24 December 2005

Eats, Shoots & Leaves

My most excellent friends Jan and Shaw got me a book for Christmas called Eats, Shoots & Leaves, which (despite having received it only a couple of days ago and being very busy with holiday travel and family revelry) I've almost finished. It's a page-turner, believe it or not, and the reason you might (if you’ve heard of it) be skeptical is that it's a book about punctuation. Nothing but punctuation. History of punctuation, proper usage, suggested vigilante actions against those who use semicolons ignorantly—you know, stuff like that. Its tagline is, "Sticklers unite!" and the agenda of the author, a self-important Brit journalist called Lynne Truss, is nothing less than to organize guerilla legions armed with magic markers ready to deface movie posters for films like Two Weeks Notice and supermarket signs advertising "Banana's On Sale" and add or remove apostrophes as necessary. What an insufferable snob. I love this woman. She's a hoot.

Now, you may rightly object that I have absolutely no business advocating punctuation sticklerhood. I write a blog; my blogging software includes no grammar checker; and I am far, far from infallible. But I just want to confess that I do think these things are important, that I do try to get them right. The many errors I make stem from carelessness, ignorance, or deliberate choice, but neither the carelessness nor the ignorance is itself a matter of deliberate choice or apathy--like I said, I do think clear communication is important, and I (usually) try to get things right, for the sake of understanding on the part of the folks I'm trying to communicate with. If you're going to bother to write anything, what on earth could be more important than that? So even when I'm instant messaging, I (usually) go out of my way to remember that IM is still a written, not an oral, medium, and therefore things like capital letters, spaces, and punctuation (used correctly) are still very helpful in conveying meaning. In a blog, even moreso.

I do sometimes make deliberate errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation; and when I do that, it's for the same reason that I occasionally use profanity in my writing: I want you to notice it. I do that sort of thing for emphasis sometimes, or to adopt a particular voice, intending to enhance communication--but I don't doubt that they sometimes have the opposite effect, like when I set up a whole bunch of different e-mail addresses intending to make it easy for different people to communicate with me and was dismayed to find this only confused folks who wanted to know what my real address was.

But I do care about punctuation, and therefore I should probably come clean (for those who have, rather surprisingly, read this far) about some of my beliefs and practices in this regard.
  • In general, I try conform to U.S. standards regarding punctuation and grammar, since that's where I live. There are, however, some exceptions.
  • Just as the Brits, and other Europeans, get many other things right where we Americans get them wrong, they're inarguably correct about the placement of terminating punctuation outside of closing quotation marks. The American rule says that terminating punctuation is always placed inside closing quotes, even if the punctuation isn't part of the quotation. The British rule says: if it's part of the quote, it belongs inside the close quote mark; if it's not part of the quote, it belongs outside. The Brits are right. We Americans are wrong. Therefore, I follow the British rule. I honestly don't know how any computer programmer couldn't be mortally offended by the misguided U.S. rule. If you tried to write code like that, it wouldn't compile. This rule, and the awful habits that are created by its teaching in American public schools, probably singlehandedly explains the offshore outsourcing of so many U.S. tech jobs to India and other places where they're taught sensible language practices.
  • Incidentally, other things the Brits get right include measurement (the Metric system), date formats (2005 December 24 or 24 December 2005 but never December 24, 2005--what sort of logic does month-day-year have??), and time formats (24-hour; no silly AM/PM).
  • Back to punctuation: you might have noticed that I have way to much fondness for colons, semicolons, dashes, and (especially) parentheses. This probably explains why I liked this book so much. It probably also indicates that I'm a pretentious git. But that's the way I write. I take comfort in knowing several published writers (my Emerging Church friends will recall a certain Brian) who have similarly pretentious--though probably less extreme--styles and still seem to get books published and read. So maybe there's hope for me; if I ever really published anything, at least I'd probably have the moderating influence of an editor to tone me down.
So, on Christmas Eve, I'm blogging about punctuation. Every other day of the year, I blog about faith, and on the eve of our Savior's birth, I blog about printers' conventions. Oh well, this is what was banging on the inside of my skull this morning. This evening I'll go to church and will be in a different frame of mind. Merry Christmas, everybody!!

By the way, you can read the joke that explains the book's title here (third paragraph). Puncuation. Funny. Important. Who knew?


Jayce from Rochester said...

Just one thing: when you say, "time formats (24-hour; no silly AM/PM)" I think you mean "time formats (24-hour: no silly AM/PM)".

P.S. Can I borrow that book when you're done? ;-)

P.P.S. You might want to start using the em-dash entity (—) which gets translated to "—" instead of "--". My preference is for a space before and after — I think I started doing that when I was working as a technical writer and remember reading advice of that sort but not a specific rule.

P.P.P.S. Merry Christmas!

MsJess said...

Gosh, and I thought I was a weirdo with grammar. Last night, Matt said I was talking in my sleep and said, "It's an infinitive verb at the end of the sentence." When asked what I was talking about, the sleeping me said, "Ask your sister." Matt doesn't have a sister.

Mike said...

I love commas, dashes, semicolons, and all manner of devices which make sentences longer, stronger, more interesting, and more confusing, and which add to the richness of communication.

Here's to punctuation marks, and to the people who use them, along with their readers, friends, and listeners. They are wonderful tools; let's use them.