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Musing, and ...

James Rosenthal has a very odd column in this morning’s Times (which requires registration). He is reacting to Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by suggesting, it seems, a maximum-tolerance approach to punctuation. “The question that readers and editors should ask is not whether the punctuation violates the rules, but whether the meaning is clear,” Mr. Rosenthal writes.

I’m inclined to disagree with Mr. Rosenthal (and to buy the panda bear book), but I am in sympathy with his approach. The best way, I think, would be for everybody to know the rules of grammar and punctuation, and to apply them as a matter of course, instinctively. Then meaning would be clear, and we wouldn’t be distracted by people hollering in the theater when somebody is listed as having designed the stars tattoo’s. I recently sent an email to an excellent blogger, who had written an excellent post, but who had mis-itsed the first sentence, which was distracting me. The blogger in question knew the its-it’s rule (it’s is a possessive pronoun like her’s and hi’s, of course), but had mistyped it, and quickly corrected it, and then I could pay attention to the post. Was the problem mine? If I had a higher tolerance, it would saved the blogger and me some effort.

Mr. Rosenthal writes “force-feeding the rules of punctuation isn't working.” I have no idea if he’s correct in general; I have no idea if it ever worked in general. Grammar and punctuation rules change with time, as Mr. Rosenthal points out. I was taught that I should never split infinitives, nor start a sentence with And or But, and that prepositions were words with which sentences should never end. With. Those rules are silly, and outdated, and didn’t contribute to clear writing, and I still tend to follow them unthinkingly. To unthinkingly follow them. Enh. So the force-feeding worked in my case, but not altogether to my benefit. If we eliminate a few commas, it doesn’t seem like much, but it will throw us all off, all of us who know the rules, and use them to learn something about the writer.

Yes, I often ignore the rules. Yes, I sprinkle semi-colons around like confetti. Yes, I use a comma as a pause, indicating the melody of the sentence rather than, say, delineating the clauses. No, I am not a Grammar and Punctuation Maven. Gentle Readers, perusing these notes, learn this about me pretty quickly, and use that knowledge to help build an idea of what this Tohu Bohu is like. That’s one of the things I like about having the Grammar and Punctuation Gang out there, correcting us and maintaining fidelity to the rules. They are the standard, against which y’all can judge me, the background to everybody’s foreground. It’s not just a useful job, it’s a beautiful one.



I was going to go off on a long discussion of prescriptivism, descriptivism, and my delicate relationship with both, but then I realized that I would just be re-writing a nonfiction piece I wrote recently for Flytrap. I think the issue with my piece in it will be out in about a month.

My relationship with prescriptivism and descriptivism is far less delicate than Jed's, I suspect. I hate bad grammar and bad punctuation. But I also see different levels of rules: those which are basic and should never be violated, and those which are more matters of house style, personal style, or apply to particular domains of discourse. I agree with James Rosenthal that we should focus first and foremost on communicating clearly. I do not see any reason, however, that less important goals (such as clear and consistent punctuation) should or must be ignored simply because they are not the most important goals.

The trouble I have with the punctuation police is that they so often fail to acknowledge that the rules are not short, simple, clear, and universal. Yes, one should not write Banana's on "sale". But the same people who are most vociferous about correcting greengrocers' punctuation are also the most vociferous about serial commas.

The Chicago Manual of Style is long, incomplete, and ever-changing. While these traits are often frustrating, they are also incredibly important to the usefulness and accuracy of the work.

I share Michael's views on this matter, and I am immensely amused by his example of Banana's on "sale".

This is the punctuation police! Put down your quote marks and apostrophes, and come out with your ascenders up!

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