Our Changing Grammar of Writing

I am going to tell a story about the history of grammar change. However, you should know, it's hard for me to actually know exactly what happened when, and I can only offer reasoned opinions about why. Since history is not actually relevant to most concerns, I am not sure this is a problem -- the goal here is to learn about the structure of grammar.

But if you want history of the last hundred years, I don't think you can find these issues any where else.

Note. This is excerpted from my book on a primitive grammar I call "SPG". It is a simple grammar with no formal rules, and anyone can use it. So it allows writers to break the formal rules of English Grammar, which I call EG. You really should read Simple Phrase Grammar: The Hidden Grammar of English

Taking out Commas

Once upon a time, around the age of Hemingway, writers started removing commas.

1. It may be true, that, to a sensitive observer, there was something exquisitely painful in it. (The Scarlet Letter, page 51 in paperback)

2. It may be true that to a sensitive observer there was something exquisitely painful in it.

#1 was Hawthorne's version, from long before Hemingway; #2 is how a modern author might write that sentence. Or a modern writer might have a comma or two, but not three.

Technically, two changes were occurring. First, the comma after an introductory phrase became optional; second, the commas around a modifying phrase became optional.

Either change could have occurred by itself, but the two changes supported each other -- readers learned that a comma might go missing. That's what I will call "clumping" of rule changes. And the two taken together then led to a more general rule: Eliminate the comma unless it's needed for something.

There was more to this change than just saving ink and space. In fact, removing a comma can improve the readability of a sentence. In EG, the comma has too many roles, and when there are multiple commas in a sentence it's hard to figure out what the roles are. So removing a comma can decrease the "comma confusion." (This is thoroughly discussed in Modern Punctuation and Grammar: Tools Not Rules.)

However, removing a comma means a reader has to figure out to make a separation where the comma had been. For example the reader still has to realize that the words in an introductory phrase were a group even when there is no comma to separate them from the rest of the sentence. But sometimes it's easier for the reader to figure this out without the comma than it is to put in the comma and create comma confusion.

And when it isn't easier, the comma is left in. (Hopefully.)

The Comma Revolt has probably played itself out -- we have probably eliminated the comma as much as is practical from modern writing. (Or, perhaps that revolt is still progressing, depending on what you want to make of lists without commas.)

Removing unnecessary commas leads naturally to this:

He was a short and solid old man in a black peasant's smock and gray iron-stiff trousers and he wore rope-soled shoes. (For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway)

This is a third change -- in all that comma-elimination, the comma between two clauses was also taken out. But that was going too far. First, there's no comma confusion with a comma separating the clauses, because that's only one comma. The reader had to figure out that there were two clauses, and the comma could only have helped.

So it was unnecessary. It was also wrong for meaning. Consider:

Many of the fisherman made fun of the old man and he was not angry. (Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea)

This is a very interesting use of removing the comma -- it creates a mood. Hemingway used this construction for his entire book (!), and it created a very interesting mood and character. But in the first sentence, there was no reason to eliminate the comma.

The Comma Revolt had a subtle effect on the meaning of the comma. In EG, the comma had become a symbol in a rule-based system: You used a comma because that was the rule, and no other thought or purpose or reason was needed. The Comma Revolt forced writers to ask, Do I need this comma? And when they asked that, the comma had regained its role as a separator.

Yes, they were probably just asking if they needed that comma for organization, when they should have been asking if they needed it for meaning. But once the comma became optional, they could begin considering meaning.

Adding Commas

The idea of consider the role of the comma started knocking over the next domino in line.

1. Roberta Carter sighed and stared out the window.

2. Roberta Carter sighed, and stared out the window. (Crichton, Jurassic Park, first page)

#1 is grammatically correct. So Crichton added an EG-inappropriate comma (#2). This might seem like the opposite of removing a comma. But it follows from the idea of considering the function of the comma – if there was a principle to leave out a comma when it wasn't needed, it was only logical to put in a comma when it was needed. And here, the comma helped organize the sentence the way Crichton wanted.

Having added a comma between the compound predicate, it became natural to put the comma other places:

She could not have been more mortified, or more thrilled. (Grand Jury, Friedman, page 203 paperback)

She was still walking, towards the sound of the nail gun. (The Moon and More, Sarah Dressen, page 21)

The Adding Commas Revolt is still in progress. That's especially true for a single word used as an adjective or adverb.

I look down at my shoe, embarrassed.

To step back for a moment, part of the overall drift from EG to SPG broke no rules. For example, sentences slowly became shorter, and writers use simpler grammar. But for changes that require breaking the rules, it was not a general flow towards SPG. Instead, breaking one rule made it easier to break the next.

So, another small change had occurred -- the comma was not only removed when it was not needed as a separator, it was added when it was needed as a separator. But that was another step away from EG (breaking more rules) and a step towards SPG (where the comma is just a separator).

The Independent Modifier

The next domino to fall involved the modifier:

Muldoon was a burly man in khaki, with sunglasses dangling from his shirt pocket. (Crichton, Jurassic Park)

With sunglasses.... is a modifier. Modifiers are supposed to be next to what they modify. Hawthorne would have happily written:

Muldoon, with sunglasses dangling from his shirt pocket, was a burly man in khaki.

But in WG, the position of the modifier can go anywhere. The reader is then supposed to use meaning to decide what the modifier modifies.

She had a stethoscope over her shoulder, the bell already rusted from the salt air. (Jurassic Park, Crichton)

So, nowadays we are now more tolerant of modifiers not being adjacent to what they are modifying. But what of the deeper meaning? I think this gave the modifier more independence -- it nowadays sits in the sentence saying "Understand me!"

In fact, you can find modifiers that modify something that isn't even in the sentence, it's just in the reader's mind.

The next domino to fall was the participial phrase. It was a modifier, but now it's just another phrase in the sentence with the participle functioning as an independent verb.

The next domino is more tolerance in what counts as a modifier. I suspect this is a recent development.

I could see that she was smiling, faint, but enough to .... (A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty, Jackson)


I don't know where fragments came from. It's easy to trace their intentional use back to at least Hammet. Nowadays, most good writers have learned to write good fragments. I think we're still learning how valuable they can be, and I suspect some writers haven't gotten the message. (Because that message wasn't sent.)

Does the use of fragments knock down any dominoes behind it? Possibly, but it's not obvious. Does it contribute to the drift to SPG? Absolutely. The fragment is shouting, "I am meaningful by myself even though I am not a clause." So, it forces us to broaden our notion of phrase and to think about what counts as a phrase and what does not -- as long as it is meaningful, it's okay.


The acceptance of fragments also contributed to the general effect of allowing more rule breaking. This enables other SPG-like sentences. (It also enables ungrammatical sentences that don't follow SPG either. But those presumably/hopefully will be weeded out, sooner or later.)

I do not know what you want to make of this passage:

But it sure doesn't feel like a joke, and I don't post stuff like that and LOL. Not anymore. #becausenothingisfunnynow (Before We Go Extinct, Rivers,)

I am not sure of the meaning of and LOL, but I know it isn't grammatical. You can have your own opinion of using acronyms like LOL, but I suspect their use is unavoidable. (In this case, I suspect the acronym has a different meaning than the words it stands for.) Next, the passage has a fragment. Finally, it ends with a hashtag.

And that's another domino -- anything that works is okay. The hashtag has a purpose in tweeting. The above isn't a tweet. So that hashtag must have some other meaning. There's nothing, now, to stop authors from using it. If you want to try to stop use of it, there's nothing you can do. If it's not useful, it won't be used; if it is useful, it will be used.

Eliminating Extraneous Words

The truth is that I don't mind the cheese.

We add grammatical contrivances to sentences. They are meaningless words that merely make the sentence grammatical. But writers in general try to eliminate meaningless words, and nowadays some authors eliminate meaningless words even though that makes the sentence ungrammatical. So at least some modern writers are more like SPG.

Truth is, I don't mind the cheese. (Two Nights, Reich, page 1)

Or, how would you rewrite this?

It was a double-suicide. There was a maggot-jamboree by the time the bodies were found.

Would you just eliminate the grammatical contrivances?

Double-suicide. Maggot-jamboree by the time the bodies were found. (Two Nights, Reich, page 1)

Another, this was in dialogue:

It was just the opposite -- calm and maybe even snooty. It didn't take her long to ask how long we needed to be there.

Yes, the repetition of long should have been avoided, and it was not. Anyway:

Just the opposite, calm, maybe even snooty. Didn't take her long to ask how long we needed to be there. (Breakdown, Kellerman, page 213 paperback)

Here, I have not emphasized what is added to grammar by this change, I have focused instead on the reason for the change. Eliminating grammatical contrivances can lead to a lot of different grammar constructs.