“My attitude toward punctuation is that it ought to be as conventional as possible. The game of golf would lose a good deal if croquet mallets and billiard cues were allowed on the putting green. You ought to be able to show that you can do it a good deal better than anyone else with the regular tools before you have a license to bring in your own improvements.” – Ernest Hemingway.
Today is National Punctuation Day. Banks and schools remain open.
In honor of the holiday, I went searching for a couple of relevant quotes to honor the day. I didn’t have the one above readily at hand, but I knew what I wanted to say, and as luck would have it, The Old Man already said it, and he said it much better than I could have.
I predict the blogosphere will be rife today with predictions forecasting the end of civilization due to the demise of sentence structure and proper punctuation. The collapse of secondary education, texting teenagers, tweeting celebrities, email, all of social media, and a host of other causes will all be pointed to as primary suspects in the brutal slaying of punctuation. Frankly, I doubt that things are that dire.
Hand held devices, and text messaging in particular, seem to be at the root of most of the finger shaking and hand wringing among English purists. The fear seems to be that as we become accustomed to using text message shorthand, abbreviations, and pop-culture acronyms in our daily lives, we will carry this slovenly behavior into more formal writing until sentences begin with lower case letters and end sans periods. We’ll forget about the Oxford comma. ‘L8r’ and ‘2day’ will start showing up in legal briefs and on prescription bottle labels. The apostrophe will take its place upon the literary scrapheap and only a few ivory tower professors will understand the significance of the semi-colon in compound sentence structure.
Believe me things aren’t that bad. There is something about entering words into a 3×6 inch electronic device that just isn’t natural. It brings out the outlaw in all of us. Give me a way to say something faster and I’ll do it (I don’t need to work for a living – hand over the cash drawer – get me out of here).
I think that most people know the rudimentary rules of punctuation, but they choose when and where to apply them. And that’s their choice. It’s about freedom. And I like that. And don’t think for a minute that it’s only texting kids and high-school dropouts who are taking liberties with the English language and the hallowed citadel of punctuation.
Perhaps no other contemporary writer has taken more literary license with punctuation than Cormac McCarthy, my number two favorite writer directly behind Old Hem. McCarthy’s books are nearly devoid of punctuation. In his words “I believe in periods, in capitals, in the occasional comma, and that’s it.” Noticeably missing in McCarthy’s work are quotation marks. When asked about this, McCarthy said in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, that he prefers not to “block the page up with weird little marks. If you write properly, you shouldn’t have to punctuate.”
The Pulitzer Prize winning McCarthy has perhaps earned the right to bring his croquet mallet to the putting green.
For a more colorful take on punctuation, I like this from Edward Abbey (probably written to an editor) regarding his 1975 classic novel of environmental anarchy, “The Monkey Wrench Gang”:
“…I would prefer a minimum of goddamn commas, hyphens, apostrophes, quotation marks and fucking (most obscene of all punctuation marks) semi-colons. I’ve had to waste hours erasing that storm of flyshit on the typescript.”
So take that kids…just don’t try it in school.
I will close with a final quote that somehow seems appropriate.
“If I wouldn’t have spent so much time shooting spit wads at my English teacher, I’d know how to punctuate. Good thing I normally write poetry.” – Stanley Vincent Paskavich – author of Stantasyland