The Chicago Manual of Style

My friend Mike Goronsky sent me an interesting sentence last week. It showed up in a forum for The Chicago Manual of Style, which is probably the most respected resource for writing, usage, and grammar.

My wife Deb’s father passed away on Sunday.

The editor at The Chicago Manual of Style wrote a helpful explanation about why the sentence is okay, even though it breaks a rule about appositives.

I, on the other hand, read the sentence and got angry.

Let’s deal with the grammar issue first. (Don’t worry: I’m not going to ask you to learn what an appositive is.)

All of us automatically change our voices when we’re talking. Here’s an example: My husband, Charlie, enjoys gardening. If you read that sentence out loud, you’ll hear your voice go down and back up when you read Charlie.

If you didn’t change your voice, listeners might think you were a polygamist: My husband Charlie enjoys gardening. The implication is that you have another husband – Sam or Joe or Bill – who has another hobby. (But would anybody really think that? Of course not. You don’t really need the voice change and the commas.)

Let’s go back to Deb.  That very nice editor made two excellent points:

  1. Nobody’s going to think you have more than one wife.
  2. Jamming a pair of commas into that sentence would be messy: “My wife, Deb’s, father passed away.” Gack!

I agree with that editor…and I want to add that I’m truly sorry about Deb’s loss. But  that’s a ridiculous sentence – and an example of what’s wrong with the way we teach writing.

(I’m climbing onto my soapbox.)

Writing is a powerful way to connect with other people. That power has to be channeled and managed.

That means there’s much more to writing than figuring out where the punctuation goes. You can see that the editor did some analytical thinking right away: “Will anyone suspect that you’re a polygamist? No. So we don’t need those clunky commas.”

Well done! But he should have dug deeper.

Here’s what I mean. Suppose (sadly) your wife’s father died. Who would you share that news with? Friends. Relatives. In other words, people who know you and Deb. Or – even if they don’t know Deb – they would be people who already know her name. You wouldn’t say, “My wife Deb’s father….”

If you’re taking off from work to go to the funeral, you might tell your boss, or HR, or a few of your co-workers about your plans. They might never have met Deb, and it’s possible they wouldn’t even know her name. But is it necessary to bring it up? You have only one wife. I doubt that you would say, “My wife Deb’s father….”

And here’s the clincher. You had a relationship with Deb’s dad too. If friends and co-workers don’t know Deb, wouldn’t you tell them that your father-in-law died?

In other words, nobody in the real world is ever going to utter a sentence like “My wife Deb’s father passed away on Sunday.” It’s a stupid sentence made up by someone who views language as a game: Where do the commas and periods and apostrophes go? I know! I win! 

If you’re trying hard to improve your language skills, good for you! Use your time and energy to think about real-world writing issues: word choice, organizing and presenting ideas, critical thinking, and so on.

Plucking tricky sentences out of the air isn’t writing. It’s not going to teach you anything. You should constantly be asking yourself this question: How can I use language more effectively today? Right now?

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