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Stop Mucking About With My Punctuation!

As a writer, I’ve seen a lot of heated arguments about the Oxford (or, as we Americans more properly call it, the Harvard) comma. Some sing its praises, while others condemn its vile, filthy, and unnecessarily rough excesses. Personally, I’m with Mae West here: you can never have too much of a good thing.

If you’re curious about the serial killer of punctuation, check out my friend’s blog, fêting its murderously organized glory: Ode To The Oxford Comma (or something silly along those lines)

Frankly, I wish people would just shut up about the damn things. Oxford, Harvard, Cambridge, whatever. It’s a freakin’ period (or ‘stop’ for your pedantic types out there) that’s too lazy to pull in its tail for portraits. I’d say f*ck the damn things, except that would get me on all sorts of sex offender lists, and honestly, I have enough legal problems in my life right now.

With all the rancor surrounding these shiftless commas, I have to wonder why people don’t fuss over other, now commonly discontinued, forms of grammar. Have people forgotten about them? My English teachers certainly seem to have, considering the amount of red ink I received over the years on my returned assignments.

Which brings me to another point: Irregardless of your opinion, archaic does not mean ‘do not use any more, on pain of the grammatic equivalent of death’.

On the other hand, it does provide me with a few handy buttons to push on certain individuals.

Button-pushing notwithstanding, I truly miss some of these classics.

We’ll start with the red-headed stepchild of Oxford and Harvard (ew, incest!), the Purdue Comma. Who can forget this Ivy League wanna-be? OK, that one I’ll give to the critics. Flipping the comma the other way is just plain stupid.

But grammar Nazis have crowded other forms of punctuation onto trains, never to be seen again. Let’s take a moment to remember these fallen heroes:

The University of California at Santa Cruz semicolon (or ‘UCSC semi’, as grammarians in the know call it), for example. Why did a banana-slug yellow semicolon fall out of favor? Was it the slime? Its sticky nature served to force readers to pause and extract themselves from the sentence, which is exactly what a semicolon is for!

The Harvard em-dash / Yale en-dash rivalry has always been interesting to watch, though how the use of fight songs is supposed to prove your point is beyond me. But any dash that has its length defined by a typeface standard stored in the Bureau of International Weights and Standards in France is, by definition, awesome, and will always be welcome in my manuscripts.

When it comes to fight songs, though, nobody can justify the existence of the Northwestern University period (or ‘stop’) better than Northwestern University. Their argument is so catchy, so hummable, how can anyone resist? Sure, a bold period that’s hollow is a bit strange, but heck, if the font is small enough, you can’t even tell. Lighten up, people!

And in any discussion of dangling punctuation, one cannot leave out the long, drawn-out Colorado University at Boulder ellipse. How can you not love…nay, lust after…nay, downright require the use of an ellipse whose creation is apocryphally attributed to an English department staff party involving marijuana-laced brownies? Sure, it’s thirty-seven periods (or ‘stops’) long, but who hasn’t gotten stoned and then paused excessively mid-sentence?

I understand the CU Boulder ellipse was a favorite of Hunter S. Thompson. That’s sayin’ something right there. I don’t know exactly what, but it’s something.

I won’t even validate the Chico Exclamation Point with a mention here. I won’t! It can roll over and die! And yes, I know how hard it is for an exclamation point with a square period (or ‘stop’) to roll over!!

These are (almost) all wonderful forms of grammar that not only add flavor to a sentence, but allow us to dig a little into the English language’s past. Clearly a journey worth taking, whether you deign to use these dusty, cobweb-covered tools or not.

And now, a word from our sponsor: me!

Marlowe and the SpacewomanClick here to check out my forthcoming book, Marlowe and the Spacewoman, coming out January 9th, 2012 (Balloon Ascension Day)!

 
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Posted by on 7 December 2011 in Other Blogs

 

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Rules are made to be followed, except where logic dictates otherwise

Rules.  I’m a firm believer in rules.  But there’s always an exception to the rules, and in this case that exception is REVOLUTION!

Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m not some crazed Libertarian walking around half-cocked about the societal limitations placed on us by ‘Big Government’ for the greater good.  Quite the contrary.

I’m the guy driving down the freeway, waiting for the solid line to change to dotted so I can enter the exit lane.  Even when the exit lane is empty and my lane is bumper-to-bumper traffic.  And I’m the guy cursing the bastards who are prematurely cutting across said solid line and zipping past me, making it harder for me to legally enter the lane once the line is dotted.

Yes, I’m that anal about rules.  The question shouldn’t be, “Is anal-retentive hyphenated?”  It should be, “Is anal-retentive hyphenated, and if so, is it an em dash or an en dash?”

(It’s en dash.  The em dash should be stricken from the English language and our memories.  It is an abomination.)

These are important distinctions to maintain if society isn’t going to crumble into a cannibal apocalypse.

(Read Lord of the Flies if you don’t believe me – all that unpleasantness started over the misuse of the possessive apostrophe with regards to a conch shell.)

For example, take the instruction, “Write your answers on the form below.”  That means cursive, not printed.  Or so a teacher once told my class after a logic test where we’d all printed, and therefore failed.

Now before you roll your eyes, imagine if that instruction had read, “Print your answers on the form below.”  Now you’re in the middle of it.  Does the instruction mean block print by hand, or does it mean take the form, put it in a printer, generate a document with the answers in the correct location, and then print those answers on the form, all while hoping you put the form in facing the right way because you can’t remember if the printer prints on the top face or bottom face of the sheet of paper in the tray and oh God do you have another copy of the form?

You can interpret it either way, which is why I prefer my rules to be clear.  And it saves a lot of arguing with the instructor about why your answer shouldn’t have been marked wrong when you get the graded exam back.

Here’s another example of a stupid rule.  It is, not surprisingly, a punctuation rule.

The sign read, “STOP,” so Marlowe, being a stickler for rules, stopped.

Now, I see that and quite naturally think the sign reads:

STOP,

Why?  Because the ‘,’ is inside the freaking quotes!  But we know damn well there is no comma on that stop sign! (Or do we? Maybe this sign was a misprint? But that seems unlikely, and as it is my example, I say it doesn’t.)

Here’s how that sentence should read (and I am led to believe the British actually do it this way, so there may be hope yet):

The sign read, “STOP”, so Marlowe, being a stickler for rules, stopped.

(Or, as the English would print it: The sign read, ‘STOP’, so Marlowe, being a stickler for rules, stopped.  So they almost get it right.)

Seems perfectly reasonable, right?  Logic dictates, to quote Mr. Spock, that the quotes should surround the content of the sign and nothing else.  But then ‘Captain Kirk’, (oh, excuse me, ‘Captain Kirk,’) the overzealous, clapped-out English teacher circles my logical use of the comma and writes a ‘-5‘ next to it in bright red.  Over the course of the semester, where I heedlessly continued to follow the logical path with respect to comma placement and quotes, he started returning my assignments with little notes too:

“-5 Stop doing that.”

“Knock it off. -5”

“Are you by any chance dyslexic too? 1-”

“Wrong. -5”

“Wrong! -10!”

“Goddammit, your doing this on purpose!!! -50!” (And don’t think I didn’t find that misuse of ‘your’ ironic.  Or that he found it evenly remotely ironic when pointed out to him.)

“You will never amount to anything if you don’t start placing the commas appropriately.”

“I hate you and want you to die, you comma-misusing fuck.”

That left quite an impression on this impressionable fifth grader, let me tell you, a mental scar that was not softened by ‘Captain Kirk’s’ (whoa now THAT is awkward punctuation!) forcible removal by administrators from the school just moments ahead of an angry mob of parents.

Which brings me back to revolution.  We need to seize this language and take it back from the anal-retentives who insist we blindly follow stupid rules about commas and quotes.

We need to stop, the insanity!

 

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