Thursday, May 31, 2007

Grammarians Unite?

A very funny British woman decided to write a book about punctuation, which become the wildly popular Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. I remember in one chapter Lynne Truss describes her urge to walk around with a giant red Sharpie correcting punctuation and grammar in signs, especially the apostrophe.

I occasionally have that same impulse. For example, today I was walking back from lunch and I noticed a sign that read "Stamped with Mamas Great Seal of Approval". Did you spot the missing punctuation? It's Mama's Great Seal, after all. People, I muttered to myself, have no sense of punctuation or proper uses of grammar.

Which leads me to the other half of my internal debate: should I get so caught up in others' improper use of grammar and punctuation? Do I side with the language purists who declare that English is going to hell in a handbasket (which apparently has been going on for centuries)--or do I side with the more moderate linguists who say "So? It's language. It's meant to change".

Sometimes I just don't know. Punctuation is a useful tool when employed properly, and I know that I can be confused by misplaced apostrophes or commas, or the lack thereof. The rules are not merely there to give a writer a headache and complicate their already difficult task; punctuation is useful to clarify, separate, and keep phrases where they belong. Remove the punctuation from the previous sentence, and you (my dear readers) would be confused. I would like then to separate the concept of language from punctuation, and spoken communication from writing.

Punctuation assists in clarifying writing in a way that is unnecessary in oral communication. Commas, periods, question marks, etc. provide the pauses, the emphasis, the lilt of speaking. We really cannot do away with punctuation, though in language we can come to accept the current use of "like" (instead of "as", for example, not as a random insertion that teenagers use). Punctuation is not as flexible as trends in language because punctuation fills a need that a different word cannot: it simulates spoken language.

I think in the matter of punctuation, I am going to side with Truss and the unbending grammarians: use it properly. Though I could probably survive if we forever dumped the who/whom distinction (subject/object pronouns!), I would likely perish if I could no longer use the colon or semicolon (don't even try to count how many I've used in this post alone). And the pesky apostrophe? I think we should keep it too. It tells me if people are possessing things instead of being plural, or if a word is a contraction. Terribly useful.

Do you think we should let the poor users of punctuation do away with our useful system? Where do you sit? And if you are obsessed with a piece of punctuation, what is it?


Justin Ray said...

I use punctuation, and good writing in general, as an indicator when I am browsing through the web. I like to keep what I read within a certain spectrum of respectability. Unless I am good friends with the poster ant thus feel obligated, I refuse to read anything that doesn't have capital letters, uses excessive leetspeak, makes use of spellings such as "gurl," etc. On the other hand, I prefer a little bit of a casual tone. I'm not going to read something that resembles old English or an academic dissertation.

I don't think I'll ever be able to enforce any sort of language code, nor will anyone else for that matter. Class divisions, for lack of a better term, are already apparent in the blogosphere--click the "next" button in the dashboard bar and you'll see different languages, formats, and styles of posting. I am kind of glad that brainless little emo teens use stereotypically brainless little emo posting styles. That allows me to steer clear and avoid infection...

g-girl said...

I agree that punctuation is a useful tool when employed properly. Yet I wonder if some people just haven't been taught how to use it properly. I remember glazing over how to use semicolons, colons, etc, but I don't think I was ever explicitly taught how to use them correctly. Oh, and the it's, its ordeal--that I didn't get straight until well into adulthood. So we need to look at our education system and the standards that are being taught to future generations.

stochastic said...

The dash--which, I am wholly convinced, is sort of a cop-out of grammar--is my favorite punctuation mark. What is your opinion?

the secret knitter said...

Like "proper" grammar, the use of punctuation is a skill in decline, and I expect it's only going to get worse. Do primary and secondary school teachers throw up their hands in resignation with Generation Text? What I see from college students shows a fundamental failure in comprehending how to punctuate (and spell).

Language does and will change, but it fails when the communicator can't adequately get his or her message across. That's where the laissez-faire attitude toward linguistic fluidity fails.

As for how to deal with others, unless you want to seem like a schoolmarm or humorless academe, you're probably better off resisting the impulse to correct them...unless the circumstances merit it. But I know the feeling of wanting to fix bad grammar and having to bite my tongue.

And Justin, can we make an exception for Big Star's "September Gurls"?