When I was first married, my husband and I lived on a scary street in Far Rockaway, New York, in a rodent-infested (we found out later), haunted house.
In any case, my husband always insisted on buying the New York Times Sunday edition every, well, Sunday. I hated that Times; so anti-everything I stood for, so snobby, so biased, so self-important. Most Sunday mornings my husband was treated to a rant, by me, even if all I read was the Book Review.
The great lie
Last month, the NYT published a really embarrassing article about the demise of the period, which led a Washington Post reporter to follow suit by writing another, even poorer, article about the NYT article.
This post is about both, and about whether or not the period, as well as other punctuation, has gone the way of all things.
The first question that begs to be asked is this: who gave the NYT the authority to arbitrate grammar? Furthermore, why should I have to obey them? Deciding that the period has become redundant
is like any lie which, if you say it enough times, becomes the truth.
The basic premise of both articles is that social media has worked its insidious way into the English language, changing timeless rules of punctuation, and thus the period now implies anger, not the end of a thought.
I totally get that spelling can change (worshipping to worshiping) and grammar can relax (“Who are you going to the prom with?”).
126 out of two hundred million does not a rule make
What bugs me the most is that those advocating new uses for old punctuation are promoting an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude coupled with unprofessional and sloppy research. Here’s a gem from the NYT article:
[The professor’s] observations on the fate of the period are driven in part by frequent visits to high schools across Britain, where he analyzes students’ text messages….Researchers at Binghamton University in New York and Rutgers University in New Jersey…asked 126 undergraduate students to review 16 exchanges, some in text messages, some in handwritten notes, that had one-word affirmative responses (Okay, Sure, Yeah, Yup). Some had periods, while others did not. Those text message with periods were rated as less sincere, the study found.
Sorry, but even if those 126 students reflect the attitudes and opinions of every single college student in the world (according to Professor Google, between 150 and 200 million), this is hardly the basis for a new rule.
Now for the Washington Post article’s most ridiculous sentence:
We should celebrate these developments. Writing is becoming richer. This is an exciting time.
When it comes to social media, I’m all for doing away with periods. It’s great having one less character to punch, especially if you have a smartphone – or even a dumb phone – with a small keyboard.
But why should a tiny machine with an even tinier screen decide for us what should and shouldn’t be included in magazines and books? That’s sort of like saying we should buy only moisturizer in half-ounce bottles for everyday use because they’re easier to use when we travel.
An editor’s eye view
Most of you know that I have been a book and journal editor for the better part of thirty years. The most important thing I learned, from all of my mentors, is that it has to make sense. What is the author trying to say? How hard is he or she making it for us?
If you don’t get your punctuation right, you will not be able to convey your point. Here are some examples.
A small change can flip the meaning
Take a look at this:
Courts closed no playing
There are two ways to read this sentence, and without punctuation we wouldn’t know what it meant.
Courts closed. No playing.
Courts closed? No; playing!
Here’s another one:
She found an apple to give her granddaughter before they left Jack said look an apple from your grandmother
Here are two ways we could punctuate this. The change won’t be as dramatic as the first example, however.
She found an apple to give her granddaughter before they left. Jack said, “Look, an apple from your grandmother.”
She found an apple to give her granddaughter. Before they left, Jack said, “Look, an apple from your grandmother.”
Use the hyphen to eliminate ambiguity
She is a big cat veterinarian. She’s like 6’10”, and she treats only cats.
She is a big-cat veterinarian. Tall or short, she treats only lions, tigers, cheetahs, etc.
The museum in Paris is full of American eagle pictures. The gallery exhibits pictures of eagles, all painted by Americans.
The museum in Paris is full of American-eagle pictures. The gallery has many pictures of American eagles.
Get your commas straight
I live in a small foreign country. This means that I live in a foreign country and it’s small.
I live in a small, foreign country. This means that I live in country that is both small and foreign.
Dr. Smith is a blond mad scientist. This guy is a mad scientist, and he’s also blond.
Dr. Smith is a blond, mad scientist. This scientist is both blond and angry.
I lived in a rodent-infested, haunted house. By now you should know whether I lived in a haunted house of the Disney variety that had mice, or if I lived in a house that was both rodent-infested and haunted.
Most of these sentence pairs are nuanced, but good writing can be both understandable and nuanced. Treat your prose lovingly; craft it correctly.
Franky242 for freedigitalphotos.net
There’s no reason to follow the herd. Remember that even highfalutin’ journalists breathe oxygen, bleed when they cut themselves shaving, and floss their teeth, so you don’t have to listen to them and follow all the latest literary trends.
Make sure your writing makes sense. And don’t worry: even good, plain, understandable writing can be flooded with your personality. Writing clearly and well, and with proper grammar, merely eliminates the obstacles that are holding your prose back from shining on the page, enabling it to enlighten, delight, and entertain.
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