|This morning’s New York Times has an op-ed piece on punctuation. Writer John Rosenthal advocates less anal-retentive attention to the rules of punctuation, provided clarity isn’t sacrificed. He’s very tolerant of comma splices (“this abstracted reality has dulled our sensitivity, it has impeded our ability to reconnect with the ‘real’ world”) between two complete thoughts, where the NYT would insist on a semi-colon, a period, or an intervening conjunction. He has no objection to apostrophes after abbreviations (“MP3’s”) where traditional rules permit them only in the possessive sense, not the plural. He cares not whether the next-to-last item in a list (“Bush’s arrogance, foolishness, and treachery”), the item before the “and”, is followed by a comma (New Yorker style) or not (NYT house rule). Even incomplete and run-on sentences, and omitting punctuation altogether (“Dont think twice its alright”) is hunky-dory with Mr Rosenthal provided there is no significant loss of clarity.
Its not a bad principle though it takes some getting used to I have two concerns with it however First its jarring especially when were all so used to selfcorrecting punctuation so it ends up interfering with our understanding of what were reading Secondly and more importantly the primary purpose of punctuation is not so much clarity as it is rhythm, to simulate the lilt and flow of the language as it would be spoken, to allow us to ‘hear’ it and hence understand it both literally and aurally.
These two principles — maximizing clarity and preserving rhythm — are often at odds, so compromise is necessary. The natural ‘punctuation’ of speech is the interjection by another party into the conversation, which can halt or guide the speaker even if no words are said (via a frown, for example). And there are many ways for a speaker to add emphasis to a word or phrase — by tone of voice, volume, body language, or extended pauses, for example — whereas today’s poor writer is limited to italics, since bold-face and block capitals have been appropriated for titles and headings, and underlining is now verboten if there’s no URL behind the word to click. Some resourceful writers have therefore stolen back single-quotes for stress, and now reserve double-quotes for direct quotations (with citation of the quote’s source mandatory to show you aren’t ‘cheating’). Quotes within quotes are then problematic, since these have traditionally used single-quotes, so the enterprising writer faced with a quote-within-a-quote needs to use an indent for the ‘outer’ quote and double-quotes for the ‘inner’ quote, as in this example from Mr Rosenthal’s op-ed:
In her book, Ms. Truss claims there are a staggering 17 rules of use for the comma alone “some of which are beyond explanation by top grammarians”.
In even more convoluted situations, italicizing an entire passage can be used to indicate a quotation, while italicizing a word or two can still be retained to convey emphasis. Or, a smaller type face or a different font colour can indicate a quotation, especially when the writer is quoting at length with intervening personal commentary.
The use of periods in acronyms is now seen as overly fastidious or quaint, though in some contexts, ‘US’ still seems more like shouting in the first person plural than the abbreviation for a superpower. No one, it seems, picked up on my rare and deliberate use of ‘U.S.’ (with the periods restored) in my Friday post, a subtle expression of anger and distancing, like using your child’s full name instead of the usual short-form when scolding them. Since we’ve removed them from acronyms, I don’t understand why we retain the habit of putting periods after ‘Mr.’, ‘Ms.’, and ‘Dr.’, since they add nothing and aren’t even technically correct (the final letter of each title is the final letter of the word, so the period isn’t ‘standing in’ for any letters — it would be technically more correct to use an apostrophe (“M’r Rosenthal”).
I use hyphens generously for concatenation of related words (“the much-admired war veteran”) though many modern sources deem this unnecessary. Alas, hyphenation is exasperating at spell-check time — almost all hyphenated words are flagged. The phrase “a take-it-or-leave-it proposition” is unparsable and unclear, in my opinion, with the hyphens removed, though text editors will punish you for it by leaving a huge white space at the end of the previous line. It’s not clear to me why modern text editors won’t cut off a line after a hyphen, since it is a perfectly accepted practice in journals.
Don’t get me started on dashes and parentheses. Whoever invented the PC keyboard removed the wonderful dash from the typewriter and replaced it with that useless abomination the _underscore_ thus forcing the conscientious user to employ the ‘insert special character’ menu to add a real dash, and the lazy user, like me, to employ a double hyphen — not very elegant and a terrible waste of space — instead. If you do use a real dash your spell-checker will punish you for that as well. The dash (in proper usage) has no space before or after it, so spell-checkers pull up the dash with the words on either side as a single (misspelled) word.
I use parentheses for ‘asides’ — complete thoughts that are tangential (parenthetical) to the main point I am making, which can be skipped entirely without significant loss of meaning — but I use dashes for pregnant pauses and to ‘set off’ examples, lists and clarifications that are essential to understanding my meaning. I know others who use parentheses and dashes interchangeably, and that doesn’t seem to affect the clarity of their writing. But please don’t use nested parentheses or more than two dashes in a sentence — if you feel the need to do this you’re probably trying to say too much in one breath.
Maybe it’s my failing eyesight, but I find that in Times New Roman and most other commonly used fonts today, the colon and semi-colon are so faint they are almost invisible. These are important tools and deserve to be seen, and putting a space before them so they don’t get lost just looks wrong. I’ve tried putting them in boldface but it doesn’t help. When nothing else will do, I will generally capitalize the first letter after the colon, so you don’t miss it, or use a dash (i.e. a double hyphen) instead. I’ve stopped using the semi-colon for the same reason — I use a dash, a period, or, where poetic license permits, a comma splice instead.
When I read, I ‘listen’ in my head to what the words would sound like if read aloud. This helps me to understand, and also makes me tolerant of very long written sentences, since I can ‘hear’ where the pauses would go, even when there’s no punctuation to guide me. But I know many readers don’t read that way, and the long sentences that appear often in my blog must be confounding to them. I’m working on it.
What fascinates me is reading the work of teenagers. They live in a much more oral language culture than the one I grew up in, and they write the way they talk. What interests me is that it works — they can violate many grammar, punctuation, and spelling rules, and use parochial and Internet shorthand in writing, and it sings with meaning. They appear to say everything at least twice, in modestly different ways, as if they realize better than we do the incredible density and incomprehensibility and inarticulateness of language, and how repetition is essential to communication. The modified repetition (often with the phrase “I mean” in between the statement and re-statement) seems to provide something akin to semantic ‘depth perception’. Just as two apparently-redundant eyes let you take in so much more information than just one, there is an evocation of emotion, of personality, of comprehension that comes through when you ‘hear’ someone say something two or three different ways that seems to me very rich. Not very economical, of course, but because the primary economic currency of language is now time, not linear space on a page (with Internet shorthand and IM allowing a torrent of iterative communication in the same time that we used to need to read and re-read and consider, and the cost of online bytes now nearly zero) a New Economy of language appears to be emerging, and by this new accounting for communication cost, perhaps our generation is the profligate one.
Anyone under 25 would probably think this post, and Mr Rosenthal’s op-ed, pointless and esoteric. The young are learning to think and write almost entirely in real time, precisely the way they talk, and they have willingly traded off the time and the value that comes from careful composition, editing and reflection, in favour of an iterative, ‘successive approximation’ means of communicating. In such a world, punctuation may soon be seen as an affectation, not a tool for comprehension.
I suspect that this conflict of language cultures will bring about a revolution in the way in which we use language. That revolution will face its first bloody battles in the universities, where the established elite are heavily invested in old ways of written communication. Once that battle has been won, the war front will move on to business, where the carnage will be even worse, and will I suspect produce a ‘generation gap’ unlike anything we’ve seen since the 1960s. The next generation will have no tolerance for formal meetings, PowerPoint slides and long reports, and with their more oral culture will quickly learn to blow us away when they speak impromptu from the podium or look for learning or consensus in self-organized workgroups that will be substantially paper-free.
After this revolution, all we’ll have left to write about is whether the result has been more understanding, or less.
Postscript: For another take on punctuation (much more amusing than mine), read Paul Robinson’s essay “The Philosophy of Punctuation“.
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