Friday, April 17, 2009

Punctuation education

This post begins with some wonderful musing by Mr David Mitchell and was inspired by my tiny segment on Radio 4 last night ... and the subsequent torrent of tweets I received on Twitter. Or should that be tworrents? Much of the discussion was about plain English and the need for clarity.

I agree with much of what David says on his Soapbox. We shouldn't all be getting hot under the collar about the use of myself and yourself. Nor should we be worried too much about the differences between less and fewer. Yes, there are differences and I know what they are. But does substituting one word for the other really make the message less clear? I don't think so. And as fewer people are using fewer these days, the less we'll hear it. Just as may and shall will probably be extinct around the same time as the Northern White Rhino.

I do care about spelling and punctuation, however. But not just because of some arbitrary and often contradictory rules of grammar that I was taught at school. It's because poor spelling and bad punctuation can alter the meaning of a sentence. And if that happens, the purpose of the sentence - to communicate - is lost. You may know this famous example:

An English professor wrote the words: "A woman without her man is nothing" and asked his students to punctuate it correctly.

All of the males in the class wrote: "A woman, without her man, is nothing."

All the females in the class wrote: "A woman: without her, man is nothing."

It's a silly example but it illustrates an important point. Punctuation was invented to replace some of the non-verbal parts of communication; the stops, the pauses, the intonations. It allows us to identify spoken words from reported speech and questions from statements. Without punctuation a sentence can be ambiguous. With bad punctuation it can be misleading. And yet the rules of punctuation - and there are very few of them really - are quite simple. We should all make the effort to learn them. Of course, we'll still make mistakes. I make many myself. But I'd like to think that most of what I write can be understood after just one reading.

Poor spelling can also change the meaning of a sentence although the impact isn't quite as heavy as poor punctuation. We can generally still understand a sentence evn if it's ritten wiv por speling. And the advent of computers and the internet has added an additional layer of difficulty for us Brits as the default variant of English is US English with its simplified spelling and errant Zs. But don't despair! Even American spelling is wholly comprehensible in the UK and, if I was a real language fascist (which I'm not), I would point out that words ending in 'ize' rather than 'ise' are more technically correct; pick up any university text book or grammar guide and it will support my outrageous claim. The use of 'ise' is a purely British affectation and a fairly modern (Victorian) one at that. It's certainly not worth popping an artery worrying about it.

The purpose of language - spoken or written - is to communicate. And if the message arrives in the form that the sender intended, the communication was successful. Which is why my real bugbear is not with spelling, or even punctuation, but with the unnecessary use of jargon and TLAs*. But that's a subject for another day and a much, much larger rant. Oh dear me, yes.

*TLAs - Three Letter Acronyms. Harf.

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