Saturday, August 30, 2014

Punctuation Wars

The Middle East is devolving further into chaos. A virus is rampaging through Africa defying control. A little known St. Louis suburb shows we're not quite as post-racial as we'd like to think. There's trouble in the Ukraine, mudslides burying neighborhoods in Japan and even a cheating scandal at Notre Dame. The world is going to H - E double hockey sticks in a hand-basket, and what am I dealing with?

Punctuation issues.

Let me say at the outset that I was not an English major, nor do I play one on television. But by virtue of that fact that for nearly 20 years I have been occupying this particular space, wherein I put my thoughts, opinions, interpretations, ruminations and outright fabrications on very public display, I have had to deal with the blowback. Actually, blowback might be a wee bit too strong a description. In addition to the occasional attaboy, I get a few polite corrections thrown my way. But still, when you sit alone in front of a keyboard late at night, it can feel like an onslaught.

Some of those comments are about substance, comments I am happy to take under advisement and respond to in kind. But I have also been drawn into several technical disputes about the words on the page. Or more correctly, not the words themselves, but rather the way those words are delineated. Yes, with all the aforementioned turmoil in the world, I have had to focus not on Ebola but on ellipsis, not on separatists but on spacing.

I was first drawn into a discussion where I was taken to task for not using the so-called Oxford comma. For those of you (like me) who didn't know what it was, the Oxford (or Harvard or serial) comma is the optional one before the word "and' at the end of a list. To wit: apples, peaches, and pumpkins. But it's optional, so apples, peaches and pumpkins is also acceptable. Yes, it can be used to clarify, as in the oft cited example "This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God." Another comma would have eliminated the demon spawn that the prior construction references. And yes, in that case, I would have used it as well. But optional means just that, and so I stand my ground, even in light of such posts as "You'll pry my Oxford comma from my cold, dead, and lifeless hands." (Note the comma.)

Likewise for two spaces at the end of a sentence. I do it as a reflexive process that stems from learning to type. (There, I just did it again!) But you don't see it, because my editor insists I eliminate it. And so before I submit a column I do a global search and replace, and remove the offending white space. A recent online post entitled "Nothing Says Over 40 Like Two Spaces after a Period!" blames it on the mechanics of the typewriter and the monospacing that device did for every letter. The post goes on to say that considering the current state of technology that double spacing at the end point is anachronistic at best and ignorant at worst.

But that's hardly the last word. While the typewriter rationale is enshrined for many as the reason two spaces should go the way of the dodo, further research shows that typographic "rules" and rationales are elastic, and have been through time. Way back in the 1700's, when there were important issues such as Independence to be discussed, they were debating typography as well. And so about a hundred years before the typewriter was invented you can find parchment with the equivalent of "Yea, thou shalt use but a single m quadrat after a full stop, or thou is an ignorant sow!" The weight of history, indeed.

So to all who take me to task for violating the so-called universal laws of punctuation, just look around you. In a world of tweets and txts and emoticons and emails, the way language gets used and laid out is fluid at best. Maybe I don't always conform to what The Chicago Manual of Style says is "correct," or hew completely to the gospel that is Strunk and White. I only say to you read some Cormac McCarthy or E.E. Cummings, and get over it. And spend a little more time worrying about the Crimea.


Marc Wollin of Bedford writes like he speaks, for better or worse. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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