Why the World Needs a Grammar Czar

Sometimes it’s good to have a benevolent dictator calling the shots. If you’ve ever been part of a committee or task force trying to resolve a seemingly inconsequential issue, you know where I’m coming from.

Our friends at Wikipedia define a benevolent dictator as “an authoritarian leader [who] exercises absolute political power … but is seen to do so for the benefit of the population as a whole.” That’s who I want making a decision if the alternative is spending two hours arguing with 12 people about the wording of one sentence in a 16-page bylaw.

Grammar is one realm of our lives that could really use a benevolent dictator. Let’s call this position the Grammar Czar. The GC would hand down rulings on ambiguous grammatical rules. The GC’s decisions would be final. All would abide by the GC’s decisions, upon penalty of death. (Okay, maybe just a strongly worded letter from the GC’s office.)

I, for one, would welcome the Grammar Czar’s reign. No more worrying about clients with their countless stylistic idiosyncrasies; we’d all follow the same rules! Life would be so much easier.

So while we wait for someone (President Obama? The UN? God? Adele?) to appoint a Grammar Czar, here are five items we could place on his or her agenda.

1) The Oxford Comma

The mother of all grammatical debates. The Oxford comma (i.e. the final comma in a list of three or more items) divides copyeditors like perhaps no other issue. Omitting the Oxford comma can sometimes cause confusion or misunderstanding (a commonly cited example: “We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.”) Some argue, though, that the Oxford comma is extremely overrated and generally a waste of space.

I don’t lean strongly either way (although my bible, The AP Stylebook, is anti-Oxford comma). Let’s just all get on the same page.

2) Em-Dashes and En-Dashes

AP says to use em-dashes (—) to “donate an abrupt change in thought in a sentence or an emphatic pause” and several other instances. En-dashes (–), in contrast, are for referencing a range (e.g. “He ran 12–14 miles each week”).

A few things here:

  • Some people like spaces before and after the em-dash; others don’t.
  • Some people use an en-dash where they should be using an em-dash.
  • It seems like a hyphen would work just fine given the en-dash’s limited uses. Why do we even need an en-dash anyway?

Grammar Czar, we need you on the case.

3) Compound Modifiers

Okay, this is tricky one. If you have two or more words working together to modify a noun, they should be hyphenated — unless an -ly adverb is involved. For example: “fast-rising politician,” but not “highly respected politician.”

But what happens when the list of modifiers gets too long? You may remember Jimmy McMillan and the “Rent Is Too Damn High Party.” Should it actually be the “Rent-Is-Too-Damn-High Party”? Having all those hyphens looks awkward, but those five words are modifying “party.” It’s no wonder copyeditors don’t act with unanimity in cases like these.

4) Job Titles

People are all over the place on this one. Should we capitalize all job titles in all cases? That seems excessive. Somehow we should factor in the level of authority (e.g. Chief Executive Officer vs. junior accountant), but that admittedly can be a gray area.

AP provides direction on this, of course. I won’t get into all the details, but let’s just say it gets confusing. The Grammar Czar would know what to do.

5) More Than vs. Over

For years, AP said that when referring to a quantity of something, “more than” should be used in some cases and “over” in others. (I’ll spare you the explanation.) I always thought that was silly — why make things so hard on us, when both options are meant to convey the same point?

Apparently, AP agreed. In 2014, AP Stylebook editors shocked the world by announcing that “over, as well as more than, is acceptable to indicate greater numerical value.” In some quarters, however, the debate rages on.

A benevolent dictatorship led by my Grammar Czar would restore order to this and all other cases of grammatical dispute. And that’s a good thing, because we don’t want things getting violent.

Do you have an issue you’d like the Grammar Czar to resolve? Let us know below.

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