How important is punctuation?

View from the USA

November 24, 2016 23:21

There has been a small war taking place on my street. Someone has purchased lawn signs to slow down the cars. They say: "Drive Slow. Deer Here" and "Drive Slow. Children Here." The latest one on display in the same spot is "Drive Slow. Pets Here." My husband brought each sign home and added an LY to the word "Slow" and then put the sign back. We refuse to live in a neighbourhood that rejects adverbs.

"Drive Slowly. Grammarians Here."

I have not achieved Lynne Truss's curmudgeonly state of condescension over grammar and punctuation but must confess to cringe when someone says "The reason is because…" or that font of linguistic controversy "irregardless." My innards shake when the perpetrator of these language crimes is a Jewish leader or representative of our people. It makes me wish we had an adverb form of "oy."

Having recently finished Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel Americanah, I've been thinking a lot about Americans and language, specifically about punctuation. Adichie's protagonist struggles to speak American English upon arrival on its golden shores. English is her native language in Nigeria, but it's different; her pronunciation seems richer, slower in its lilt. She decides to reclaim her native way of speaking as a small act of personal defiance.

After finishing the book, I found myself listening to American English as an observer. In my little language laboratory, I hear lots of short words, often repeated, with exclamation marks, communicated in emails and texts with emojis. Awesome! Have a great day! Thanks so much! Sometimes, especially around younger women, I hear statements ending in question marks. I'm not sure I want to complete this project? I can have that ready for you today?

I found myself responding to emails with 'Great!'

Looking inward, I realised something about my own communication style. I have been ambushed by exclamation marks. I never used to use an exclamation mark. It would not dawn on me in the course of everyday living to indulge in this scribble of excitement. It was too perky. I didn't even like reading sentences that ended in exclamation points. They overwhelmed me with false emotion and suspicion. They were, in a word, distracting.

But then - I am not sure when it happened - I found myself responding to e-mails with a cheery, "Great!" if someone could attend a meeting or read a draft of something. I was as excited as if it had already happened and brought with it excessive good news like major lottery winnings or the receipt of a Nobel Prize. I began to use them with abandon. Gone was my insistence on serious sentence formulation. I had suddenly become a teenage girl living in a suburb of Los Angeles. I even started using emojis for an occasional decorative touch. My life was awash with hyper-happiness.

I had to remind myself of Anton Chekov's short story, The Exclamation Mark, where a civil servant who is accused of not understanding the rules of punctuation discovers that, in 40 years, he had never used an exclamation mark. He becomes an addict, depositing them everywhere. My, how life changes when you indulge in this little visual flourish! But overuse it, and punctuation becomes a too-easy substitute for the construction of meaning with actual words. It's reductive and limiting.

So here is how my rehab happened. I thought of a Torah scroll and an Aramaic page of Talmud. There is no punctuation in either, just cantillation notes in the scroll. This can make reading and studying a taxation on the brain. What is a question? What is merely a statement? Life without punctuation is confusing, like this famous sentence designed to trip-up readers. Let's eat grandma. No comma. No grandma.

Life without punctuation forces a focus on words and their interpretation. If anything has kept us innovative, vibrant, intellectually taut and enduring as a people, it's our relationship to words and their possible meanings. Imagine a Torah scroll full of emojis, a smiley face when Abraham and Sarah had a child or a little sad face near the commandment, "Thou shall not kill."

Thank goodness for sacred texts free of this burden. Maybe it's time we all dial down our punctuation exuberance. I've sobered up. I'm down to one punctuation mark every 24-hour cycle! Writer Isaac Marion says he longs for exclamation marks but is drowning in ellipses. Take comfort in the creativity of ellipses, Mr Marion. They leave more room for the imagination.

November 24, 2016 23:21

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