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The Eternal Appeal of Punctuation
December 19, 2003 3:37 AM   Subscribe

Punk-Tuation: Is It The New Anarchy Or Boring Old Fascism All Over Again? How anal serious about apostrophes are you? Just how far would you go for a perfect semi-colon? Do you regularly reach for heart pills before you read MetaFilter? Take comfort in this: Lynne Trusse's wildly popular Eats Shoots And Leaves is this year's surprise bestseller in Britain. And I've limited myself to the MeFi-adored Guardian, just to make my (as it were) point. So... how important is punctuation to you? My own suspicion is that punctuation is the new spelling. It is important. (And, lest this seem carefree and frivolous, let me confess right away that MetaFilter may well be the worst offender, in this regard, ever to have blessedly existed.)
posted by MiguelCardoso (36 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
punctuation is not important for i totally don't care man these fries are good ;)
posted by attackthetaxi at 4:16 AM on December 19, 2003


Three headlines:

Top Scots doctor charged with murder
Top Scot's doctor charged with murder
Top Scots' doctor charged with murder

Three largely different meanings, all resting on a smudge of curly ink.
Punctuation. Kicks. Ass.
posted by bonaldi at 4:29 AM on December 19, 2003


You mean to tell me you actually use commas in English? =)

In Denmark, the rules of correct commaplacing has been debated nationwide (I jest not) for several years. The rigorous "grammatical comma" placed to delimit clauses in a sentence has been the standard for as long as anybody can remember, but the national committee on language has tried to replace the old alternative; the "pause comma" (which, btw, never was a real alternative as anybody would think the writer just wasn't able to place commas properly), with the "new comma", ostensibly derived from English. The "new comma" was to be the default and the "grammatical comma" was to be withdrawn.

The exact opposite, of course, happened and the national committee has not only stopped their recomendation that everybody should use the new comma instead of the old, they've retired the new comma completely, exchanging it instead with a hybrid comma that uses some of the old rules and some of the new. Admittedly, the hybrid comma makes for less comma-cluttered sentences, but IMHO the problem isn't really the comma rules, but how people construct their sentences: If they make overly complex sentences there will be clusters of grammatical commas, but this should be seen as a warning-sign that the sentence is too complex and not as legible as it could be.
posted by cx at 4:40 AM on December 19, 2003


Despite being a raving fan of punctuation I have pretty poor comma placement habits, though I'm trying to improve. The apostrophe, however, has special importance to me as a part of my name and its misuse rankles more than just about any other punctuation-related error I can think of.

Punctuation, I believe, is the new spelling: poorly taught, ignored, abused, and incorrectly practiced by many if not most people.
posted by majick at 6:11 AM on December 19, 2003


let me confess right away that MetaFilter may well be the worst offender, in this regard, ever to have blessedly existed

If you truly believe that, you must not get out on the rest of the web much. Go read a typical gaming or political forum and come back. Even the perpetually-pompous Miguel should be able to tell a difference.
posted by Ynoxas at 6:17 AM on December 19, 2003


Majick: spot-on. We see people coming from school's, who generally think apostrophe's come before s's and, comma's go where, you'd pause. So the short-of-breath, are buggered, then.
posted by bonaldi at 6:39 AM on December 19, 2003


Not wanting to be a pedant but unfortunately Miguel, you wrongly punctuated the book title: it is not "Eats Shoots and Leaves" but "Eats, Shoots and Leaves".
This is the crucial point.
posted by ruelle at 6:43 AM on December 19, 2003


I have heard arguments from a number of people (not here, of course) holding that spelling and punctuation are not important. And of course it depends on the context; I don't expect everything in an IM conversation to be perfectly spelled or punctuated, for example.

The net effect of seeing errors in spelling and punctuation (especially the accursed apostrophes) is that the reader assumes the offender is stupid. For that reason, it is important.
posted by norm at 6:57 AM on December 19, 2003


I think it's important; often this is a source of dissapointment for me. The Internet, particularly email and AIM, are destroying the concepts of grammar and punctuation. I don't think a lot of my peers these days realize how important grammar and punctuation is, and how in the real world it can dramatically affect others' view of your level of intelligence. My father works on Wall Street, and actually knows a supervisor or two who've been known to correct laughable resumes with a red pen and send them back.

Thus, I make it a point to always use proper grammar, capitalization and punctuation online, especially over AIM. I'll be caught dead before I'm caught using "u" or "2", or mistaking the difference between "their", "there" and "they're".
posted by tomorama at 7:00 AM on December 19, 2003


Grammar and punctuation is? How it can can affect?
posted by emelenjr at 7:13 AM on December 19, 2003


asdofhawjienrfjkawen can
posted by emelenjr at 7:14 AM on December 19, 2003


Even the perpetually-pompous Miguel should be able to tell a difference.

Grocers' plurals (or grocer's plurals; I think either one can be defended) notwithstanding, I believe that hyphens are abused more frequently than apostrophes. This abuse must stop. Hyphens are wonderful creatures, but they prefer to be reserved for the places where they truly belong. They do not belong between "perpetually" and "pompous."

Punctuation. Kicks. Ass.

Then learn to use it properly, please. Turning a perfectly good sentence into three one-word sentence fragments is not an appropriate way to indicate emphasis. If your words aren't emphatic enough without resorting to typographical shenanigans, then you should find new words.

The punctuation rules that most need revisiting are those that deal with the placement of other punctuation marks in relation to quotation marks. I believe that the time has come to start placing periods and commas outside the quotation marks in many cases.
posted by anapestic at 7:15 AM on December 19, 2003


tomorama -- I'm with you, and make the same efforts. That said, every now and then a typo can slip into a chat message. Personally, I usually follow it up as soon as I see it with the corrected version (eg, if I accidently type "at teh store" my next line is simply "'the'").

"Punctuation is the new spelling" -- heh. Apostrophes indicate contraction or possession; they do not mean "here comes an s!"
posted by nickmark at 7:32 AM on December 19, 2003


HAIL MS. STEIN
posted by clavdivs at 7:37 AM on December 19, 2003


Hmm. My version of the panda joke has the panda visiting a prostitute. And no gun is required, if you catch my meaning...
posted by salmacis at 7:40 AM on December 19, 2003


Anapestic, you're a twit. My job entails, to a largish extent, ensuring the correct use of punctuation. I am entirely aware of the correct use of punctuation marks.

Nonetheless, there is a place for typographical exuberance, and that was it. Just as there is a place for the twisting of grammatical conceits and the bending of most constraints imposed on creativity. Know the rules, then break 'em. Joyce's Ulysses strides straight through a great number of the rules you cherish so dearly, for instance, and I'm convinced it is greater literature than anything you'll ever produce, although yours will undoubtedly adhere precisely to current grammatical wisdom.

In shorter: Go on then, indicate stilted talking - as if I had left a three-second pause between words - without using periods.

In shortest: deal.
posted by bonaldi at 8:07 AM on December 19, 2003


Grocer's plurals are not all wrong (or at least they didn't use to be). It was typographic convention to apostrophise pluralising esses at the end of words with a vowel at the end - hence "Banana's 50p/Kg" is historically correct.
posted by couch at 8:16 AM on December 19, 2003


I may be a twit, but at least I don't think I'm James Joyce. Anyway, the "typographical exuberance" of putting periods between words has been so overused on the Internet that Mr. Joyce wouldn't have stooped to such triteness.

I'd pretend to be sorry that your inability to handle criticism makes you so angry, but we'd both know that I was lying.
posted by anapestic at 8:23 AM on December 19, 2003


Anapestic speaks the truth. It's time to trash some of the prescribed rules for quotation marks and periods. At the end of a sentence, the period (or exclamation/question mark) should fall outside the quotation marks unless said marks contain a complete sentence. How Things Ought to Be:

After watching Matrix: Reloaded, Mathowie exclaimed, "I want a goddamned refund."

After watching Matrix: Reloaded, Mathowie said he wanted a "goddamned refund".
posted by Succa at 8:29 AM on December 19, 2003


Deja Vu
posted by clavdivs at 8:35 AM on December 19, 2003


At the end of a sentence, the period (or exclamation/question mark) should fall outside the quotation marks unless said marks contain a complete sentence. How Things Ought to Be:

I concur entirely with respect to periods. I believe, however, that the existing rules with respect to exclamation/question marks already accomplish what we need to accomplish. You place the exclamation/question mark inside the quotation marks if the exclamation or question is a part of the quote and outside if it's not.

Does Succa really think that "it's time to trash some of the prescribed rules"?

After watching Matrix: Reloaded, Mathowie exclaimed, "I want a goddamned refund!"
posted by anapestic at 8:37 AM on December 19, 2003


I knew I'd get accused of comparing myself to Joyce. I'm not. There's nothing in saying "person X does something, therefore person Y is wrong to blanket criticise it" that means the speaker is automatically saying "therefore I'm as good as person X". It's only used when reporters want to hang a pompous or unliked interviewee, or people have no response to the actual argument. Just as anapestic doesn't.

However, anapestic is right about the quote-mark punctuation. Succa's example is actually How Things Are, in the UK at least.
posted by bonaldi at 8:37 AM on December 19, 2003


Is there a difference between the rule for periods and the rule for exclamation/question marks? I had no idea. And it was my impression that in North America, the rule favours the less intuitive period placement:

After watching Matrix: Reloaded, Mathowie said he wanted a "goddamned refund."
posted by Succa at 8:41 AM on December 19, 2003


We've done punctuation.
We've done apostrophes.
We've done "all thing's grammatical..." ("hyphens, apostrophes and split infinitives are all covered, along side many and various spellings, rules and regulations").

But of course we haven't done them with Miguel's inimitable style, so by all means let's use the excuse of this latest in an infinite series of clever books on proper punctuation and/or grammar to do them all over again.

And since we're doing them: standardized punctuation is useful; it is not a sign of intelligence, culture, or your own superiority. If you're claiming it as such:

I think it's important; often this is a source of dissapointment for me. ["this is often" is better; sp. "disappointment"] The Internet, particularly email [Webster's has "e-mail"] and AIM, are [s/b "is"] destroying the concepts of grammar and punctuation. I don't think a lot of my peers these days realize how important grammar and punctuation is [s/b "are"], and how in the real world it [s/b "they"] can dramatically affect others' view of your level of intelligence ["others' view" is extremely awkward; do they all have one view of you?].

Don't worry, I don't hold any of that against you... but you should, according to you. So you're going to have to decide either to lighten up on other people or hold yourself to a stricter standard.

And all of you who want to revise "the placement of other punctuation marks in relation to quotation marks": go join the spelling reformers and flat-earthers in the far corner and discuss among yourselves. In the real world, punctuation rules are fixed by those who deal with them professionally (formerly printers and typesetters, now mainly editors) and are not going to be altered because of your theories of logic. In the UK, periods and commas go outside quotes, in the US inside; I suggest you get used to that and save your energies for more important fights.
posted by languagehat at 8:47 AM on December 19, 2003


It's only used when reporters want to hang a pompous or unliked interviewee, or people have no response to the actual argument. Just as anapestic doesn't.

You called me a twit. I think I had an appropriate response to that "argument."

As for your point about typographical exuberance, I would remind you that you are not, in fact, talking when you're on here. You're writing. Speech and writing are different forms of communication. There is no reason that you should need to indicate a pause between words when you're writing. If you were writing dialogue, then you might get away with it, though ellipses would perhaps be more appropriate.

In any case, the "X. Y. Z." construction has been so overused on the Internet generally and on MetaFilter in particular that it has long since ceased to be clever. You can't really claim to be exploring new ground with it.
posted by anapestic at 8:49 AM on December 19, 2003


I didn't claim to be exploring new ground with it. I certainly didn't think I was using it to be clever. You said that I was using the rules of punctuation incorrectly, and I pointed out that:
a) It wasn't breaking the rules;
b) there are good grounds for breaking said rules in any case;
c) punctuation can be useful in conveying speech as text.

There may be no need to indicate a pause when you're writing, but there certainly is when you're trying to have a conversation, as the "weblog as conversation" suggests. Posts here are the textual equivalent of a dialogue, and posts here may as well be prefaced by open and close quote marks.

The X.Y.Z. convention has been overused, but that still doesn't make it an incorrect use of punctuation. It may in fact show the power of the period. You still haven't explained why it is erroneous.

languagehat: quote marks don't go outside in the UK. They go pretty much as Succa wants them to. If the quote is a fragment, they go outside; if it's a complete sentence, they go inside. Question and exclamation marks go with the part of the sentence asking the question or exclaiming, respectively.
posted by bonaldi at 9:07 AM on December 19, 2003


So... how important is punctuation to you?

Not important enough to Miguel, apparently, to put the proper spacing around his ellipsis.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 9:12 AM on December 19, 2003


Or his aposiopesis even.
posted by bonaldi at 9:16 AM on December 19, 2003


Top marks to all those who caught out my deliberate mistakes!

*lung-expelling cough*
posted by MiguelCardoso at 9:17 AM on December 19, 2003


whatever. i still refuse to capitalize.
posted by joedan at 9:31 AM on December 19, 2003


Top marks to all those who caught out my deliberate mistakes!

I am amused.
posted by norm at 9:40 AM on December 19, 2003


As for your point about typographical exuberance, I would remind you that you are not, in fact, talking when you're on here. You're writing. Speech and writing are different forms of communication. There is no reason that you should need to indicate a pause between words when you're writing.

So you're all for ditching the mighty comma, then? That is, after all, what it's for - indicating a pause, as in speech.

I just want to say that I like bonaldi's use of the X. Y. Z. convention, and I agree it is a legitimate way of expressing something not easily conveyed otherwise.

And I would link to Bob the Angry Flower on apostrophes, but alas, his site is down. Apostrophe faults cause me severe mental anguish, and I deduct points for them on #mefi when I see them.
posted by beth at 9:57 AM on December 19, 2003


Note that the book's title's omission of the comma after "shoots" marks it as specific to British English - all American style guides (except some for journalists) dictate the use of the serial comma.
posted by nicwolff at 11:46 AM on December 19, 2003


I know, it's too bad about that punctuation goes inside the quotation marks thing. Aside from that, I'm a punctuation lover. Especially the semicolon. Spelling mistakes bug me, but I make 'em sometimes. Deliberately using "cuz" instead of "because" is an affectation of which I am occasionally guilty, but for some reason, using "2" in place of "to" drives me up a wall.

Our language habits can be as inscrutable as our food preferences...but it is indisputable that punctuation is more indispensable to good writing than most of our teachers have led us to believe, being as inextricably linked with the thinking behind the writing as it is.

I'm going to have to remember to tell the panda joke a few times this weekend. Being an older guy and a family man, it will probably be the version that takes place in a bar instead of a bordello.
posted by kozad at 12:56 PM on December 19, 2003


So you're all for ditching the mighty comma, then? That is, after all, what it's for - indicating a pause, as in speech.

No, the comma has specific grammatical functions: setting off clauses, separating items in a list, and so on. Your grammar-school teacher told you "put a comma where you'd pause" because when speaking, you pause to set off clauses, separate items in a list, etc. But the comma does not represent a pause, it performs the same function as a pause.
posted by kindall at 1:31 PM on December 19, 2003


I'm surprised nobody has linked to this cartoon yet...
posted by spazzm at 2:40 AM on December 20, 2003


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