Sunday, January 08, 2006

Grammar Goes Mainstream

I don't know all the specific rules of grammar and punctuation but I can make myself understood, hopefully well, in written and verbal communication. The whole point of communication is to allow someone to understand you. If you're misunderstood, or not understood at all, the most logical place to start would be with your own communication. Sometimes the recipient is at fault, but often it's the communicator who fails to adequately communicate.

Today the major Sacramento newspaper ran an article entitled It's Hip To Be Grammatically Correct, and my heart soared. Two books about grammar were mentioned in the article--and I've read them both. Recently. Personally, I thought Eats, Shoots and Leaves was, how shall I put it nicely, not so good, but Woe Is I was extremely well-written.

I don't follow all the punctuation rules we're taught in school but I am consistent with what I do. From one of the books mentioned above I learned that some of what I do is actually considered English punctuation as opposed to American punctuation. Just as an example, if I put something in quotation marks and a punctuation mark goes at the end, I only put the punctuation mark inside the quotes if it ends the statement within the quotes--otherwise, outside it goes. Here's what I mean:

God sent a message to Pharoah, "Let my people go." The period ends the statement in the quotation marks, so that's where I put it. The period serves double duty, ending both the statement in the quotation marks as well as the entire sentence. Then there's this sentence:

The President referred to three countries as an "Axis of Evil". What's inside the quotation marks doesn't need a punctuation mark, so I place it outside to end the sentence. Apparently this is an English way of doing things.

One change in punctuation that I've never understood is the serial comma. I was taught to put a comma after each item in a list, including the item before the "and". Example: The colors on the American flag are red, white, and blue. Some new usage drops the last comma, giving: The colors on the American flag are red, white and blue. That doesn't look or sound right to me--it seems like the white and blue are grouped together, somehow, like peanut butter and jelly. I'll now give two examples of the same sentence, punctuated the old-fashioned way (which I prefer) and the more modern way.

My favorite sandwiches are roast beef, turkey, peanut butter and jelly, and bologna. (old style)
My favorite sandwiches are roast beef, turkey, peanut butter and jelly and bologna. (new style, omitting the comma before and)

It's very clear when using the old rule that I have four favorite sandwiches. It's also crystal clear what those sandwiches are. The new method makes it look like I have only three favorite sandwiches, and the last one is pretty yucky.

I also know how to use a semicolon effectively; unfortunately, so few do. =)

I've also noticed, perhaps in the last decade or so, people who speak in a way that they think makes them sound educated but actually makes them come across as pretentious idiots. "We should conversate about this before making a decision." The word is converse, dude. "Bring the report to myself when you're done with it." When did substituting myself for me even sound good, much less intelligent?

There's also street language that's made its way into common usage. Use of the prefix dis- to mean disrespect--what's up with that? When did disrespect become a verb instead of a noun? Why doesn't the new word dis mean disconnect, disagreement, disembarkation, dishonorable, dissatisfaction, or distinguished? We all know the answer, it just wouldn't be politically correct for me to state it here.

I find the topic exceedingly interesting but I'm not going to write any books about it. This post will be about as far as I go. Still, people who make the most basic mistakes on a regular basis come across to me as uneducated. And since all of us adults (not we adults) had the opportunity to get at least 12 years of education, I'd like to think we could write and speak at least passably well.


Kalroy said...

"Use of the prefix dis- to mean disrespect--what's up with that?"

I believe the proper form of that sentence is, "Use of the prefix dis- to mean disrespect--what up wi dat?"

Or, in Hawaiian Island Creole, aka Pidgin, "yoos uhduh prefix dis to mean disreespeck, how come?"


Thespis said...


I wanted you to see this post, but I do not have your email.

Let me know your thoughts.

Mark Manley
Thespis Journal

Amerloc said...

So I'm curious: Eats, Shoots, and Leaves didn't impress you. I'm willing to trust your judgement, but care to elaborate?

Cameron said...

Actually, I think that "diss" is a shortening of "dysphemism".

Darren said...

Amerloc, I didn't like the writing style. It was kind of rambling. Additionally, it was written by a British author so some of the terms were unfamiliar to me. It seemed like a book for the masses, actually.

Woe Is I is very engaging, despite the fact that it focuses on correct grammar and punctuation.

And Cameron, I had to look that word up online because it wasn't in my dictionaries!

buffi said...

Darren, this may be one of my favorite posts ever. I am known among my friends as the Grammar Nazi. I have issues with sentences that end with prepositions and the usage of who and whom. I try to overcome them, but sometimes am overwhelmed.

My husband is an AF officer and you pointed out one of the most disturbing trends among officers of all ranks - using "myself" in place of "me." This drives me crazy and makes a four star General look uneducated and ridiculous!

Thanks for letting me vent. I shall have to look for Woe is I. Sounds like it is right up my alley!

ns said...


Just wanted to let you know that you need to keep writing. I read your blog every day - it is part of my daily reading. I don't always comment, but your thoughts are always very interesting.

Anyway, the problem, I believe, is that so many people are "posers" now. They are really NOT educated or intelligent, but they want to pretend they are.

I blame parenting and the breakdown of education. Too much self esteem bull crap and not enough knowledge.

The sad thing is they only fool their fellow fools. (but of course, they don't know it)

Darren said...

To the last two commenters--thank you!!! I appreciate your kind words.

Buffy, my opinion is that you have to know the rules in order to break them. I don't believe in excessive form over function. Sometimes I'll end a sentence with a preposition becaust not doing so sounds too stilted, which then detracts from the meaning of the sentence by focusing the listener/reader on my structure instead of my meaning. Additionally, I split infinitives all the time because there are nuances in meaning gained by doing so. I see no reason *not* to split an infinitive just because some Latin-loving Victorian author said we shouldn't!

That said, however, I try to play by the rules most of the time.

EdWonk said...

We've linked this post over at The Education Wonks.

Anonymous said...

And now we must consider the grammar of the emoticon. :-(

Is it more sad with a nose, or without?