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[The Angry Grammarian] Weekend, get away

How dare a rock band be dismissive of grammar?

Jeffrey Barg

After soundly defeating Punctuation Man (see last week), the Angry Grammarian takes on Vampire Weekend, a New York new wave four-piece of Johnny-comma-latelies.

Sporting one of the worst band names ever, they fancy themselves rogue grammarians, with the single “Oxford Comma” catapulting them to indie stardom. But the song reveals they’re completely ignorant of grammar’s serious implications. They instead spread commanist propaganda with an insidious campaign of misinformation. Also, the song sucks. “Who gives a f--k about an Oxford comma?” the lyrics begin, showing callous disregard for the gravity of the punctuation situation.

And then that’s it. No other grammatical mentions, other than to repeat the oh-so-edgy “hey look at me, I can curse in a song” line a couple of times. (Respect due, however, for rhyming “Oxford comma” with “Dharamsala.”)

How can they posit such a controversy-provoking question and then drop it? Judging from the letters that poured in a few weeks back, when we railed against the atrocious Oxford/Harvard/serial comma, a lot of people give a f--k. More people than you’d think, and thankfully, more people than give a f--k about Vampire Weekend.

What’s the definitive “which” vs. “that” rule?

The rule is needlessly complex, but based in this relatively simple axiom: “That” is for essential clauses (“I think the rules that govern the use of ‘that’ and ‘which’ are dumb”), while “which” is for nonessential clauses (“I think grammar rules, which are often sexy, should be rewritten by me”).

But like so many problematic grammar rules, those governing “that” and “which” are riddled with exceptions: if it’s an animate or inanimate object; if it’s an animal with or without a name; if “that” or “which” has already been used in the sentence. It gets fairly convoluted and, frankly, pretty boring.

Not to mention pointless. Which is why the “that” and “which” rules ought to be thrown out, and the two words should become synonymous.

The dictionary definitions of “that” and “which” are identical save the essential/nonessential bit. It’s a rule based simply in “because I said so,” failing to enhance understanding or readability in the least (à la “don’t end your sentence with a preposition”). Those are the kinds of rules that make kids hate grammar, and I hate anyone who makes kids hate grammar.

Hear the blow-by-blow atrocities of “Oxford Comma” in this week’s podcast, www.theangrygrammarian.com.

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