Thursday, June 9, 2011

Punctuation topics for today

It's a dangerous position to be a grammar nitpicker when you don't know all the rules. I can spot egregiously bad usage but I can't explain to others why they're wrong, except for really obvious problems like misusing "however".

That's why I like citing the better-informed writings of others. Take, for instance, Noreen Malone's essay in Slate, "The Case–Please Hear Me Out–Against the Em Dash". The essay's stylistic conceit, absurd overuse of the em-dash, is belabored, but Malone has a point.
The problem with the dash—as you may have noticed!—is that it discourages truly efficient writing. It also—and this might be its worst sin—disrupts the flow of a sentence. Don't you find it annoying—and you can tell me if you do, I won't be hurt—when a writer inserts a thought into the midst of another one that's not yet complete?
I certainly use the em-dash for effect, and I don't think I've overused it, but I'll admit to being surprised and a little abashed by how often it showed up (in its degraded basic-keyboard form, the double-dash) in an incomplete count of about a quarter of my blog entries. Just as with an earlier bout of self-examination involving the colon, I'll probably be on my guard for excessive em-dash usage -- for a while, anyway. (That one doesn't count.)

(Who am I kidding? I love sentences that veer off the path to touch on a side issue before veering back to finish off the first thought. It's a Wodehousian stylistic quirk that I've adopted as my own, and I know all the tricks to work around anyone's disfavored punctuation. If I can't have my em-dash, I'll use parentheses or commas or even unholy combinations of colons and semicolons.)

And then there's the higher-profile piece in Slate, "Logical Punctuation". The article takes on the thorny question of whether punctuation should be embedded within quotation marks or outside of them.

In case you've never thought about the problem (and judging by my online reading in the last twenty years, a lot of you haven't), here it is in a nutshell. Which of the following is properly punctuated?
He said, "Go West, young man," so we went north.
Or:
He said, "Go West, young man", so we went north.
Did you even spot the difference? It comes down to whether the comma after "man" should be part of the quotation or not. In the U.S., the first version is considered proper; in Britain and elsewhere logical punctuation applies, the second version is correct.

From a logical standpoint, it makes no sense for that comma to be within the quotation marks: it logically belongs to the rest of the sentence, not to what "he" said. That's the way the British have always looked at it. However, the U.S. adopted the convention that some, not all, punctuation should be embedded within the quotation:
According to Rosemary Feal, executive director of the MLA, it was instituted in the early days of the Republic in order "to improve the appearance of the text. A comma or period that follows a closing quotation mark appears to hang off by itself and creates a gap in the line (since the space over the mark combines with the following word space)." I don't doubt Feal, but the appearance argument doesn't carry much heft today; more to the point is that we are simply accustomed to the style.
By all rights I should be a vocal proponent of logical punctuation. English is illogical and inconsistent enough without egregious wrongheadedness like U.S.-style punctuation around quotation marks. U.S.-style punctuation has caused me grief when embedding hyperlinks in this blog, too, because there is no way to reconcile my preference to include the quotation marks but not the comma or period in a hyperlink (see, for instance, the citation of the "Logical Punctuation" article itself, above).

However, I worked hard to absorb the implicit lessons of properly edited texts when I was a kid, and I'm reluctant to throw those lessons away (or, more accurately, I prefer to flaunt them in the face of such widespread ignorance of the rules). Even the proponents of logical punctuation are forced to admit that much of the supposed "adherence" to logical punctuation is happenstance:
... the vast majority of the legion of logical punctuators are not consciously rejecting illogical American style, or consciously imitating the British. Rather, they follow their intuition because they don't know the American rules. They don't know the rules because they don't read enough. Don't read enough edited prose, that is; they read plenty of Facebook posts and IMs that make these same sorts of mistakes.
That last point is underreported and worthy of more serious and in-depth examination. In days past, people were far more likely to read properly edited text than not because most of the available reading material (newspapers and books, for the most part) was edited. Today, we are far more likely to read unedited or badly edited material in the form of email, tweets, IMs, blog entries, etc. Hell, even articles by supposedly professional writers contain grotesque errors that would have been caught by the least competent of editors twenty years ago. Take the howler that found its way into this article about Apple's proposed new campus:
The current Apple campus has some 2,800 employees, with the rest disbursed in rented buildings throughout the city.
[emphasis added]

The article is credited to "Pueng Vongs, Y! SF Editor." That's right: the editor is the one who doesn't know the difference between "disbursed" and "dispersed."

It's tempting to conclude that the barbarians are at the gates, grammatically speaking. The truth, though, is that the gates fell down through neglect decades ago, and we are the barbarians pillaging the language.

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