Horrible units, bad grammar, and clarity

The point of language is to convey ideas.

To me, at least, that means that language should be structured in a way that makes clarity easier, and makes mistakes harder.


The people behind the Chicago Manual of Style seem to understand that; as you explore rules on their site, you’ll notice that they constantly talk about clarity, avoiding misunderstandings, and conveying meaning. The Associated Press and the New York Times style sheets seem to be designed more to obfuscate or prove some obscure ideologically driven preferences of their writers. They decided that, rather than going “from” something “to” something, as normal people do, we would all go to something, from something. So instead of “my weight went from 150 pounds to 185 pounds as I grew older,” we have “my weight went to 185 pounds from 150 pounds as I grew older.” Time usually flows from back then to now, but the Times and AP have reversed the flow of time.

This would also explain the Chicago Manual's endorsement of the Oxford comma, while AP and Times avoid it. The Oxford comma is the comma after the last item in a list, a convention supposedly ended to save paper during a war; in those days of typewriters, a comma and the letter “M” took the same amount of space. Why not kill off the articles, too, at the same time? (That argument may not actually be historically accurate, but if it was, it would date to World War I, not World War II, since the comma wars raged through the 1930s.) You may wonder why anyone cares about the Oxford comma. Here’s an example:

“This is dedicated to my parents, Moses and God.”

That’s what happens when you don’t use the comma. Oh, and you can also lose millions of dollars.* On the side of the anti-comma ranters are some easily-written-around misunderstandings and, most often, “I hate it” and “it doesn’t feel right.” (To be fair to the Times, one editorial claimed that they allow Oxford commas when the sentence would be confusing without it. Do all the people forced to use their style sheet know this?) As a final closing note, 57% of Americans surveyed by FiveThirtyEight.com supported the Oxford comma.

To me, the new global convention on numbers is more damaging. We used to be able to say “10 pounds” or “1,200 kilograms.” Now, the convention is to remove commas (or periods, if your country is so inclined) if there are fewer than five digits in a number, so 1,200 kilograms becomes 1200. What's more, to end the whole comma-versus-period argument for thousands separators, they decided to move to spaces. Oh, and the space between digits and units is gone. So...

1,200 kg is now 1200kg

1,200,000 kg is now 1 200 000kg

That's better, right? No confusion there. Because the point of language is to score ideological or personal points, or emphasize some cultural advantage, not to be understood at a glance.

At a time when people are spending less and less time and effort on reading, we really should be working to making it easier to read, and harder to misunderestand what we do read, not the other way around!

— David Zatz, founder of Allpar.com, author of Mopar Minivans

*A lawsuit between drivers and a company revolved around a law that claimed overtime rules don’t apply to “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.” The appeals court found that the law only provides an exemption for overtime for packing.

David Zatz is a writer, organizational development consultant, editor, photographer, and automotive/organizational historian.