baltimoresun.com

« So you're looking to become a crackpot | Main | On probation »

All power to the pedagogues?

Boomers, relax. The Sixties have not gone away.

Yesterday, commenting on the post “Brace yourself for National Punctuation Day,” a gentleman named Scott Fisher commented:

“Ah, the punctuation Nazis have their own holiday. Please remember that language belongs to the people. It doesn't belong to an elite group of academics that are following arcane rules that were invented around the time of the printing press.

“If I can communicate and get my point across then punctuation is secondary to my message, not primary.”

I tell you, it took me back to my hot-blooded youth as a graduate teaching assistant in Syracuse’s English department, where “What does it matter so long as I get my point across?” was an almost ritual defense of inept freshman composition essays.

But seriously, folks, there is some substance to Mr. Fisher’s comment. For most purposes, casual conversation or text messages or personal e-mail, comprehensible is an adequate standard. I should probably post a note at the top of the blog to remind readers that I’m here to talk about using standard written English for publication, and that your conversation and casual communications lie beyond my writ.

I should also probably post a suggestion that commenters remark on what I said, not on what I didn’t say, because I don’t think that yesterday’s post said, or implied, that punctuation was primary to communication, and I don’t think I know anyone who would assert that. So if you want to argue with me, I’d appreciate your taking issue with a point I actually made.

Before I go, I’d like to make one more effort to sink a dagger into the heart of “It doesn’t matter so long as I get my meaning across.” I think that even Mr. Fisher would agree that there are times when absolute clarity and precision are paramount, for example, if he were composing a ransom note.

Beyond that, suggesting that nothing matters beyond raw meaning is like saying that so long as your person is covered, it doesn’t matter what clothing you wear. Try wearing a loincloth to your job interview. Communication, like etiquette, involves complex social conventions, and flouting them can come at a cost. The conventions of punctuation in formal written English have developed over generations of use, and of use by the people, the collective body of writers and editors and teachers. To say that those conventions were invented and are enforced by “an elite group of academics” gives us broken-down instructors more credit than circumstances bear out.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:03 AM | | Comments (13)
        

Comments

The fact is, punctuation is usually (not always, utterly, essentially) as much a part of "getting the point across" as the rest of the black bugs one puts on the page. To wit, removing, or changing, the punctuation in this post would change the point of what I'm saying here, (as would my spelling in sum cases--for those who think it ain't that important) wooden it?

The fact is, punctuation is usually (not always, utterly, essentially) as much a part of "getting the point across" as the rest of the black bugs one puts on the page. To wit, removing, or changing, the punctuation in this post would change the point of what I'm saying here, wooden it?

Punctuation is primarily a cohesive device. The function of cohesive devices is to facilitate the reader's getting your message. YOUR message, not the one he might get if all he had as an unpunctuated, conjunction- and capital-letter-less string of words. Using the 'wrong' punctuation can be like using "but" when you mean "thus".

My vocation as an attorney may provide a similar, though not entirely analogous, instance of Mr. Fisher's thinking. Some like to remind us that the law doesn't belong to an elite group of lawyers, but to the people. "And it doesn’t matter so long as I get my complaint heard." Though the elimination of all lawyers might seem too good to be true, it only takes a moment of observation of most in pro per litigants (those who forgo professional legal counsel) to understand the importance and value of a properly-trained lawyer. This isn't to say that one cannot possibly survive without a lawyer. But the law also involves complex conventions, and flouting them can come at a great cost. Thus the quip, "He who represents himself has a fool for a client."

So, punctuation is like a lawyer?

What's black and brown and looks good on punctuation? A Doberman.

Nope. Not alike at all.

Hmm, bit of an error in punctuation there, Andrew. It should be "in pro. per.", short for in propria persona 'in one's own person'.

If I didn't punctuate correctly in the documents I wrote for my company, I would get two points across:

- my company is not competent
- I am not deserving of my wage

@Bucky: Perhaps I was unclear. I was comparing punctuation with the law (not with lawyers), and the "punctuation Nazis" in Mr. Fisher's comment to lawyers. Sure, one can manage a lawsuit or punctuation on his own. But sometimes a trained lawyer or editor can make a huge difference. As I said, similar, but not entirely analogous.

@John Cowan: There was no error. I'm aware of the full Latin name. And both options are acceptable. Searching through Westlaw, I've just found numerous examples of both being used, as well as the more common pro se. Take a look through Black's Law Dictionary (which, by the way, is edited by usage guru Bryan Garner). Or just do a Google search and find things like the following:

http://www.courtinfo.ca.gov/programs/equalaccess/documents/blankn.o.m.6months.pdf

http://www.accesskent.com/CourtsAndLawEnforcement/FriendoftheCourt/pdfs/InProPerSupport.pdf

I wish your blog had a print function (other than CTRL+P and printing the entire page). This one is going on my cubicle wall!

"Suggesting that nothing matters beyond raw meaning is like saying that so long as your person is covered, it doesn’t matter what clothing you wear. Try wearing a loincloth to your job interview. Communication, like etiquette, involves complex social conventions, and flouting them can come at a cost. "

Elegantly put! I think I will post it to my office door.

Another connection between punctuation and lawyers, unmentioned by Mr. DeLoach, is that contract cases involving millions can hang entirely on punctuation. In that situation, precision becomes very much primary.

My answer to the stock 'What does it matter...?' defence is always 'Not at all. But when it stops you from getting your point across or gets across an entirely different point from the one you intended, it matters a whole lot.' Doubt it ever convinced anyone, but it always makes me feel better....

Americans of all ages are so badly dressed now that a loincloth might be an improvement.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
Baltimore Sun Facebook page
-- ADVERTISEMENT --

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected