The rules of English and why we observe them (or not)

It’s not that Mary and Margaret Taylor, the two venerable old ladies who constituted the English department in my high school days, weren’t nice people. They were lovely and learned beings. But you didn’t want to split your infinitives in front of them. They took the language seriously; some would say too seriously.

The more pages I read in Mary Norris’ book (Mary would insist I add an “s” to that, but I refuse, in deference to the Taylor sisters), the more I want to ask the people who made up all of these rules of our language one question: Who hurt you?

I have loved Mary for many years, but only recently, with the premiere of her Comma Queen web videos, have I elevated my affection to near cult-like. Grammar, punctuation, and definition (yes, that’s the Oxford — serial — comma you see. What about it?)

She’s hysterical. Her book is Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.

Mary, who is charged with upholding the quirky standards of The New Yorker, is my guest at 10:06 a.m., Central time, this morning on Minnesota Public Radio News. I’m filling in for Kerri Miller. We might even debate what’s the point of which/that, when you’re editing a story intentionally full of profanities. We’ll have the finger on the delay button if we do.

I look forward to hearing from you on the air, or with your questions and comments here.