Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Punctuation--not necessarily a dry subject

It seems lately that I’ve written about writing a lot more than I’ve actually been writing, and here I am doing it again. Nevertheless, whenever I am writing, one aspect of it that I tend to take for granted is punctuation. It’s been so long since I ‘learned the rules’ that I’m sure they must have changed by now, given that the English language is alive and kicking, thank you very much, and thus continues to evolve. And whether the rules have changed or not, my approach is to punctuate so that what I’ve written sounds right to me, Strunk & White be dam— er, notwithstanding.

I do, however, know that there are rules, and that if I’m ging to ignore them I’d best be aware that I’ve done so so that I don’t leave a reader with an unintended reaction. So, when I spotted a daily calendar for this year based on the book Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Tress I picked it up for the office and looked forward to learning about ‘The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.’

It’s been interesting, humourous, and yes, educational (did you know there really is an Apostrophe Protection Society in Britain?). As I tore each page off I found there were some I decided to keep as reminders for myself, and after collecting these for almost half the year I realized you might find some of the observances interesting, humourous or educational too. So here are some of the comments I plan to remember whether I’m writing, or just writing about it.

To begin, on January 12th I read “punctuation marks are the traffic signals of language: they tell us to slow down, notice this, take a detour, and stop.” Nicely put, I thought. On January 22nd I read “Puncutuation directs you how to read, in the way musical notation directs a musician how to play.” I liked that, too. On January 14th I was reminded of the consequences of mispunctuation, particularly in our ‘new’ age of emails, illustrated as: “A Woman, without her man, is nothing.” versus “A woman: without her, man is nothing.” (Worth pause for thought, that one, hmm?)

Then on January 23rd I learned that “the comma was first used by Greek dramatists two thousand years ago to guide actors between breathing points.” I realized that my own approach was a version of the same thing; that wasn’t exactly an ‘aha’ moment, but it was something like it. Later in the month I learned that the initial letter of a sentence was first capitalized in the 13th century but that wasn’t done consistently until the 16th, and that only 200 years or so ago all nouns were also capitalized. Who knew? Obviously not me.

On February 11th I discovered that 17th century printers began to insert “an apostrophe before the “s” in singular possessive cases (“the girl’s dress”) and from then on quite frankly the whole thing has spiralled into madness.” A number of examples were provided throughout the balance of the month that certainly illustrated the “spiral” effect; one in particular involves the “confusion of the possessive “its” (no apostrophe) with the contractive “it’s” (with apostrophe).” We often forget that possessive determiners and pronouns do not have apostrophes. We wouldn’t add an apostrophe to ‘his, her, our, their' or 'hers, mine, yours,' etc., so why do we often treat ‘its’ differently when it’s ‘its’ turn (got that??). Bottom line: if you could say 'it is' or 'it has' then you should use an apostrophe, otherwise not.

On March 2nd I read about the use of the apostrophe in Irish names and that the idea that it’s a contraction of the word “of” is erroneous. It’s actually an anglicisation of “ua”, meaning grandson. March 3rd brought an interesting comparison, and I quote:
One might say that while the full stop is the lumpen male of the punctuation world (do one job at a time; do it well; forget about it instantly), the apostrophe is the frantically multi-talking female, dotting hither and yon, and succumbing to burn-out from all the thankless effort.

(Couldn’t resist sharing that one, or one of the punctuation ‘horror stories’ that followed and brought to mind.... well, see for yourself with this quote from March 12th.)
"Unintentional sense from unmarked possessive:
Dicks in tray (try not to think about it)."

So there I was, only a quarter of the way through the year, and already collecting bits of paper hither and yon, as it were. Two months plus further on and I continue to enjoy the daily tidbits. Even if most of today’s romances are written with shorter sentence structure, I think there’s still room for writing long as long as the punctuation is good. For someone inclined to produce run on sentences without breaking a sweat, it’s definitely a good idea to reinforce the concepts of punctuation overall. And from the examples I've shared above, you have to watch what you're doing with those punctuation marks no matter how short the structure. If you have an appetite for them I’ll share more of my discoveries in future posts, but for now, and as usual, I’ll check in later today, i.e. after work, to see how you’ve ‘talked amongst yourselves’.


Yunaleska said...

Very interesting post! What entertains me is the difference of grammar over here in England, and for you across the pond. We have grammar...but you seem to pay more attention to the rules than we do (which are slightly different to ours).

Captain Hook said...

I know I've mentioned this before, but *raises hand* total nerd here. The people I crit call me the punctuation and grammar Nazi

It fits.

Rabbi Lars Shalom said...

wow very interestinf

Ban said...

oh what fun - thanks !!!

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Great quotes Molli, that sounds like the sort of calendar I'd like. I don't profess to know the rules of grammar flawlessly, and often don't know the terms for things, but at least I know when a sentence looks wrong. Commas are my only bane. I can do comma splices without batting an eye, and dice things up so that only I understand them. One of my profs offered me a good suggestion for commas, but I can't remember it now. Not much help.

A couple sites that may brighten up a grammar nazi's morning:

Apostrophe Catastrophe: a blog showing the worlds' worst. punctuation;

And another favourite, The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks

Helena said...

Molli, earlier this morning before I read your post, I was thinking that it must be time to talk about punctuation again. Really!

I am not immune to making errors myself, but I find it annoying if mistakes in grammar or punctuation slip past copy editors and others who should know better. I find it appalling that so many get the apostrophe thing wrong (including many writers and writers' organisations). So thank you for keeping it in front of us. I know it's *just* the nuts-and-bolts of writing, but without the proper use of same, the wheels fall off.

I'd love to have a calendar like yours. I hope they do it again next year, but I would even settle for 2009 in a remainder sale, just to have the content.

Interesting comment from Yunaleska. I have always thought that Canadian rules were rather closely aligned with British usage (both grammar and punctuation), but in spite of my best effort I suppose the americanisation creeps in.

Thanks, Molli. Really good post.

Karyn Good said...

I need that calendar! Grammar often stumps me and I need all the help I can get.

Great post, Molli.

Janet C. said...

I am a 'run-on' sentence pro! And punctuation drives me nuts!

Great post, Molli. I'll have to look for that calendar next year (if they do a 2010 version). Right now, I have a Zen saying everyday to remind me to breathe, stay in the moment.

For a giggle, check this out (all you apostrophe fanatics). And I forgot the HTML thingy, so you'll have to cut and paste :)


Helena said...

Hayley, the sites you mentioned are hilarious. Good for a belly laugh, often from the comments rather than the original post!

And thanks for inkygirl, Janet. I've been there before but hadn't kept it as one of my 'favorites' as a reminder.

I think we should all pray for really good copy editors for our manuscripts (when we get to that stage).

Jana Richards said...

Hi Molli,
Anything I know about punctuation I learned from my grade 12 English teacher who beat it into our heads. It was rough at the time but I'm grateful to him now.

I'm decent with grammar and punctuation but no expert. Like Hayley, I can usually "feel" when it's wrong. But don't ask me to name what a certain type of grammar or punctuation faux pas is called!


Molli said...

Hi - I'm here for a quick stop on my way between work and a potluck supper for my book club, so I won't reply individually. I will, however, say thanks for the visit (and since the topic is grammar I'll note that I know I split the ?infinitive? above --I can't name the faux pas either, Jana -- but that's how I speak so it's also how I blog--must be the influence of my British ancestors given Yunaleska's comment).

Anyway, I'll look forward to checking out those website references, and hope to have as much fun as Helena.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Molli, I just got back from the city - again - and found my comment frozen on the screen. No wonder it didn't show up on my iPod when I checked your post at the Dentist's office.

Anyway, what it said was:

- I don't like most rules of writing because it impedes the 'voice' and makes us all sound the same. However, I religiously follow the punctuation rules because they make sense. Well, except for the exclamation mark. It should be allowed to be used for emotions like surprise instead of being used to signify the decibel level of a dialogue. Just MHO.

Great post, Molli.