Grammar Nazis say that commas save lives. Take, for instance, the sentence, “Let’s eat grandma.” Surely, the author who penned it meant “Let’s eat, grandma.” Or did he? No doubt he (or she) did – and don’t call me Shirley!
Language is changing before our very eyes (and ears). Our vocabulary is changing daily. Words like “meme,” “troll” and “cryptocurrency” are now part of the vernacular. People are getting lazier and lazier with their writing. It’s embarrassing. English teachers who check out Twitter must cringe when they look at their mobile devices.
Have you been on Twitter’s site lately? Most tweets leave out all punctuation – to the detriment of the tweeter – and the English language. And, they who post, write in the most casual way possible. Obviously, there is little discipline that goes into tweeting.
It’s the Technology, Stupid!
We can blame the demise of the literary world on our smartphones all we want. And some of that blame is warranted. With their small chicklet keys, it can be painstaking to craft legitimate sentences.
But linguist John H. McWhorter, author of Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music, and Why We Should, Like, Care, often talks about dying languages. He insinuates that people generally take the easy way out when communicating. One example that he uses is people pronounce the double “T” in bottle as if it were a “D.”
Fortunately, the autocorrect feature on our phones, we are told, is getting better. Apple’s new iOS 11 will include “smart punctuation.” This from a company whose slogan is “Think different.”
Words, Words, Words
Mark Twain said “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between lightning bug and the lightning.” Well, not only do words make a difference, but so do the way they are presented.
There’s a story about a teacher writing words on a blackboard in front of her class. She wrote: “A woman without her man is nothing.” She then asked a boy in the class to add punctuation to it. He did so and it read “A woman, without her man, is nothing.” The teacher then changed it to “A woman: without her, man is nothing.”
For some reason, this reminds me of the Groucho Marx line, “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas, I’ll never know.”
The Humble Apostrophe
Last week I wrote about what are called “apostrophe books” – an expression that was coined regarding books that have Tom Clancy’s name on them – but weren’t written by him. This week I want to mention apostrophes themselves.
The apostrophe came into existence in the mid-16th century. It has Greek roots. It was important enough to find itself on the earliest typewriters. Other symbols, however, that are in common use today, didn’t make the cut. That goes for #, $ and !. Back then, however, you could get creative and type an apostrophe, then back space over it and type a period. This would get you your exclamation point.
The apostrophe is the Rodney Dangerfield of the English language. Many consider it optional. Try explaining that to Shaquille O’Neal, Bill O’Reilly or former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor, each of which would probably take umbrage – or give you an argument – if you said your computer doesn’t have their dinner reservation in the system.
There is hope
Fortunately, a number of books have come to the rescue. You can get them for your favorite uncle for Christmas. You know, the one who writes like he never graduated from third grade.
Here are a few that are at the top of my recommended list:
- Lapsing into a Comma: A Curmudgeon’s Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print – and How to Avoid Them, by Bill Walsh
- The Elephants of Style: A Trunkload of Tips on the Big Issues and Gray Areas of Contemporary American English, also by Bill Walsh
- Eats, Shoots and Leaves, by Lynne Truss
- The Girl’s Like Spaghetti: Why, You Can’t Manage Without Apostrophes, by Lynne Truss and Bonnie Timmons
- Anguished English: An Anthology of Accidental Assaults Upon Our Language, by Richard Lederer
And, here are a few that are for the serious writer:
- On Writing Well, by William Zinsser
- The Careful Writer by Theodore M. Bernstein
- The Elements of Style by Strunk and White
If something isn’t done soon, you may find yourself saying something like “Sadly, the days of using proper English are went.”
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