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March 2nd, 2005

Dumbing down? / comma after a city name / healthy and healthful

by Barbara Wallraff

Katie Stocker, of Huntington Woods, Mich., writes: “I read, with much chagrin, your recent advice to a reader to use grammatically incorrect language, so that he might sound like a ‘regular person.’ As an English teacher, I find it appalling that you advocate the dumbing down of America. I, for one, will continue to speak correctly, even at the risk of sounding stilted.”

Dear Katie: I’m sure you believe, as I do, that a person gains a tremendous advantage in life by being well-spoken. And I’m sure you believe, as I do, that it’s hard for a person who knows little about grammar to speak, or write, well. But we part company—and I’m afraid you part company with the best-respected usage experts—if you regard grammatical correctness as an end in itself. H.W. Fowler, in his classic Modern English Usage, railed against “precisians who … wish to restrain liberty as such, regardless of whether it is harmfully or harmlessly exercised.” Bryan A. Garner, in his Garner’s Modern American Usage, compared grammar to etiquette, writing: “Sometimes people strive to abide by the strictest etiquette, but in the process behave inappropriately.”

The goal when we use language—like our goal when we apply etiquette, play a musical instrument or cook—is not just to follow instructions but to achieve a pleasing result. Wouldn’t you agree? You and I may have different views about particulars—about whether a certain rule is a hard-and-fast rule, a guideline or a mere superstition. But surely in the grand scheme of things we’re on the same side.

John M. Evrard, of Camden, Maine, writes: “When using the name of a city and state in a sentence, I don’t always follow the city’s name with a comma. Such as: ‘In writing to you today from Camden Maine, I hold high hopes of once and for all settling the debate.’ My eldest daughter has often corrected me for this. I feel the comma interrupts the flow. Please help.”

Dear John: In a recent column I brought up the idea of using commas where you’d hear pauses in speech. (I was discussing when to use a comma with “too.”) That’s definitely one purpose to which commas are put. But the comma also does a number of purely mechanical jobs. For instance, it separates elements in lists (I may say “red white and blue,” but I write “red, white and blue”). It separates parts of dates (“March 2, 2005”) and of addresses (“Box 67375, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467”). Commas just plain do separate the city from the state—even in the middle of a sentence. It’s a convention, like tucking your socks inside your pants, instead of the other way around.

Donald B. Aulenbach, of Clifton Park, N.Y., writes: “Have you described the difference between ‘healthy’ food and ‘healthful’ food? I frequently see these two words confused.”

Dear Donald: I’ll bet you have in mind that “healthy” means “enjoying good health,” and “healthful” means “promoting good health.” The two words certainly can mean those things, and the distinction is a nice one to make. But “healthy” has been used both ways since the sixteenth century—as in “a healthy person” and “a healthy choice.” “Healthy” isn’t even unusual for filling both roles. Compare “a wholesome person” and “wholesome food,” or “a happy man” and “a happy birthday.”

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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