GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – Singapore has worked it out: if you want people to love good English, you have to make it fun. The Speak Good English Movement on Facebook does it really well. A must-read: “A teacher presented each child in her class with the first half of a well-known proverb and asked them to complete it. The results are below…”
It doesn’t take much to turn all the foreigners in Switzerland into convicts, and I don’t mean the vote Sunday 28 November or even the infamous black sheep posters by the UDC (People’s Party). It’s much easier: a comma will do the trick nicely.
There are many uses for commas, but one of the most abused and mis-used is the comma that isolates weak interruptions to sentences: Check that these words really are an interruption and that if you lifted them from the sentence it would still make sense. Then re-read it to be sure it says what you want it to say.
Here is a fine example of a weak interruption, with commas used correctly. It’s from a comment posted on swissinfo’s lengthy article about the reaction of foreigners in Switzerland to the vote approving automatic expulsion of criminals who are foreigners, once they’ve served their prison sentences.
‘Your title is misleading. It should read “Foreigners, who are criminals, alarmed by Swiss Expulsion vote”…
The title of the article is “Foreigners alarmed by Swiss expulsion vote”.
Once you’ve checked that your use of the commas for a weak interruption is correct, read it again to be sure this is what you mean. Write what you mean and mean what you write.
Try the comment author’s sentence above, without commas, to see how this shifts the meaning.
“Foreigners who are criminals alarmed by Swiss expulsion vote.”
Well, they would be, wouldn’t they?
But it doesn’t say anything about what the rest of us think.
Thanks to Jess for sending this link on how to use semicolons, a grammar lesson made easier with cartoons. I hadn’t seen theoatmeal.com before and it’s a fun site. The semicolon lessons are sound, made easier thanks to some fun art, and anything that helps people remember grammar lessons is good.
I’m a little less happy with another one, How to use an apostrophe, which doesn’t acknowledge that different cultures handle these differently. The rules are not wrong, but they are only part of the story.
My favourite after checking out a few of the comics is What I remember most about Legos.
In these days of war and pandemics, the number of human beings who are sick, injured, killed or dead is the stuff of daily news. So are they persons or people? If there is one grammar question that almost no one feels comfortable with, this is it.
On GenevaLunch we opt frequently for people for two reasons. Web language tends to be less formal and closer to spoken language than print, and few people will, in speech, say “121 persons died.” There is in any event a clear trend to replace persons with people as the plural of person, remarked on several years ago by Burchfield, eminent British grammarian.
The old rule was that if you could count them they were persons, whereas people referred to a mass, a group.
The logic was parallel to that for less and fewer, although note that the usage rule for these two is still firmly in place, although widely ignored, especially by sportscasters. If you can count them there are fewer of them but if they are uncountable you need to use less. The local school team has five fewer players this season and less football is played as a result.
Back to people: the problem is deciding at what point you’re really counting, at what point you’re estimating. Three is pretty easy: three persons sat in the office. One hundred starts to get complicated and with one million it’s unlikely anyone is counting, unless the number comes from a digital company such as Facebook. They probably really do know the number, so should we say Facebook has 200 million persons? They get around the problem by talking about “users.”
If you want to focus on human beings rather than the roles they play as employees, users, players, citizens and more, go for people. Most people won’t notice that you didn’t say persons, and that is as it should be.
Persons is not dead, however. If the number of people is significant in a context, often legal, persons is probably correct: the car is limited to carrying six persons.