Friday, September 24, 2010

A Passion for Punctuation

Bloggers and columnists are sounding off punctuation woes today in honor of National Punctuation Day.  The holiday was created seven years ago by former journalist Jeff Rubin to honor the lowly comma.  These days, writers seem most piqued by overtaxed exclamation points!!! and the misplaced "apostrophe-S" (the it's/its confusion, or "Chicken's for Sale").  Teachers complain that the slapdash orthography of text messages and emails has bled into students' writing, leading to egregious semantic sins like "IDK" for "I don't know" and :) emoticons appearing in school essays.

Whence all the anxiety?  Concerned citizens are declaring that English is dead.  They may be onto something.  When classical music retreated to the academies and was shored up by curmudgeonly composers poring over rediscovered Bach manuscripts, its knell began to toll.  Rising unease over punctuation and grammar misuse, evidence of which can be found here, there, and everywhere, would seem to indicate that we are fighting a similar (losing) battle against technology-memes that threaten our cherished cultural institutions.

But wait!  How do you explain the 800,000 members of the Facebook group "'Let's eat Grandma!' or, 'Let's eat, Grandma!' Punctuation saves lives"?  That's a relatively small slice of the Facebook population, but it reveals that even punctuation can be lovable—if you show people why they should care.

Grumpy grammarians might do well to ease off the battering ram and ask themselves, "So what?"  Why should proper usage matter?  We know it does—the miracle of human communication hangs by a very tenuous thread, and the right words in the right order keep it from snapping.  A misplaced comma can wreck the bridge you're building, as the title of Lynne Truss's popular Eats, Shoots and Leaves demonstrates.

The bigger issue is that "proper" grammar isn't necessary—or even proper—in most of today's communication channels.  An apostrophe takes up valuable space in a text message, so using one makes a statement.  Teens are sensitive to implied social signals.  When they text or tweet, they instinctively recognize and adjust to the requirements of form and audience.  Before students learn what's "right," they have to figure out for themselves what works.  Once they've established their own mode of communicating, the endless litany of rules and exceptions don't seem worth absorbing.

These students have intuited an important lesson: usage is a social construct.  Grammar has been fluid for most of human history: no one chastises Shakespeare for misspelling his name (Shaksper), and the word "grammar" itself is a distortion of the word "glamour."  These days, however, grammar has developed unavoidable (and often unconscious) social implications.  When Punctuation Day's founder Jeff Rubin corrects mispunctuated signs in restaurants, he says he judges the management's investment in their food and customers based on the care they take over their grammar.  The chef isn't using semicolons in his soup.  Nevertheless, we all make assumptions about social status, class, "in-group" identity, and even emotional engagement, based on grammar and usage.

We can't live outside of language.  We can harness it better, though, by listening to both the explicit and implicit stories it tells.  The BloGG wants to hear your take—what is the purpose of punctuation to you?

And we hope you enjoy National Punctuation Day with some comma-shaped cookies, a red sharpie, or by simply paying a little more attention to those unsung heroes of usage!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

On mine, it not the best variant
Very amusing piece