Where do Britons stand on classic grammar debates?

Matthew SmithHead of Data Journalism
October 07, 2022, 9:40 AM GMT+0

YouGov creates the British public style guide

Who, the band Vampire Weekend asked in 2008, gives a fuck about an Oxford comma? Well, new health secretary Therese Coffey for one. In mid-September, ten days after taking post in her new department, the minister had issued guidance for civil servants to avoid the grammatical device.

For those unfamiliar, an Oxford comma (also known as a serial comma) is a comma placed after the penultimate item in a list.

As it turns out, the health secretary is representing the will of the people, with most Britons (56%) saying they prefer not to use the Oxford comma. Fewer than half as many Britons (25%) prefer the presence of the extra punctuation mark.

English is, as they say, a living language shaped by its users, so a new YouGov survey has examined where the British public comes down on some of the most common grammar controversies.

Should you use one or two spaces after a full stop?

Coffey is not the only top politician to face ridicule in the press for her style guidance. In 2019, Jacob Rees-Mogg insisted to civil servants that they should put two spaces after full stops. Unlike his cabinet colleague, the business secretary finds himself very much in the minority: 72% of Britons opt for a single space in their own writing, while only 24% insert a double space.

Double spaces were common practice during the era of typewriters, and the results show that older Britons are more likely to follow this practice: 29% of those aged 50-64 and 31% of those aged 65 and above are double-spacers, compared to just 7% of 18-24 year olds.

Is it the Prince of Wales’ or the Prince of Wales’s? Where do Britons stand on possessive apostrophes for proper nouns ending in S?

For most words, to denote that something belongs to it you add an apostrophe and S (e.g. “the bowl’s contents”), except where that word already ends in an S, in which case you just add an apostrophe (e.g. “the glass’ contents”).

But when it comes to a proper noun ending in an S, grammarians are divided. The Guardian’s style guide says to end such words with an apostrophe and additional S, but to be guided by pronunciation.

The British public takes the opposite view, however. In our example of the Prince of Wales’ versus the Prince of Wales’s, two thirds of Britons opt for the former (68%) while only a quarter go for the latter (25%).

Is it acceptable to begin a sentence with ‘And’ or ‘But’?

We are generally taught not to start a sentence with a conjunction, that is, a word like “and”, “but”, or “if” used to connect clauses words in the same clause.

But sometimes clear writing can demand that we bend the rules. Yet starting a sentence with a conjunction is unacceptable to two-thirds of Britons (67%). Only a quarter of Britons (25%) take a more flexible approach to writing, saying it can be acceptable to kick off a sentence with a conjunction.

Should punctuation go inside or outside quotation marks?

We use quotation marks to denote that everything within their boundaries was said by a source, so it might seem counterintuitive that some style guides call for the inclusion of punctuation not used by the source within the quotation marks.

This does not seem to make sense to most Britons, with 56% saying punctuation should appear outside of the quotation marks – a technique referred to as “logical punctuation” – with just 27% saying it should appear within.

The placement of punctuation in relation to quotation marks is supposedly a conflict between British and American grammarians, with the former in favour of placing them without and the latter preferring to keep them within.

The same question run by YouGov America shows that Americans are indeed more likely than their British counterparts to be ‘innies’ (35%), although a plurality are still ‘outies’ (42%).

How confident are Britons that they know when to use a colon versus a semi-colon?

The survey also examined Britons’ confidence when it comes to a couple of punctuation pairings.

Whether a sentence calls for a colon or semi-colon is a common grammar query, although seemingly not for most Britons.

The majority of the public (58%) express confidence in their ability to correctly determine whether a colon or semi-colon is the appropriate choice, although years of observing spelling and grammar in written responses from survey participants lead the author to suspect that their confidence is misplaced.

Only a third (34%) confess to being not very confident, or not confident at all, in choosing between colons and semi-colons.

In their guidance on determining which punctuation mark to use, the Guardian makes clear its stance that the distinction between full- and semi-colons is important, although in doing so sets itself against writers like George Orwell, who considered semi-colons unnecessary.

How confident are Britons that they know when to use an en dash versus an em dash?

More mysterious to the public is the difference between an en dash (–) and an em dash (—). Only 29% of Britons have confidence in their ability to use the right one at the right time, including just 8% who say they are “very” confident.

Most (57%) express little to no confidence in their skills on the issue, with Guardian editors perhaps sharing this concern, as their style guide eschews em dashes altogether.

Is “data” singular or plural?

As a data company, a 2020 YouGov survey posed a question near to our heart: is “data” singular or plural?

Strict grammarians will note that data is the plural of datum, however treating data as a plural term has long since fallen out of fashion with the public. Fully 74% of Britons consider data to be a singular term, with only 14% considering it a plural. Even among the oldest generation – those aged 65 and above – just 20% say “the data are”, with 66% saying “the data is”.

Photo: Getty

See the full results here

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