Archive for the ‘Punctuation’ Category

Comma Splices

Saturday, July 4th, 2009

John: You should write a blog entry on comma splices.

Me: I don’t know. At first I thought I would do that sort of thing, but now it feels boring to teach grammar in blog entries.

John: How about just railing against mistakes?

He loves me. He really, really loves me.

Prescriptivists vs. Descriptivists: the Horror

Tuesday, June 16th, 2009

In linguistics and lexicography, there are two approaches: prescription and description. The prescriptivists try to shape the way language evolves, or to prevent it from evolving (a.k.a. strict enforcement of grammar, usage, and mechanics rules); the descriptivists document the evolution.

I feel pretty safe in saying that the descriptivists are operating from a place of tolerance, common sense, and intellectual curiosity, whereas the prescriptivists are grasping at what is essentially a liquid. Language, as is often said, is a living thing, and in the mouths of millions of speakers it is always changing and always will.

And yet. What about those of us who love order? What about the fact that grammar and punctuation contribute to meaning, enhance meaning, and often even make meaning?

Yeah. I’m something of a prescriptivist. And sometimes I can’t help but feel that the descriptivists are standly idly by, witnessing the carnage, without so much as lifting a finger. It’s like, it’s one thing if you’ve turned away from the atrocities. It’s another if you spend your day documeting them.

I like slang, though. And novel coinages. So I’m not all bad.

Our Friend the Direct-Address Comma

Monday, June 8th, 2009

Let’s address the direct address comma, one of my personal bugaboos. Confession: I’m not sure it’s literally called the “direct address comma,” but it should be. Why? Because it’s used to indicate direct address.

Here’s how it works. In written English, when you’re directly addressing a person, or animal, or object, deity, whatever (i.e., an other, or yourself, spoken to as an other), you place a comma before the name. Like this:

  1. Hello, big world.
  2. Why do you have a banana in your ear, Bert?
  3. Goodbye, Shlomo. I never loved you.
  4. Bite me, algebra.

Pretty sensible, right? The comma indicates a slight pause, which you can hear when you read these lines aloud. But there’s a greater purpose, which is clarity. Because if you leave out the direct address comma, you invite confusion.

Back when I was doing a lot of work for a certain bank, henceforth ShaMu, they announced a new campaign: Goodbye Fees.

“What are goodbye fees?” I asked.

“No,” they answered. “We’re saying goodbye to fees.”

Oh, no they weren’t. They were introducing fees of the “goodbye” type. If they wanted to dismiss the fees, they needed a comma. What type of comma? All together now: the direct address comma. Goodbye, fees. And goodbye, ShaMu. You really did a number on yourself. And a bunch of homeowners. And the global economic system.