Contested Usage

English is a living language that continues to evolve, grow, and change. New words are created, old words take on new meanings, and some words are discarded altogether. Similarly, rules of English grammar and style are, to some extent, always in flux. “Standard English grammar” is a collection of rules that English speakers have (more or less) agreed upon. These are the rules taught in schools and by The English Island in our English classes in Atlanta.

However, some aspects of English usage fall into a category known as “contested usage.” These are areas of English usage where academics, educators, and laypersons disagree and have been unable (at least yet) to reach a consensus. To put it another way, “contested usage” represents the “growing pains” of modern English. Today, we’re going to look at few of these growing pains.

Areas of “contested usage” create a dilemma for native and non-native English speakers alike. What, exactly, should you do in a situation where no one can agree on what the “correct” rule of grammar or style is? First, consider your audience. Ask your company, high school, or university if it has a style guide or similar set of writing rules. Second, be consistent in your English usage. When two or more choices are equally correct, pick one of them and stick with it throughout your writing.

The Oxford Comma

The “Oxford Comma” refers to placing a final comma before the words “and” and “or” in a list of three or more items: I like to read, eat, and sleep. It has gradually fallen out of favor, with many people feeling that it is unnecessary. In their minds, a conjunction (and, or, etc.) should be sufficient to link the final two items in a list together, just as it is when listing two items (eat and sleep). Others think a final comma is still needed for clarity and consistency, especially in long, complicated lists. In truth, both of these positions are equally valid. Whether or not to use the Oxford comma is purely a matter of personal choice.

Who vs. Whom

Under traditional grammar rules, “who” and”whom” have distinct uses. “Who” is always a subjective pronoun, while “whom” is always the object of a preposition. In casual speaking and writing, however, very few native English speakers write or talk in a way that requires them to consider the who/whom distinction in the first place. A speaker probably wouldn’t say something like “To whom should I talk?” Instead, he or she would just say “Who should I talk to?” While the matter is far from settled, the current consensus among English language experts is that you should use”whom” only in very formal writing. (High school students planning to take the ACT or SAT should note that both exams still follow the “traditional” rules for who and whom.)

Starting a Sentence with a Conjunction

Starting a sentence with the conjunctions “and” and “but” has long been considered unacceptable. This rule has softened somewhat, but only in certain types of writing. Works of narrative prose and magazine articles will occasionally use “but” and “and” at the beginning of sentences in a manner similar to the transitional words “however” and “furthermore.” Sentences beginning with conjunctions have even appeared in passages on the ACT and SAT college entrance exams. If you do decide to begin a sentence with a conjunction, do so only in informal writing and do so sparingly. Too many sentences beginning with”and/but” will make your writing seem choppy and disconnected.