Punctuation and Me (a ramble of confusion)

Posted June 16, 2013 by Lynn E. O'Connacht in Miscellaneous / 0 Comments

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Thoughts. The text 'rambling thoughts' underneath a burning lantern. For rambles, thoughts, and not-essays.

Because it’s been on my mind a bit, courtesy of some recent discussions on my twitter timeline (or whatsitcalled? I’m still a twitter n00b).

I’m sensitive to punctuation. This is annoying when there are good, reasonable, useful, vital, artistic ways of breaking punctuation rules and people use them. I’m better with some than others. Like, if a question is obviously rhetorical, I will not get tripped up by the removal of a question mark. It’s also annoying because I will happily break the rules myself and I like my own punctuation neat and tidy and broken on purpose.

I break them, though, because punctuation rules – and in particular comma rules – are in flux and they get broken all around us. The rules are changing. We want fewer commas in our relative clauses instead of delineating them neatly. We want fewer commas in our subclauses, like my if-clause in the previous paragraph. Even the comma in my previous sentence is there because of the effect I want it to have instead of because of proper comma usage.

I know these rules are changing because these missing commas trip me up. It’s like walking along a neatly paved road and suddenly breaking my leg because someone covered up a deep pothole where I was walking and didn’t tell me.

Okay, that’s not really how I know the rules are changes. I know because I teach ESL. That means teaching commas. I have to tell kids (not daily, but certainly on a regular basis) that these sentences need more commas. No, you cannot use the punctuation rules of your language. You’re not speaking your language. Now remember to add two commas to this sentence.

And then in the same breath I tell them to read English books. Watch (English) shows or movies with English subtitles. Play English games (ideally with subtitles and ideally something like an adventure or an RPG which makes heavy use of storytelling). And everything I tell them about punctuation becomes moot because what they see isn’t what they’re taught.

This happens more often than with punctuation. Future tense is a good example. Practically there’s so little difference between some they’re pretty much interchangeable, but when you teach ESL that difference is paramount. It’s what they’re learning. It can be what makes or breaks their mark. Another good example can be seen in third person possessives. The rules there are changing too.

I tend to adhere to the ones that goes “If it ends on an S, it gets an apostrophe regardless of whether it’s singular or plural”. (Actually, I probably vary, but if you ask me which I prefer…) It’s quick. It’s easy. People use it. ESL students find it infinitely easier to grasp than the “If it’s plural and ends on an S, it gets an apostrophe. But ONLY if it’s both plural and ending on an S!” they’re actually taught.

And the rule isn’t all that different. But it’s in flux. Language is always in flux, but since standardising grammar (and punctuation) it changes inside a system that relies on them NOT changing. And that’s where prescriptivists and descriptivists clash, and where I get to start doing mental gymnastics to keep my brain from exploding.

I teach languages. I am, by professional necessity, a prescriptivist.
I write. I am, by professional necessity, a prescriptivist.
I write. I am, by professional necessity, NOT a prescriptivist. In fact, you could say that there are times and stories where I’m a linguistic anarchist. Maybe. Here, I’ll show you an excerpt from a rough (and unfinished) draft and you can see whether you feel the term suits or not.

This is a short quote from my MA thesis/story. The narrator, Moira, has… interesting grammar:

Ain’t not no care for what’s out on the streets, your mamma and that where she came from. Where everyone came from, comes down to it. Now hush and what’d I tell you ’bout talking? Back when I was young as young can be, a little older than you, Krista, then I had myself a whole mattress. Didn’t do not a thing against the cold and it was hard as cobbles, but I’d found it and I was myself mighty proud. So’s I sought out warmer spots in winter, trying to lug that mattress after me without nobody knowing it.

Notice how many rules it breaks? Notice how? It breaks all of them, in this fashion, on purpose. (Or at least it breaks most of them on purpose.) You’ll notice it also breaks punctuation rules. I write. I use grammar and punctuation to create a specific feel, a specific voice. I can’t do that if I always rigorously stick to the rulebook. That saying about rules being there to be broken? Is oh so very true in writing, especially in fiction writing. (Look, I just did it again. In non-fiction!) Moira’s voice is a very blatant and obvious example, but it’s usually more subtle. With punctuation, it’s usually rhythm and cadence and there’s a good chance you won’t notice.

Anyway! Point is, as a writer I simultaneously stick to and break the rules of grammar and punctuation as it suits me and the story I’m telling. As a teacher, I do my damnedest to make sure kids at least apply the rules their books tell them to while taking tests. As a reader, I find that sometimes breaking the rules trips me up and sometimes it doesn’t.

And that’s annoying. Getting thrown out of a really, really good story because I’m expecting a comma (remember what a comma looks like; remember how ridiculously TINY it is compared to all the letters around it) when there isn’t one is terrible. Not only am I thrown out of the story, but I get hit (very briefly) by everything I’m poking in this post. Not only that, but it’ll take me a while to get back into the book and I failed to read the book the way the author intended.

That also brings me waaaaay back to the beginning about how the rules are changing. Because, as a reader (or an editor), I’ve got one rulebook in my head and whoever wrote what I’m reading is using another, which I don’t (yet) have a copy of. And it trips me up. It means I have to go back and reread because, now that I know the pothole is there, I can walk around it. I can try to figure out whether something is a feature of the pavement or whether it really is a pothole that needs filling.

It’s an interesting thing. With small things, like punctuation marks, it seems to be easier to delete what we consider superfluous than to add in what we feel is missing. But with bigger things, like whole words, it’s easier to insert what’s missing than to delete what’s superfluous.

If that makes sense. It’s just something that struck me in thinking over the discussion as being my general experience/impression of my experience with the way people interact with text.

And punctuation still trips me up because of the whole pothole OF DOOM thing it’s got going on at times. :p It also makes me a punctuation hypocrit because I keep on missing them in my own writing. I’m sure I still missed some here. But, really, the rules are changing for me too. As a writer, I’m adopting this change and this process fairly easily if the amount of editing I need to do is any indication. As a reader… not so much.

It’s a muddling contrast and now I’m just confused by it. :/ Oh, well! I’ll sort my writer/reader preferences out some other day. Have fun poking my grammar and punctuation in this ramble! I haven’t proofread it. It is bound to be broken and playing with it is totally in the spirit of the post. Virtual cookies are to be had! (But the excerpt I quoted doesn’t count. No cookies for prodding that!)