Musings on meaning

For the past five semesters of my life, I’ve sought to learn as much about grammar and language possible. It started when I became a copy editor for The Daily Californian, where I spent four hours per week fixing other people’s writing and fancying myself some sort of grammar guru — that is, until one of my bosses took out a comma I had put into a story and I realized I knew nothing about grammar. So began an effort to master the rules of grammar and AP style — one that has proved, at times, both fruitful and fruitless.

Along the way, I’ve learned rules that originally baffled me (the difference between comprise and compose, for one) and absorbed more about sports terminology than I thought possible (although “in the paint” still confuses me). I’ve been witness to AP style changes, including the loss of distinction between “over” and “more than,” and read Strikeout posts galore on issues such as spelling and hyphens — all of which have managed to teach me something new about the English language.

But despite all of the knowledge I’ve acquired in these past two years, I still don’t feel like I’m anywhere close to being a grammar guru. I still Google “comma before (word)” and “misplaced modifiers,” if need be, when I’m copy editing stories, and sometimes I’ll add and subtract a comma from a sentence a few times over before I ultimately decide on how it should read. When I disagree with my fellow Daily Cal copy editors on questions such as whether there should be a hyphen in “second-straight victory” (there shouldn’t), I often find that I’m trying to convince myself just as much as my colleagues that I am, in fact, right.

If I’ve learned anything, it’s that language is a tricky fiend. There are rarely black-and-white answers; what sounds OK to someone may be atrocious to someone else, especially when colloquialisms or commas are involved. At the Daily Cal, we have our share of confusing style rules (no using “following” to mean “after,” and never use “however” to start a sentence), and sometimes when I read textbook chapters or other newspapers’ articles and see style transgressions, I have to remind myself that they’re not technically wrong by anyone else’s standards.

It’s been oft-mentioned on this blog that language is ever-evolving and that while prescriptivist rules exist for a reason, the significance of a sentence matters more, ultimately, than any comma placement or order of words. I could yammer at you all day about the difference between “due to” and “because of” or about how to fix a comma splice, but I think there’s a danger to simply memorizing and applying rules: You can become so boxed in by your own standards that there’s no room for adaptation of language based on the medium and context. To let grammatical correctness impede clarity and meaning would be to disregard the purpose of the job I’ve held for the past five semesters and to discourage readers from appreciating the words we write each day. So rather than be ashamed of my Google searches and uncertainties, I’m grateful that I don’t consider myself the ultimate expert on grammar, because I’m not sure what I would do if there was a black-and-white answer for everything and no room for flexibility — I prefer a gray area.

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