OP-ED: ‘Decline, Fall’ of Grammar, Punctuation Put in Perspective

  • By David M. Kinchen 

A friend and former L.A. Times colleague sent me an article in the Harvard Business Review by a businessman named Kyle Wiens who wrote that he won’t hire anyone — regardless of qualifications — if they don’t pass a grammar test (link:http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/07/i_wont_hire_people_who_use_poo.html).

It says a lot about what I — an English major — consider to be a decline and fall in the quality of education — reflected in a widely publicized decline in high school reading scores — that it has come to this, that what I call “bonehead English” has to be taught to people who presumably had learned the subject in high school, or even college.

 

Wiens, CEO of iFixit, the largest online repair community, as well as founder of Dozuki, a software company, says:

 

“If you think an apostrophe was one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, you will never work for me. If you think a semicolon is a regular colon with an identity crisis, I will not hire you. If you scatter commas into a sentence with all the discrimination of a shotgun, you might make it to the foyer before we politely escort you from the building.

“Some might call my approach to grammar extreme, but I prefer Lynne Truss’s more cuddly phraseology: I am a grammar ‘stickler.’ And, like Truss — author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves — I have a ‘zero tolerance approach’ to grammar mistakes that make people look stupid.

“Now, Truss and I disagree on what it means to have ‘zero tolerance.’ She thinks that people who mix up their itses ‘deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave,’ while I just think they deserve to be passed over for a job — even if they are otherwise qualified for the position.

“Everyone who applies for a position at either of my companies, iFixit or Dozuki, takes a mandatory grammar test. Extenuating circumstances aside (dyslexia, English language learners, etc.), if job hopefuls can’t distinguish between ‘to’ and ‘too’, their applications go into the bin.

“Of course, we write for a living. iFixit.com is the world’s largest online repair manual, and Dozuki helps companies write their own technical documentation, like paperless work instructions andstep-by-step user manuals. So, it makes sense that we’ve made a preemptive strike against groan-worthy grammar errors.

“But grammar is relevant for all companies. Yes, language is constantly changing, but that doesn’t make grammar unimportant. Good grammar is credibility, especially on the internet. In blog posts, on Facebook statuses, in e-mails, and on company websites, your words are all you have. They are a projection of you in your physical absence. And, for better or worse, people judge you if you can’t tell the difference between their, there, and they’re.

 

* * *

The reference to Lynn Truss’s delightful book, reminded me that Huntington News Network contributor Philip Yaffe has also written about the supposed decline in proper punctation — and writing in general — so I sent him the Wiens article. He responded by sending me his essay on punctuation, a riff on the bestseller from Truss, “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” that Wiens referenced. Here it is:

 

The Purpose of Punctuation

 

by Philip Yaffe

 

In 2003 Lynne Truss’s book “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” caused a firestorm of interest in stopping the purported precipitous slide in standards of punctuation. There was one thing very right about the book, and two things very wrong.

 

What was right about it was that it became an international bestseller, making Ms. Truss quite a wealthy woman. What was wrong about it were its two principal theses:

 

There has been a precipitous slide in standards of punctuation.

 

* Teaching of the rules of punctuation needs to be strengthened and reinforced.

 

Throughout history, the older generation has always lamented the decline in the standards of something or other, be it literacy, respect, decorum, initiative, music, etc., because “it wasn’t like that in my day.”

 

English punctuation may have changed, but change does not ipso facto equate with decline. By such an argument, American punctuation would have to be considered a debasement of British punctuation, from which it derives. Or at least it could be considered a debasement from the point of view of Britons, but certainly not the point of view of Americans.

 

The fact is, there are no true standards of punctuation in English (or in many other healthy, evolving languages), nor should there be. Punctuation is a tool. Its value resides in how well it is used to achieve its end, which is better communication.

 

I would argue that proper punctuation has two essential objectives:

 

* Help the reader better understand what the writer is trying to say.

 

Help the writer emphasize key ideas and passages.

 

If these objectives are achieved, then punctuation serves its purpose, even if two people, or two countries, do it differently.

 

It would be too long and tedious to discuss all aspects of punctuation here, so let me enlarge on this argument with respect to the simple comma, whose “decline” seems to have so exercised Ms. Truss.

 

By simplest definition, the comma allows the reader to take a momentary pause in order to absorb and assimilate what he has just read, or to prepare him for what he is about to read. In general, however, a sentence without commas aimed at this objective would be just as understandable as a sentence with commas. The question is, would it be as effective?

 

Let’s look at an example, in fact the one on which Ms. Truss based the title of her book “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”:

 

A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to fire it at the other customers.

“Why?” asks the confused, surviving waiter amidst the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.

“Well, I’m a panda,” he says, at the door. “Look it up.”

The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation: “Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China that eats shoots and leaves.”

 

This, of course, is a pun, a play on words, as are many language-based jokes. However, in reality, if you heard a zoologist say that a panda is a large, bear-like animal that eats shoots and leaves, it is highly unlikely that you would make such a bizarre interpretation. Why? Because to a large extent, meaning depends on context. The same word or sentence in one situation may have an entirely different meaning in another situation, depending on what precedes it.

 

For example, if you heard someone say, “I like dogs,” your first thought would probably be that dogs are his or her favorite domestic animal. On the other hand, if it were preceded by the question, “What is your favorite food?” the same statement would have an entirely different meaning. Because of context, it is highly unlikely (if not virtually impossible) that anyone would confuse the two meanings.

 

Let’s return to the idea of the comma being a pause and see how it could be used to enhance understanding by either avoiding confusion or creating emphasis. You have already seen several examples of it in this article.

 

Consider the paragraph:

English punctuation may have changed, but change does not ipso facto equate with decline. By such an argument, American punctuation would have to be considered a debasement of British punctuation, from which it derives.

 

In both sentences, the commas could quite easily have been left out in order to read:

English punctuation may have changed but change does not ipso facto equate with decline. By such an argument American punctuation would have to be considered a debasement of British punctuation from which it derives.

 

The two paragraphs have exactly the same meaning, which no one would misinterpret. However I think you will agree that they don’t have quite the same emphasis.

Let’s try another experiment.

 

Poor

When I was a very young child and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up I said an insurance salesman which of course surprised them because it wasn’t the answer they were expecting.

 

Better

When I was a very young child and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said an insurance salesman, which of course surprised them because it wasn’t the answer they were expecting.

 

Best

When I was a very young child and people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said an insurance salesman. This of course surprised them, because it wasn’t the answer they were expecting.

 

Let me be perfectly clear. I am in no way advocating that punctuation should not be taught as part of any literate person’s basic education. What I am advocating is that punctuation not be taught as “rules” cast in stone. Because in most cases they aren’t rules at all, but rather conventions, i.e. general but arbitrarily agreed ways of doing things.

 

If they were truly rules, then Ms. Truss, who is British, would have had no need to create a separate American edition of her blockbuster book. The original version would have sufficed for any and all English speakers, anywhere in the world.

 

I personally lament the declining use of commas. I tend to use more commas than many younger writers. I also recognize that I probably overuse commas, but this is how I was taught. I have made a conscientious effort to reduce the number of commas in my texts. Not to follow the fashion. In certain instances I was taught to use commas obligatorily, even if they serve no purpose. However if they serve no purpose, then why use them?

I am now perfectly at ease about not using “obligatory” commas when there is no obvious need for them. However I judiciously include them whenever I feel a pause or a bit of emphasis would be useful.

 

In other words, I am inconsistent. I sometimes use a comma after “thus,” “therefore,” etc., and other times I don’t; however I consistently make this a conscious decision. I no longer automatically put in commas because this is how I was taught, anymore than I automatically leave them out in order to follow the trend.

 

In short, I use commas (and all other forms of punctuation) to build the best possible text I can. One whose basic meaning is impeccably clear, together with any pauses and emphases necessary to help the reader better understand and assimilate everything the text is truly trying to say.

 

Isn’t this what effective writing is all about?

Philip Yaffe was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1942 and grew up in Los Angeles, where he graduated from the University of California – Los Angeles (UCLA) with a degree in mathematics and physics. In his senior year, he was also editor-in-chief of the Daily Bruin, UCLA’s daily student newspaper.

 

He has more than 40 years of experience in journalism and international marketing communication. At various points in his career, he has been a teacher of journalism, a reporter/feature writer with The Wall Street Journal, an account executive with a major international press relations agency, European marketing communication director with two major international companies, and a founding partner of a specialized marketing communication agency in Brussels, Belgium, where he has lived since 1974.

 
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