Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Give me back my apostrophes, please!



The interviews featured grammarians, editors and language experts from Canada, the UK, the United States and Australia, and the conversations were lively and entertaining.

But I confess, the whole idea of messing with punctuation fills me with (gulp!) horror.

The power of punctuation!
Teaching punctuation to college students – most of them in business programs – remains one of the highlights of my college teaching career. Students tend to approach the topic of punctuation with misconceptions and a fair amount of resistance.

To give them credit, however, my students – most of them under the age of 25, members of the text-speak generation – always indicated that they could see the difference between “real” written communication for the workplace, and the informal grammar-challenged shorthand used on their mobile devices. They understood that formal and informal workplace communication necessarily has certain conventions and expectations, punctuation among them. But the nit-pickiness of it disturbed them.

“Who cares if a comma is missing?” “What’s the point of using a semi-colon? What IS a semi-colon, anyway?” And my favourite: “Everybody knows what I mean, so what’s the big deal?”

This is the argument put forward by Ted Gibson, a professor of cognitive science at MIT, one of the CBC interviewees: that the context of any written passage will make it clear whether you’re talking about an item commonly found on a beach, or a female who will be doing something: shell, she’ll.

His point was that in spoken English, we understand each other, so it’s not a huge leap to expect people to clue into the meaning behind written English, apostrophes present or not. “His brother’s keeper” or “his brothers keeper” – the reader will figure it out without the little swirl cluttering up the page.

Give me swirls and clutter. Just because there are so many rules concerning correct punctuation doesn’t mean that we should jettison those qualifying, clarifying, stylizing squiggles, swirls, dots and dashes. Clutter, my Aunt Fanny!

No, I believe punctuation – even pesky apostrophes – helps corral English usage, which could easily go madly off in all directions (just ask someone who is learning English as a second language.)

Punctuation is a tool that helps writers communicate with style and, most importantly, clarity. It helps readers understand, too. (Does the million-dollar comma fiasco ring a bell?)

Give me my apostrophes (and commas, and semi-colons and the whole squiggly lot), please. They’re some of the sharpest tools in my writing toolbox. 

I rest my case!


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