. With spaces — AP Style. Em dashes, en dashes, horizontal bars, and hyphens, all have their own crazy "rules."
The structure of citations is maddeningly different for all styles. I'll spare you any attempt to survey the various formats for citation.
The US versus the Brits
You guessed it. Of course Americans and Brits follow style guidelines that can sometimes significantly deviate. For example, the Brits stick commas and periods sensibly outside of quotation marks if they are not immediately relevant to the quoted text. Otherwise, the differences only serve to add entropy to the universe.
I struggle with spelling . . . All. The. Time. (An aside: Did you notice the creative use of capitalization and periods right then? Deviations are generally fine if they make sense and serve a purpose.) In particular, ie and ei drive me crazy, and any words with successive consonants like . . . successive. Necessary always trips me up. Occasionally, oi! I can never remember the correct spelling. Yes, I know, the "ess" sound and the "k" sound often give you a clue, but I NEVER REMEMBER! And I would lay down money that there are exceptions to those "ess" and "k" -sound rules. There are always exceptions.
It's Okay, OK?
I've been working on a novel. It's been a long time coming (it's! its!). At some point I used the word okay in a sentence, and just like that my brain asked, "Wait a second. Is that right? Okay? OK? O.K.?" Of course I had to look it up. Unsurprisingly, there is no real agreement between the Chicago and AP styles. Grammaticists and language-authorities say that OK, O.K., and okay are all acceptable, but Chicago prefers okay and the AP prefers OK. The Writer's Digest published a nice article on the topic. As is discussed in the article, OK is actually a mangled contraction for all correct that somehow made it into the lexicon as O.K., and then OK, and then even more mysteriously, okay. K?
English, like every language, includes a whole host of borrowed words. The word apropos derives from the French phrase à propos de. Not only do I have to verify the spelling nearly every time I use it, I also tend to use it for the "wrong" purpose, at least according to grammaticists.
Several grammaticists insist that the primary and proper usage for apropos is as a preposition, meaning "in reference to" or "with regard to," and not in the place of "appropriate", an adjective, which is how I have always used the term.
Merriam-Webster disagrees and elevates the "as adjective" definition (appropriate) to be listed first, whereas the "as preposition" (with regard to) definition comes in second.
Go figure. Grammar, punctuation, and spelling can become political. Covfefe!
An aside and a disclosure:
In the past, Merriam-Webster and I have exchanged heated words apropos their listing for honey bee. The technically preferred (informed by science) spelling is as two words, but Merriam-Webster insists honeybee (one word) is preferred. My argument was that Science should dictate preferred usage and spelling, and that a vote by pop culture should be secondary. I won the argument with the Wikipedia community (buoyed by the timely input from several entomologists). I did not win the argument with the editors of Merriam-Webster. Honey bee is the preferred spelling. Honeybee is an accepted colloquial variant. I'm right. They're wrong. Therefore, Merriam-Webster's opinion is now always suspect. :) Oh, and the Brits prefer bee keeper while the Americans beekeeper (Science has no opinion). This is how language changes over time.
What does it mean to have mastered anything really? By hook or by crook my grammar and punctuation skills will improve. Though this stuff can be very frustrating, much like a game, slipping down this particular rabbit hole can sometimes feel like an journey of discover and thus be oddly satisfying; fun, even. Okay, maybe fun is pushing it a bit.
-todd, the Errant Ruminant
Pubished: September, 8, 2019. Updated: September, 14, 2019.
Given the nature of this article, I am sure I made some grammatical errors, slipped in a typo, and screwed up some punctuation. Please feel free to send me corrections.