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.