Comma chameleon

Writers and editors often struggle over whether to insert or delete a comma. Often the choice depends, not on rules, but on what you are trying to say. For example, tonight on a social medium, I shared a post about my favorite candidate’s use of social media to get his message across. I came up with two lead-in sentences for the post, both of which are grammatically correct, but each of which conveys a different meaning:

  1. So here I am doing my part.
  2. So here I am, doing my part.

See the difference? Both are grammatically correct. The comma alters the structure of the sentence, changing its meaning. A thoughtless editor might remove the comma from # 2. That would alter the substance of what the writer was trying to say.

Unless you’re striving for comic effect, never use this word.

I’ve gotten to a point where I no longer believe in ironclad rules. Avoid passive voice? Don’t use contractions? Never write a sentence fragment? I’ve consciously broken every one of these “rules” at one time or another to achieve some effect: emphasis, tone, whatever.

Nevertheless, after reading this post on Bryan Garner’s LawProse blog, I can confidently posit at least one absolute, ironclad, no-exceptions rule: Never, ever use the word witnesseth in serious legal writing.

Can I get a witness?

Hopefully, the misguided pedantry will cease.

Q: If an adverb can modify an entire clause, then what’s wrong with hopefully as such a modifier?

A: Not a damn thing. And there’s no reason why that clause-modifying adverb can’t be the first word in the clause. John McIntyre explains.

The real issue isn’t using an adverb to modify a clause or putting that adverb up front. It’s the meaning of hopefully. As explained in Garner’s Modern American Usage, hopefully traditionally means “in a hopeful manner.” But it is widely used in American English to mean “I hope that” or “it is to be hoped that”; so much so that GMAU concedes that “the battle is now over. Hopefully is now a part of AmE, and it has all but lost its traditional meaning.”

My suggestion: In your own writing, restrict hopefully to its traditional sense if you want to or have a reason to. Just don’t condemn anyone who uses it the way most people do. If a sentence starting with hopefully grates on your nerves, take a deep breath. And remember that language flows where it will as sure as the Mississippi River does.

Themself alone*

At Daily Writing Tips, Mark Nichol suggests using they and its derivatives as a singular pronoun when the sex of the one referred to may be male or female. Prescriptivists may protest, but Mark points out that

the singular they is widely accepted in written British English, and it is well documented in the works of many great writers, including Auden, Austen, Byron, Chaucer, Dickens, Eliot, Shakespeare, Shaw, Thackeray, and Trollope. It was the singular pronoun of choice in English for hundreds of years before, in 1745, an otherwise-reasonable grammarian named Anne Fisher — yes, a woman — became possibly the first person to champion he as the universal pronoun of choice.

If you disagree, Mark invites your reply. At the bottom of his post is a poll where you can vote for your preferred way to someone whose sex is unknown.


*Apologies to Sinn Fein.

More on “proven” as a proper American past participle

In a recent post, Have you proven your case?, I expressed rare disagreement with Bryan Garner about using proven as the past participle of prove. Garner’s Modern American Usage (3d ed. 2009) has this to say about that:

Proved has long been the preferred past participle of prove. But proven often ill-advisedly appears . . . .

. . . .

In AmE, proven, like stricken, properly exists only as an adjective . . . .

Prompted by Mike’s comment to that post, I did some research to support my disagreement with Bryan. I found support in the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED quotes numerous examples of proven used as a past participle, including this one dated 1957:

B. Evans & C. Evans Dict. Contemp. Amer. Usage 399/1   The participle proven is respectable literary English. In the United States it is used more often than the form proved. In Great Britain proved is used more often and proven sounds affected to many people.

The OED’s etymology for prove includes this paragraph about proven:

The past participle proven . . . is at least as common as proved in current North American English. It is also spreading into other varieties of English, in which the highest proportion of occurrences appears to occur in the past and perfect passive.

The OED gives the following definition of prove with accompanying comment on proven:

I. To demonstrate, establish.
1. trans. To establish as true; to make certain; to demonstrate the truth of by evidence or argument.
In this sense the past participle proven (orig. Sc.) is often used. In Sc. Law the verdict ‘Not proven’ is admitted, besides ‘Guilty’ and ‘Not guilty’, in criminal trials.

So what do you think, folks? Have I proven that proven is a proper past participle in American English?


p.s. The New Oxford American Dictionary (2005) says this:

USAGE For complex historical reasons, prove developed two past participles: proved and proven. Both are correct and can be use more or less interchangeably . . . . Proven is the more common form when used as an adjective before the noun it modifies . . . . Otherwise, the choice between proved and proven is not a matter of correctness, but usually of sound and rhythm—and often, consequently, a matter of familiarity, as in the legal idiom innocent until proven guilty.