In these pages over the years I have taken a gentle jab at the growing gaggle of grammatical gaffes that now rain down on us from every quarter of society. My own concern was not so much about formalism for the sake of formalism, but promoting formalism for the sake of clear communications. In any event, I felt lonely in the occasional corrections I offered to friends and commenters.
Well, it turns out that the problem has grown to national proportions, and my quiet sufferings have been shared by many across the land - enough so as to warrant a full-fledged report on the matter, with appropriate illustrated correctives, that appeared in the 19jun12 WSJ. Please read ‘This Embarrasses You and I’.
As an addendum to author Sue Shellenbarger’s coverage of the use of ‘and’, I would like to add one more function for the necessary comma before the ‘and’ and ‘or’ that delineates the last item of a list of semantically orthogonal items. And that is to allow the insertion, without comma, of alternative or compound items into such a list. An example - 'Get me the hammer, pliers or visegrips, screwdriver, and nails.'
Finally, Shellenbarger did not cover a most egregious instance of poor grammar in the use of the apostrophe to indicate possession by nouns in the singular and plural number. Apparently it has become a state secret to know when and where to insert the apostrophe. You see people using it in front of the ‘s’ when referring to the plural – for example, ‘We visited the Smith’s last night – that occurs almost always when something is labeled by capital letters – for example, ‘Look at all the GMC’s parked in a row.’ Not many know the difference between 'your' and 'you're'. And perhaps most difficult is the use the apostrophe to designate the possessive of a plural – ‘The students’ registration cards were lost.’ – in which case most people just give up.