So, today’s blog post is simultaneously a PSA and a personal vendetta against people who don’t use Oxford commas… Just kidding!
This week, I wanted to write about our use of language. I never truly understood just how much of an impact words can have, written or spoken, until I started studying law. I suddenly found myself being a lot more careful with the words I write or say; one word or comma can change the entire meaning of a sentence. All of this translates from the classroom to everyday life, and vice versa.
First up: the Oxford comma dilemma! I’m a huge schtickler for grammar and I’m one of those people who thinks everyone should use the Oxford comma. For those of you who don’t know, the Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma, is the final comma in a list and its usage is purely stylistic.
You can’t go wrong with the Oxford comma, but you can certainly go wrong without it. There was a court case in Maine, USA recently involving this dilemma. The lack of an Oxford comma changed the interpretation of a law that could cost a dairy company around $10 million. Ultimately, the appeals court that heard the case decided that the absence of the comma created uncertainty in the law in question. The article (linked above) tells us that the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual actually instructs lawmakers not to use the Oxford comma.
Most American news organisations’ rule of thumb is to leave out the comma, unless they need it to avoid confusion; the article gives the following sentence as an example: ‘I’d like to thank my parents, Mother Teresa and the pope.’ If there was an Oxford comma in this sentence, it would read as four different people being thanked: both parents, Mother Teresa, and the pope. Instead, without an Oxford comma, it creates confusion because it could read as four different people being thanked, or it could read as only two people being thanked: Mother Teresa and the pope, both of whom are the parents. Come on, America! Using the Oxford comma not only avoids confusion, but it prevents there being confusion in the first place. No one wants to pay someone else money just because of a comma, let alone $10 million.
Now, I realise you may think this whole comma thing is pedantic and, quite frankly, ridiculous, but this is bigger than just the Oxford comma dilemma. We need to start paying more attention to our use of grammar and language in general. Grammar is important because, as we’ve seen, it can change the entire meaning of written language and what a writer is trying to convey. And, in taking one more step back, language and our use of certain words is important.
As human beings equipped with experiences and beliefs, we’re able to read between the lines of written or spoken language. Almost every word has some sort of connotation to it; we can react to two completely different situations using the same words. For example, ‘incredible’ and ‘unbelievable’ can go both ways; they can be used to describe either a positive situation or a negative one. On that same note, because we’re all unique individuals, we read into words and attach our own negative or positive connotation to them according to our experiences, beliefs, and preferences. For example, let’s say Person A loves cold weather and Person B hates cold weather, and on a cold day, they both say, ‘It’s cold outside today’. Person A would mean it with a positive connotation while Person B would mean it with a negative connotation (yes, this was the best I could come up with. Don’t judge me – I’m reserving my smarts for exam revision!).
As an extension of this scenario, we should be aware of the language we’re using to explain or describe things. For example, when describing an odd/peculiar/strange person, we use the words ‘crazy’, ‘insane’, or ‘mental’. We immediately know that these words have a negative connotation attached to them and so we associate odd/peculiar/strange people with crazy/insane/mental people. The issue with this is twofold. Firstly, we’re downplaying insanity and mental illness because it has become a part of our everyday speech and so it doesn’t seem very serious. Secondly, it implies that we assume all odd/peculiar/strange people have some sort of mental illness or are medically recognised as insane (the word ‘crazy’ is understood to be synonymous with both).
Be mindful in how you speak and how you write; try not to use words in the place of other words. There are synonyms for almost every English word, but they each have a slightly different meaning: laughing isn’t the same as giggling or snickering or chuckling. Strange people are not the same as insane people. The triple jump requires a hop, a skip, and a jump, which are three different ways to push yourself into the air with either one or two feet. There’s always a reason for why we use certain words over other ones.
Without getting too political or getting into social issues, there are many words we use in our vernacular that are problematic in the same way. As law students, we’re required to be critical of how the law is written and find holes in the language that’s used to draft laws. I encourage you to go beyond the classroom (and the law) and find these holes in your everyday written or spoken language. Being aware and critical of language brings it back to its roots and give words the true meanings they were created to have. Also, none of this ‘But, Mom! “Twerk” is a real word!’ business. I’m not your mother and I’m having absolutely none of it; the word ‘twerk’ does not belong in the dictionary. Anyway, I digress.
If there’s one thing I want you to take away from this blog post, it’s this: don’t say things unless you truly mean them. When you make a promise, follow through with it; if you know you can’t deliver, don’t make the promise. When you compliment someone or tell them you love them, mean it from the bottom of your heart; if you don’t mean it from the bottom of your heart, don’t say it. You’ll find that everything you say, no matter how small, will have a lot more significance and impact.