Who Cares About Punctuation?

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Yesterday My 6-year-old granddaughter said something to me with air quotes.  The first two small  fingers on each of two small hands bobbed twice.  I laughed, and she repeated it.  I said, “And what does  (air quotes)“this“   mean?”  She said, “It means I have to say (air quotes) “this” two times.”

Today I received this fw e-mail from a fellow writer:

Subject: Proper Grammar
Those of us who fall into the world of hi-tech should take note of the importance of correct grammar.
You may have noticed that many who text messages & email, have forgotten the “art” of capitalization.
Capitalization is the difference between helping your Uncle Jack off a horse and helping your uncle jack off a horse.

You are welcome.  I know you appreciate this reminder.

punctuation Punctuation funnies fairly falling from on high must be a sign.  Time for us to liven things up with a little punctuation excitation.  Have I told you the one about the writer who recently turned in 10 pages of changes after the copy editor had removed most (not all, oddly enough) of the commas between independent clauses in compound sentences?  That would be me.  The line editor agreed, and they all went back in.  I cannot sit idly by and watch the compound sentence comma go the way of comma before and in a series, aka, the Oxford comma.  These little buggers serve a purpose greater than torturing middle school students in English class.  They help us make sense.

Former Penguin editor Lynn Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves (great title, huh?) is all about the power of the lowly comma.  One of her example is the famous telegram: “Not getting any better. Come at once” which became “Not getting any. Better come at once.”  It’s a funny book, not a grammar text, but Truss is concerned about the effect the transition to electronic media is having on good writing.  In an interview she told Reuters:  “If people have been taught that it is not important to use punctuation then it is really the death of prose and poetry.”

Do you believe that?  Remember, punctuation came into use with the printing press.  Medieval scribes ran everything together.  They threw in a space between lines here and there.  The manuscripts were beautifully illuminated, but they weren’t punctuated.  But who cared?  Nobody could read back then.  Those manuscripts weren’t for reading.  They were for storing.

And what about those quotation marks?  While the comma is getting kicked to the curb, quotation marks are everywhere.  When in doubt, sketch them in the air.  I Googled misused quotation marks and I found a whole gallery on About.com:

My mother sent my husband and me a Valentine’s Day card. Printed on the front was:
To a special daughter and son. I’m sure my husband really felt like one of the family after that.

–A sign at the swimming pool at Reed College in Portland, OR asks you to:
Please shower before entering the pool.

--I was driving in northern Minnesota when I saw a billboard for a car dealership that claimed it had been around:
since1953
Perhaps all of their cars were “classics.”

What are some of your pet punctuation peeves?  Do you have any concerns about the effect of electronic media on our writing?  Are English teachers fighting a losing battle, or do we still have allies like my father, who never let a grammatical error slip past him?

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About Kathleen Eagle

Kathleen Eagle is the award-winning, New York Times best-selling author of over forty novels.
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22 Responses to Who Cares About Punctuation?

  1. Deb says:

    I am a slow text messager because I can’t stand to leave out punctuation marks.

    Several years ago, I would show a movie in my classroom called PUNCTUATION WIZARD and it told the story of a king’s poor grammar and poor punctuation habits until the PW saved the kingdom from punctuation ruin. Too bad it’s not available any longer.

    I think grammar has gone downhill with technology. Kids no longer bother with punctuation, capitalization, and basic grammar.

  2. I don’t use text messaging. The few times I’ve had to do it, it took me forever. It was such a struggle, I had to delete and revise more than once. It seemed like such a betrayal of my friend, the sentence.

  3. OMG, there was an LOL (those are the only 2 I know) article in yesterday’s paper. A Catholic priest came up with an iPod app for confession. No kidding. You do have to stop in and get a personal absolution, but what a convenience!

  4. Liz Selvig says:

    Hey Kathleen,
    Absolutely loved this post. I am such an annoying grammar ninja–my crit partners basically grin and bear me. (I almost put quotes around that phrase but just couldn’t bring myself to do it.) I love Lynn Truss’s book. Another fun one is “Woe Is I,” although that is more of an actual grammar book.

    One of my big pet peeves is the over-use of exclamation marks. Nobody seems to realize what a strong piece of punctuation one of those little puppies is. Hi! I’m great! Guess what?!!! And I know this because I have been terribly guilty of their overuse! I’m on an exclamation point diet, and it’s mostly working, but now I see them everywhere.

    Thanks for this reminder that grammar isn’t the police baton of fuddy duddies everywhere. Remember the classic t-shirt saying: “Come and eat, Grandma.” vs. “Come and eat Grandma.”

    • And “Call me Ishmael” vs “Call me, Ishmael.”

      Exclamation point overload is a biggie for me, too. Half a dozen per book, max, and that many would be unusual for me. But more than one at the end of a sentence? Okay in a very casual context, but only among friends. Kind of like wearing pajamas.

  5. Helen Brenna says:

    LOL, I love it. I don’t even know how to punctuate in my texts!! Makes for some funny comments.

    Language changes. I guess punctuation has to change with it.

    I’m doing a Friday happy dance over here. Just turned in this last book with the crazy tight deadline! It was only due on 12/31. No problem, right? Whew!

  6. leannebanks says:

    GREAT blog Kathleen! I hate your for you’re. Not grammar, but I also object to bare for bear. BIG difference in meaning! xo, Leanne

    • Along those lines, I’m a stickler for a lot and all right being written as 2 words, but admit that the smush-togethers will eventually take over. But not yet. Two words still preferred.

  7. Kylie Brant says:

    Kathleen, I saw the same article on the app! And of course being Catholic it made me feel guilty. I liberally sprinkle commas in my sentences to show pauses. Copy editor liberally takes them out 🙂 My pet peeve, though, are deliberate misspellings. Any wonder that children think quick is spelled Kwik and ready is Red-E? Drives me nuts!

    • I’m not Catholic, so I get to laugh at that one. I remember my high school boyfriend stopping off at the church for confession before a date. I assured him that no matter what he told the priest, he was taking me home after the movie, so if he’d paid for an Indulgence, he’d wasted his money.

  8. Terry Odell says:

    My agent just popped back my proposal with her suggestions before sending it to the editor. Almost all ere commas — she uses fewer. But they were of the ‘optional’ variety, and I wasn’t going to fuss. My previous agent told me that it was no longer “required” to use the comma before “too” so I took them all out. My editor put them all back in.

    I’m fairly picky about grammar — but not rigid. I’m the Fragment Queen when I think it works for the story.

    I hate texting, mostly because I can’t hit the right keys on the touch screen. And I hate auto fill and abbreviations, which means it takes me even longer to send a message. I figure I send 3 a month.

    Terry
    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

  9. Years ago I would never use a fragment in the narrative. Now I do it all the time, but I think it has to be done judiciously. I’m seeing some really choppy narrative these days, and it can make you go back and reread to get the sense of the text. That’s not good. The viewpoint character’s voice is all-important, and those fragments are part of the voice.

  10. My editor’s comment on the comma deal was, “Commas are the bane of everyone’s existence these days.” She was an English major, too, to she’s on my side.

  11. Laney4 says:

    I can SO relate to this blog post. I was given EATS, SHOOTS & LEAVES and appreciated all of the examples given. (I was bored out of my skull with the history of punctuation, though.)

    I type for a living so end up editing as well. I too am amazed at how “your” and “you’re” are written incorrectly and am especially annoyed when I read “your welcome”. Equally annoying is when people use “it’s” instead of “its”. Hello? Does the sentence make sense if you change the “it’s” to “it is”? No! So don’t use it! Whew. Glad I got THAT off my chest.

    I overuse exclamation points, I’m afraid. I’ll try to keep an eye on that, thank you very much. I also believe in using that final comma in a list of objects, as oftentimes the sentence doesn’t make sense without it (or you spend ages reading and re-reading the sentence to try to make sense out of it). If commas are used within those lists, then semi-colons are the way to go. Where did all the semi-colons go during the last 20+ years?

    My kids are 23 and 25. They were honour students, but can they put a sentence together properly? No. Can they spell every word correctly in the sentence/paragraph? No. Do they care? No. It is this last point that upsets me the most. When my daughter’s resume needs updating (when she often applies for other positions at the same place of employment), she brings it to me. Hopefully I’ll always be around to do this for her…. (Please forgive my lack of accent aigus for the British spelling of “resume”. Symbols are not readily acceptable in blogs and when you paste them in, they look really strange at times….)

    Thanks again for providing a lovely forum for us to vent. I am enjoying your responses.

    • My pleasure, Laney. I think publishers are killing the semicolon. They think it interrupts the flow. It’s never been a heavily used key on the typewriter, but it has its uses. (There. It’s and its in one sentence.)

      Hopefully is another commonly misused word. Yep, Laney, you did it, but I struggle with it, too. Hopefully is an adverb, so you stop and think: what is hopefully describing here. What you mean is that you are hopeful. Again, the incorrect usage has become so common that almost no one notices. I didn’t notice until another English teacher pointed it out in a talk at some gathering of English teachers. Once it’s pointed out, it jumps out at you forever after. And when it does, you’ll think of me. Kindly, I hope.

      • Laney4 says:

        Thanks, Kathleen! I had no idea re “hopefully”. I AM glad you pointed it out to me. I was 31 when my sister pointed out to me that “alot” was still two words. Oops! I haven’t forgotten since then, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it became one word.

  12. By the way, I know that every time I get on my high horse about grammar, spelling, or punctuation, I’m setting myself up for yet another embarrassing fall in front of God and everyone.

  13. GunDiva says:

    Oh, I love you! (Look, comma and exclamation point.)

    I’m pretty sure I have a flat spot on my forehead from slamming it repeatedly on my desk while grading papers. Technology is going to be the death of the basic sentence; heck, I can’t understand my children’s friends’ texts – there are no actual words in texting anymore! (Oops, punctuation overload there.)

    Thanks for posting this. I always feel like I’m alone in my annoyance at losing basic English/grammar skills.

  14. You are not alone, Diva. Good Grammar Gramma and her posse of writers (some with flat foreheads) have your back.

  15. Just have to say that Eloisa James’ late mother, who taught at the same school I do once long ago, used to hand out pencils that had something like “Remember that ‘a lot’ is two words” on them. Wish I still had one.

  16. Terrific idea! I’m getting some pencils printed for the grandchildren. Thanks, Nancy.

    Carol Bly was a wonderful writer. I met her back in the mid-80’s at another one of those English teacher conferences. She was one of our speakers, and I was sort of hosting. I was president of the ND English Council. Love those conferences–you meet such interesting people.

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