Monday, October 27, 2014

Punctuation -- telling tales out of school

Lately, several friends have taken up punctuation-shaming via Facebook, Twitter, and blogs. Most specifically, they're comma-shaming -- pointing an unforgiving finger at the wanton orgy some of us share with the comma. I'd characterize their tone as experiment-averse and downright scolding -- preaching a single path to righteousness by resurrecting the middle school horrors of subjunctive and subordinate clauses.

Because really, when it comes to punctuation, who hasn't done the naughty, and done it more times than they'd perhaps care to admit. And sometimes naughty proves to be ever so nice, in the moment. So I wanted to weigh in, share some personal experiences.

Starting in high school, the comma and I indulged in an on-again, off-again promiscuous relationship. And still do, if it's late at night and we're a shot or two to the better or worse. We're not proud of this, nor about waking up the next morning to face the damage -- remembering what it was we said and didn't mean, meant and never said, boundaries crossed and laws broken. We part, embarrassed, refusing to look each other in the eye.

"Thanks for an interesting evening," says comma. "I'll see ya."

"Not if I see you first," sez I. "But don't lose my number."

You'd think my steady might be upset. But you'd think wrong. Let me tell you about the em dash, my em dash, the ever-forgiving em dash. I'm a fan -- no, the groupie -- of the em dash. The dashing em dash with his sly smile, white t-shirt, ripped jeans. A pack of Marlboros rolled up his sleeve.

The em dash knows a thing or two about straying from the straight and narrow, and always takes me back, once he gets home after sleeping with my girlfriends.

Charismatic, enigmatic, often sweet -- that's my bad boy. He can make sense out of nonsense, and charm most anyone except the semicolon. The semicolon looks down his patrician nose at the em dash, but the semicolon looks down on everyone; just another reason why he can't seem to get a date on Saturday night. Even with the promise of high class champagne, no one feels comfortable popping that cork.

When em dash and I again cozy up together, and I feel in a confessional mood, em dash just rolls a spliff and grins. "You're over thinking this," he says. "You want to strut your stuff with the comma now and again, I don't mind sharing. Be wild and go crazy.

"I trust you, you'll always come back."

What more can I say, but -- he knows me.


  1. I love me some good punctuation, and this is wonderful. Reminds me of the book "Eats, Shoots and Leaves". It too is a gem. (And my children spent all of their high school years having me check their punctuation, and, when necessary, lecturing their teachers on the correctness of my children's work.)

  2. I can barely read without editing punctuation. But hard and fast rules are not the norm. There's a lot of room for choice, depending on whether you're from Oxford or not.

  3. Brilliant! I may use commas too often. So easy to do.

  4. I did want to mention a friend of mine has opened up a script and manuscript editing service -- though when I finished my post, I figured she'd prefer it be somewhere far, far away. Here it is, is; is --IS

    Marjie, you're always grammar-perfect.

  5. I taught punctuation for 42 years. This is so hilarious!
    "':;<./?!^&()_-+{[}]@# and on and on and on...
    btw I HATE the Punctuation Police!

  6. This is brilliant!

    I admit that I cringe every time I see someone misuse an apostrophe. It baffles me that people don't realize that more than one birthday is not birthday's (one example out of a multitude). I usually keep quiet about it. But it's difficult!

  7. Sharing this with my class today. (It's okay, it's adult ed.)

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  9. Thanks for the link to IS/us. Now that I've outed myself as an editor/proofreader, I had to edit this because it looked odd when I posted it the first time.

    I agree with Birdman as well as with Rebecca: the punctuation police are creepy! But so is an apostrophe used as a decoration. (Not that I would correct someone unless they asked me to.) I don't think kids are learning much of this in school anymore. They're learning from what they see, and they see signs that say things like

    check out our sale on "bananas"

    Oh dear, where should the period go?

  10. The em rule is my BFF also, he's much more spicy than the staid old semicolon. But what's your relationship with the en rule?

  11. It's been so long since middle school, I can't remember what to call words that are spelled the same, sound the same, but have different meanings. Homographs? Wouldn't it simplify life if we accepted a new generation of homographs. For starters -- letting "it's" be "its," and "you're" a "your."

  12. Once in a while I'm just itchin' to share somebody else's post on Facebook, but often the punctuation is -- tragically -- so terrible that I won't put my name to it.

  13. I think they're homonyms, Karin. But I like your word.

    I don't think it's and its should be interchangeable. I think people should send their manuscripts to me for fixing. But I'm biased. (This is where the smiley face goes.)

  14. Ever seen this one?

    If it is "it is," it's "it's."

    If it isn't "it is," it's "its."

    I think....?

  15. Stupidest conjunction of all time is "don't." Don't doesn't save one lick of ink, and in fact contributes to our RSI problems because you have to stretch the pinky to hit the apostrophe. Vote "dont."

  16. Well, we both are. It gets confusing.

    I agree about don't. Dont need an apostrophe.

  17. However, I would put one in if I were proofreading.

  18. Margaret shared this on Facebook. Check out item 3!

  19. I love this! I wish I had older students because I would certainly share it with them. My "problem" is that I love the written word ~ how words work together and are spelled & used and what they mean and how they can mean more than one thing. My students' [see how I did that?] eyes get big when they see my trusty desk-size Webster's Dictionary - we look up words together all the time. I can only teach language arts if I can inject my love of words into the lessons, and luckily I have always been able to do that. So thank you for this post -- it gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling. As for the comma...when in doubt leave it out;)

    Here's the skinny on homonyms:
    homophones: words that sound the same but are spelled differently, as in nose and knows;
    homographs: words that sound different but are spelled the same, as in read and read.

  20. Interesting post, as always, Karin.
    About ponctuation I just thought in the writer José Saramago, with his style that restricts his punctuation to commas and full stops, without dots, dashes, colons, semi-colons, interrogation or exclamation marks. He told that for him, any additional punctuation marks would inevitably destroy the sense of “continuous flow” and hinder his experiments with timbre and resonance.
    I must to rethink and study more about my ponctuations...

  21. Sharon, you say it so well. I love word origins, love to know how a word evolved over time. I get excited to learn things like "apron" used to be "napron," and it changed naturally because we'd say "a napron," which became "an apron." Stuff like that.

  22. Sharon -- I think you're teaching grammar/grade school kids. right? They will never forget you.

    Sonia, I love a good run-on sentence, but can rarely make it work. Jorge Amado could.

    P -- I need a napron, and other stuff.

  23. “Does truth lie in the everyday events, the daily incidents, in the pettiness and vulgarity most people’s lives are compounded of, or does the truth have its abode in the dream it is given us to dream to flee our sad human condition?”
    ― Jorge Amado, Home is the Sailor

    Here is where English fails, translations fail.

    Sonia, we need to read this in Portuguese. Can you share this in your language, please?

  24. Today I had to look up how to use a comma with a title in a sentence. Sometimes I understand the logic of comma use and sometimes I don't but, I do enjoy the hunt.

    (I think that's correct.)

  25. Karin, this passage of the book "Home is the Sailor", in Portuguese "Os Velhos Marinheiros", is that on the original words of Jorge Amado:
    "Está a verdade naquilo que sucede todos os dias, nos quotidianos acontecimentos, na mesquinhez e chatice da vida da imensa maioria dos homens ou reside a verdade no sonho que nos é dado sonhar para fugir de nossa triste condição?"
    Btw, love that book!

  26. To my ears, Sonia, your language is the most beautiful. Thank you for this.

  27. Thank you Karin! I am glad you like my language. :)

  28. Karin, I like so much "O Leãozinho" too!

  29. Karin, I'm teaching third, fourth, and fifth graders this year. I hope they remember me for the right reasons.

    Petrea, I need a napron, too.

  30. I am an American man, and I have decided to boycott American women. In a nutshell, American women are the most likely to cheat on you, to divorce you, to get fat, to steal half of your money in the divorce courts, don’t know how to cook or clean, don’t want to have children, etc. Therefore, what intelligent man would want to get involved with American women?

    American women are generally immature, selfish, extremely arrogant and self-centered, mentally unstable, irresponsible, and highly unchaste. The behavior of most American women is utterly disgusting, to say the least.

    This blog is my attempt to explain why I feel American women are inferior to foreign women (non-American women), and why American men should boycott American women, and date/marry only foreign (non-American) women.


  31. Oh well, Anon, I suppose our loss is Denmark's gain.

  32. Hahahahaha!
    I don't know, I'll need to see statistics.

  33. Karin, you had me laughing out loud by the second paragraph.

    Who sez "thou shalt" and "thou shalt not," grammarwise?? I like to make up my own rules as I go.

    Frexample, I'm uncomfortable putting the comma before the endquote. It should be after the endquote, seems to me.

    I think a person should use a comma as they jolly well please. Same with em dashes.

    But when it comes to no cap at the beginning of a sentence -- tsk, tsk.

  34. Such a good tale!

    I used to be so sure of myself regarding punctuation. Then later in life I encountered British English and also various Asian/European English...and I am no longer sure of anything anymore.

  35. If the goal of writers is to communicate clearly, I'd say there's something to be said for standardization. If the punctuation is the way I expect it to be, I get the message much more easily.

    In some things I read, there are too many commas and I get distracted by them. In others, there aren't enough and I have to go back because I didn't realize there was a break in the thought.

    For commas and periods at the ends of quotes: In the US it's before the quotation marks. In Canada, at least, it's after. I personally think after makes more sense, but when my third grade daughter saw a period after, she said it looked "lonely." Or, "lonely".

  36. This reminds me of the two poetry related classes I took in school. I withdrew from both, because the teachers said that poetry has to follow form, or it isn't worth reading.

    I don't EVER want to spend my time counting instead of reading poetry. I'm not saying cadence isn't sometimes a good thing, but if I don't feel something when I read, then really, what's the point?

    "Form over function" is never a good thing.