Shifting the “punctuation paradigm”. Or “Not.”

As a transplanted American, I had considerable language relearning to do when I came to Canada all those decades ago.

I learned that the letter “a” was spelled with two letters, neither of which was an “a.”

I learned the “r before e, especially after t” rule.

I learned to love the letter “u,” and to turn the disjunctive American ending “-or” into the inclusive Canadian “-our.” Indeed, there’s a whole lot of pop sociology that can be crammed into that little difference between the individual and the collective.

I learned that three years of California high school French rendered me completely unintelligible to natives of la belle provence. (A sympathetic immigration officer kindly gave me four points out of five for “ability to speak French” when I avowed that I could translate the back of a shampoo bottle well enough to avoid the baby formula when I wanted the concoction for fine hair.)

As time went on, I learned to tolerate those French Immersion students who could handle the trickiest literary concepts but who could never overcome their habit of spelling “February” with a “v” on their English essays. One had to support the nation’s official bilingualism, after all.

But one thing that I never did was to adopt the odder British writing conventions, such as the annoying use of a single quotation mark when double marks are clearly called for — or, far worse, putting commas and periods outside those quotation marks, when everyone knows that their proper place was, is, and always will be inside.

Now, it seems, according to a Slate article, the foreign scheme of so-called “logical punctuation” is ready to force a sinister shift of punctuation paradigm upon an unsuspecting and generally defenseless populace. Why are there no alarms sounding?

It seems that many once-proud publications — not to mention most e-mailers and many bloggers — are shifting to the British style for commas and periods, all in the name of consistency. (Given my experience with British custard, punctuation would be the only place in which the British would demonstrate any concern for the importance of consistency.)

Even Americans concede that, when it comes to all other marks of punctuation, from question marks to dashes, the mark in question should be included inside the quotation marks when said mark is part of the passage being cited; and it should be placed outside the quotation marks when it is part of the sentence which contains the passage. This is a simple enough rule, and its logic can be seen easily in these two examples:

Did Fred say, “I’ll be there at five”?
Fred said, “Will you be there at five?”

In the first sentence, the speaker or writer of the entire sentence asks a question. In the second sentence, the speaker or writer reports the question that Fred asked.  And a sentence of dialogue in which a framing identification is missing — “Will you be there at five?” — is treated the same way as if that identification were there.

In the Slate article, author Ben Yagoda gives this example, also from Slate, of why the British style is attractively logical:

[I]ronically, given the anecdote about “Tales of the City”, PBS is the ONLY widely available channel that has any serious LGBT content; e.g. documentaries such as “Ask Not” and “Out in the Silence”.

Yagoda argues that insinuating a comma or a period between the last letter and the closing quotation marks is an unwarranted intrusion on a complete unit — which is how each title, along with its quotation marks, functions in the sentence. For now, let’s ignore the question of why there’s no comma after  “e.g.”, nor why that abbreviation, being a foreign expression, is not italicized. (But we should note in passing that the comma outside the punctuation sequence in the previous sentence is the outlier, the aesthetic exception to the rule that commas go inside.)

There used to be standards about all of this, and they were heroically enforced. I remember the case of a master’s thesis (not mine) which was written, printed, duplicated, bound, and duly submitted for consideration. It came shooting back, unread, with a note explaining that it had been rejected for violating the writing conventions of the university. It seems that the typist who had been entrusted with the manuscript had, with otherwise admirable consistency, punctuated the work throughout by placing commas and periods before the opening of in-text references, instead of after them; i.e., “period, open parenthesis” instead of “close parenthesis, period.” Word processing software had recently been invented, so rather than the secretary’s having physically to retype the entire opus, I was able to suggest an effective little sequence of global replacements. The thesis was reprinted, reduplicated, rebound, and resubmitted. It encountered no further problems, and the degree for which it had been submitted was swiftly awarded.

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Its supporters claim that the proposed punctuation change is logical, but how much of the rest of the English language is forced to be logical? In fact, the language is changing in distinctly illogical ways. Some of these ways have long been pet peeves.

For one, there’s the misuse of “their” to refer to singular indefinite pronouns, as in “Did everyone bring their passport?” After all, “everyone” is a version of “every one,” and “one” is certainly singular. But “their” is plural. We know that much of the transformation of “their” into a generic, numberless nonentity is an attempt to avoid the gender specificity of “his” or “her.” But there’s an easy — and logical — way to avoid the offending usage without offending the language as a result. Just use the plural in the first place. “Did all of you bring your passports?” is an easy fix.

It gets even worse with a sentence like “The teacher is eating their lunch.” Not only does “their” not fit with the singular “The teacher,” but it also violates number agreement with the singular verb “is eating.” (To the true stickler, there are the additional questions of why a group of people brought just the one lunch, and why they let the teacher take it from them.)

Does no one notice these contradictions anymore? And if logical errors like this are acceptable, why not the punctuation convention that puts commas and periods inside quotation marks?

Another example concerns the increasingly random placement of modifiers like “only.” Consider the following sentence:

My sister only loaned me twenty dollars.

Trust me, after more than thirty years of teaching composition and language, I know that what most people mean when they write (or speak) this sentence is that the loan was for only twenty dollars, and not more. Of course, what the sentence actually says is that my sister expects to be paid back.

In fact, the word “only” can go just about anywhere in the sentence, and what the sentence means changes every time. Try it and see. Here are the sensible options for the placement of “only,” beginning at the start of the sentence:

(1) My (2) sister (3) loaned (4) me (5) twenty dollars.

(1) No one but my sister loaned me twenty dollars.
(2) I have but one sister, and she loaned me twenty dollars.
(3) My sister expects to be paid back.
(4) My sister made a loan to me, but to no one else.
(5) M sister would let me have no more than twenty dollars.

A similar problem arises with “almost.” To most people, “almost” is a word that can go just about anywhere — except where it belongs. Consider these sentences:

I had a great night playing poker. I almost won every hand!

To most people, the second sentence likely means that the writer won the majority of the hands in the poker game. What it actually says, though, is that, on every hand, the speaker “almost won.” In fact, the speaker lost every hand, but came close to winning each time. Move “almost” to the other side of “won,” however, and the sentence says what it’s trying to say.

Then there is the ubiquitous mixing up of “less” and “fewer,” which are abused endlessly in product labelling (“Three less gout attacks per case than the other guy’s swill!”) and, sadly, on television newscasts, where we are apt to hear that “The new federal cabinet will have six less ministers.” Listen, people, it’s easy. If you can count it, 1-2-3, use “fewer.” If it’s a single quantity, use “less.” I have less money when fewer people pay me. I have fewer crying spells when I have less stress.

Finally, there’s the king of all word placement errors, misplaced phrase and clause modifiers. Again, television newscasters are constant offenders: “We have a feature story today of a legendary gold mine in Littletown that never existed.” On the other end of the sentence, we have claims like “Zipping down a steep hill on his skateboard, a 95-year old man was injured by a neighbourhood child.” My usual response is to cry out, with great indignation, “They pay these people to speak like that!” If you don’t see what’s wrong with these sentences, maybe one more, my personal favourite, will help you get the idea: “Never give food to an infant that hasn’t been thoroughly mashed first.”
See the problem now?

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OK, enough of that.

So, if I advocate the logical placement of punctuation marks like semi-colons and dashes; and if I insist on the careful placement of words like “only” and “almost” — why don’t I accept “logical punctuation” for commas and periods, too?

Don’t be silly.

It looks funny that way!


One thought on “Shifting the “punctuation paradigm”. Or “Not.”

  1. You have alarmed the door that opens onto this slippery slope. Are some of these mutations of language with deeper significance that that may prove evolutionary, many of which are destined to die like much new vocabulary? Language must have come from somewhere and maybe random usage flaws played as big a part as inspired experimentation and rigid rhetoric.

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