Tragically Exclamatory!!!!!

Punctuation Pyramid
Image by tgbarrett via Flickr
My pseudonym is M. Jaynes and I have a problem!

I’ve pontificated on punctuation previously. My sojourn into the comma conundrum was cathartic. This time, it is my over-use of the exclamation point in casual correspondence that has become increasingly disturbing to me. Oh, it started innocently enough. I joined Facebook and it seemed the “in” punctuation to use. So I picked up the habit and ran with it. Not an e-mail escaped the send button without an unhealthy dose of the emotionally overcharged “Thank you!” or “Good Morning!” Salutations should be heart-felt, but rarely is there a situation where the addition of six or seven exclamation points is called for. And it didn’t stop there. In my fevered brain it made perfect sense to add dramatic punctuation to such sentences as: “I have a trivial meeting after school today!” or in notes to far away friends, “I miss you!!!!!!”
Now, every time I write “thank you” without an exclamation point, I worry that the person receiving the message will think that my sentiments are lukewarm. Maybe it is my OCD brain that has caused this to become an issue but I swear nowadays when I write an e-mail it is so peppered with that infernal mark that I feel like a raving lunatic!
Addicts always try to blame others first, so here goes: I blame Facebook for initiating this habit. Prior to signing up, I hardly ever used that form of punctuation, even when I felt strongly about something. I was blissfully unaware of my issue while on Facebook because it seemed everyone else was on board with being exclamatory. Since bidding a not-so-fond farewell to that particular social networking scene, it has slowly dawned on me that I have a problem with this punctuation. Right now as I type this it is all I can do not to add a few more in here and there. And as one who loves books, I am quite certain that if I came across a novel that used exclamation points as frivolously as I have, I would think the author mad and discontinue reading. I need help! It is driving me crazy! I suppose it could be worse. Instead of exclamatory, I could be interrogative. How would that go over I wonder? Do I really want to open that can of worms? Should I end this blog here?

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My Comma, My Problem

Something happened when I turned thirty-six. No, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream didn’t immediately show up on my thighs ten minutes after I ate it. That happened when I turned thirty (and I’m still a little upset about it). For some inexplicable reason, during my thirty-sixth year comma usage became an enigma. As an English teacher, this is a huge problem! One day I could write a blog such as this and have commas placed perfectly throughout. The next day I had a run-on the size and incomprehensibility the likes of which you have never seen! It is like the comma disappeared from my radar or something. Oh I will throw one in here and there to make it look good but I am missing some pretty important commas in my writing these days and it is beginning to worry me.

It raises several questions: Why did this happen? Have I gotten so wrapped up in this instant-gratification, fast-food-drive-through-service, sixty-five-on-the-highway, text-in-an-instant, follow-me-on-twitter society that I now unconsciously skip over anything that might give me pause? Is it just me or do others suffer from this as well? As a society, do we have our cross-hairs set on this small, useful form of punctuation because the rules for its use keep changing on us? Is it possible for a society to kill off a form of punctuation much like a horror movie monster slays the buxom blonde in high heels? Will other punctuation become a problem as I get older? All of a sudden, when I hit forty will the question mark lose its purpose?

I don’t know if the problem is my own or just a reflection of a much larger societal issue. But doesn’t it always seem to start with the small stuff? Lose the comma, lose our ability to slow down and enjoy the little things. Is something so insignificant capable of becoming so significant it could change the way a group of people thinks? Or maybe I just need a good grammar refresher course.

Keyword Exercise (Colon)

In David Foster Wallace’s article entitled “Tense Present:  Democracy, English, and the Wars Over Usage,” the late novelist, essayist, and part-time college instructor asks:  “Did you know that probing the seamy underbelly of U.S. lexicography reveals ideological strife and controversy and intrigue and nastiness and fervor on a nearly hanging-chad scale?”  Foster was himself a self-professed SNOOT (his own “nuclear family’s nickname á clef for a really extreme usage fanatic”) who was “so pathologically anal about usage” that he noticed the same pattern occurring every semester in his college classes:  “The minute I have read my students’ first set of papers, we immediately abandon the regular Lit syllabus and have a three-week Emergency Remedial Usage Unit, during which my demeanor is basically that of somebody teaching HIV prevention to intravenous drug-users.  When it emerges (as it does, every time) that 95 percent of these intelligent upscale college students have never been taught, e.g., what a clause is or why a misplaced only can make a sentence confusing, I all but pound my head on the blackboard;  I exhort them to sue their hometown school boards.  The kids end up scared, both of me and for me.” 

Personally, I don’t believe I’m as vehement a SNOOT as other English teachers I’ve known–although my students would probably disagree.  Grammarians typically fall into two camps:  prescriptive and descriptive.  Prescriptivists are rule-adherents, and they believe that by following the approved, accepted, and time-tested maxims of Standard Written English, people will communicate more clearly with one another.  Descriptivists, on the other hand, contend that language is inherently fluid, and so long as a person’s words are understood, what’s there to complain about?  Descriptivists accept variances in dialect (think Ebonics), pronunciation, usage, and are generally the mortal enemies of most prescriptivists.  Some prescriptivists go so far as to contend that sloppy grammar leads to moral laxity and a general disintegration of civilized society.  On the grammarian continuum, I would not categorize myself as a Fascist SNOOT, although I do believe that poor writing is a great impediment to job performance, career opportunities, and one’s desire to be taken seriously.  I also recognize that people’s regional and social dialects are an integral part of their personalities, and sometimes it takes a profound effort on the part of a writer or speaker to overcome one’s natural linguistic proclivities and develop skills that our dominate culture deems as “preferred” or “acceptable.”      

It may sound silly, but I enjoy reading through grammar books and style manuals.  I think Strunk and White’s Elements of Style is a work of sublime genius.  (Okay, that might be a bit of a stretch, but it is very good as style guides go.  However, the college students I taught a few years ago thought I was daft for assigning them chapters from this book to read for class each week.)  Do you remember how Scotty from Star Trek used to spend his shore leave time reading ships’ schematics and engineering manuals?  That’s me with style manuals.  Sometimes, I’ll peruse several of these books to see what each of them has to say on a given topic.  Take colons, for instance.  The colon is not as common as a comma or a period, but unlike apostrophes, it is one of the few punctuation marks Cormac McCarthy deems worthy of use.  Strunk and White is predictably brief on the topic:  “Use a colon after an independent clause to introduce a list of particulars, an appositive, an amplification, or an illustrative quotation.”  They go on to add, “The colon has more effect than the comma, less power to separate than the semicolon, and more formality than the dash.”  Well said, gentlemen.  Other style guides try to use humor to teach a point.  The book Woe Is I states, “Think of the colon as a traffic cop, or punctuation’s master of ceremonies.”  Likewise, the best-selling guide to grammar and punctuation, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, notes, “A colon is nearly always preceded by a complete sentence, and in its simplest usage it rather theatrically announces what is to come.”  (Please understand, this is grand comedy in the world of grammar books.) 

Occasionally, the style guides contradict one another.  Do you capitalize the first word of a complete sentence which follows a colon if that sentence is not a quotation?  Elements of Style says no;  Woe Is I says sometimes;  Pinckert’s Practical Grammar calls this approach “newfangled” but is otherwise accepting of the practice.  The editors of Modern American Usage make this case:  “In the modern view, a capital letter would trip up the eye just where the colon means to make a seamless connection.”  So, is it a question of rules over aesthetics?  Should we take a law-abiding prescriptivist stance and shout “Never!” from the writing rooftops, and thus ensure the moral integrity of the human species?  Or should we be wimpy and warm-fuzzied descriptivists and acknowledge that grammar rules change as languages change?  Oh, the complexity.  And to think how our teachers in grade school made grammar seem so simple.

Comma Chameleon

Yes, the title is reminiscent of the only song by Culture Club that I can stand, but it fits the topic so….thank you Boy George?

Part of the beauty and frustration of the English language is that it is constantly changing. Not only does this relate to morphemes and phonemes but it applies to punctuation as well. Take the comma for instance. Back when I was slogging through grammar lessons there were some rigid rules as to how commas were used: Put a comma anywhere in a sentence where a natural pause occurs. Place a comma before conjunctions and and but when they occur in a compound sentence. And I recall dozens of little red circles throughout my essays indicating where I had broken these rules (and many others I am sure).

These days though it seems the whole idea of comma usage has become more flexible. Actually it seems that the rules have been tossed aside like so much used tissue. Many rules now state that the use of the comma can many times be a personal choice. Well, which times? Are you telling me that if I conveniently forget a comma before the conjunction and that all will be forgiven because it was my choice not to break out the comma? I don’t buy that for a second.

So, as an English teacher, these days I’ve got commas gathering like ants at a picnic. Students are throwing them into their essays as the panacea for all their grammatical ills leaving me to sort out where they can get away with such frivolity and where it just doesn’t work…for me…because I am the teacher….and it is my personal choice.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy a good punctuation mutation every now and again. Some writers use it and the results are pure genius. Take for instance the remarkable poet e.e. cummings. Following is his poem “she Being Brand” where the poet experiments with the rules of capitalization and punctuation (and a few others as you will see):

she being Brand
-new;and you
know consequently a
little stiff i was
careful of her and(having
thoroughly oiled the universal
joint tested my gas felt of
her radiator made sure her springs were O.
K.)i went right to it flooded-the-carburetor cranked her
up,slipped the
clutch(and then somehow got into reverse she
kicked what
the hell)next
minute i was back in neutral tried and
again slo-wly;bare,ly nudg.  ing(my
lev-er Right-
oh and her gears being in
A 1 shape passed
from low through
second-in-to-high like
greasedlightning)just as we turned the corner of Divinity
avenue i touched the accelerator and give
her the juice,good
was the first ride and believe i we was
happy to see how nice she acted right up to
the last minute coming back down by the Public
Gardens i slammed on
brakes Bothatonce and
brought allofher tremB
to a:dead.
        e.e. cummings

This is an excellent example of how a writer can manipulate the way his or her text is read simply by playing with the rules. You are forced to experience this poem just as e.e. cummings had in mind and it makes for intense reading. Notice the way he surrounds the word “dead” with a colon and a period. These are two pieces of punctuation that when encountered, cause a reader to slow down or stop abruptly. So to write it this way “:dead.” Cummings is expressing the finality of the experience. It is a thing of beauty.

he absence of punctuation can be just as powerful. Open up any Cormac McCarthy novel and read a page and you will notice that the lack of punctuation also forces you to read the text a certain way. You must pay very close attention to understand a conversation between two or more characters when there are no quotation marks to guide you.

Many of us have read a sentence where someone forgot to use a period to end it or a comma to break it up and have found ourselves scratching our head and having to go back to reread it. This just goes to show you that punctuation in writing is an important element and one to be considered carefully. Ask yourself how you want your text to be read and then choose your punctuation accordingly.

Word of caution. There is a time and a place for such experimentation and during a formal writing assignment or in a cover letter is not the time. But don’t be afraid of punctuation. Use the fluidity and flexibility of the English language to your advantage…and read more e.e. cummings…..really…..he is brilliant.