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Thursday, October 21, 2021

Column: Punctuation police

At the exciting age of five years old, I wrote an insightful, colorful, thought-provoking poem. My ideas were brilliant. But, my punctuation was that of a five-year-old. (How was I expected to distinguish between “butterflies, who fly, are cool” or “butterflies who fly are cool”?) Ever since then, I have been in a love-hate relationship with punctuation.

Why should I care about commas? As Vampire Weekend asks us, “Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?” I know you were trying to be all “ironic” and witty with your rhetorical question song lyrics, but, guess what? I care about an Oxford comma.

An Oxford comma is the comma that comes before a conjunction when you’re making a list. Like how Santa wants to give us all a pony, a million dollars or a lump of coal. Sadly, the AP Stylebook doesn’t share my love of the little guy, and journalists don’t utilize it.

As much as I want to question authority and rage against the orthographic system, punctuation can be a lifesaver for two reasons: ambiguity and prosody.

Here’s my favorite example of when punctuation saves lives: “Let’s eat Grandma!” versus “Let’s eat, Grandma!” I don’t know about you, but I doubt that my grandmother would taste good with a nice red wine and some potatoes.

Without the comma in the second phrase, the misuse of punctuation might lead to cannibalism. (Maybe the Donner party wasn’t even starving. They just didn’t know how to use commas correctly.) This is a classic example of ambiguity, meaning there is more than one way to interpret the sentence.

Prosody refers to how we speak, specifically the rhythm, stress and intonation of our speech. Like road signs on the highway of literature, punctuation acts as markers to tell us how to perform. Commas signify pauses. Exclamation marks can indicate excitement, or if we’re talking about how I use them, they usually signal sarcasm.

Go peruse the sentences in the Declaration of Independence. Take a giant breath and try saying (and understanding) the opening sentence without looking at the punctuation. If you reach the last of the 71 words without having to pause to breathe or figure out where one clause starts and the other ends, you deserve a medal. That’s not even the longest sentence in the document. Besides being thankful for achieving independence, be thankful that the founding fathers knew a thing or two about syntax.

While punctuation can save a person from breaking the law and passing out due to lack of oxygen, sometimes it can be a conceited, arrogant nuisance (think Hermione Granger). It is usually not a matter of life and death if I forget a hyphen. Yet, some old grammarian who wrote a rulebook 50 years ago might think I’m as uncivilized as those cannibals were for forgetting to hyphenate “Anglo-Saxon.”

If there is anything that a linguist hates more than hearing that another language in the world has died, it is a prescriptivist. Prescriptivists prescribe rules for a language. They are concerned with how a language should be used instead of how it is used. If you’re unsure as to what I am talking about, go Google CollegeHumor’s “Grammar Nazis” video.

In today’s world, I don’t think it makes much sense to say that we should only value language if it is “properly” used. Look at the wonderful world of text messaging jargon. We can derive a meaning from “ily2 bc ur a swty.” I love you, too, because you are a sweetie? Or, maybe “swty” means sweaty. I don’t know; I don’t really love people who are sweaty.

On the other hand, prescriptivists do have a point. If we have no unity in our language, we won’t be able to understand each other. If I e-mail you saying “I’m taking all your money and your stuffed animal collection, agreed?” and you don’t understand that my idea of a question mark is to ask a question, you might just succumb to my persuasive powers and think I am making an irrefutable statement. Kiss your teddy bears goodbye.

My punctuation philosophy can be summed up in three words: less is best. Don’t use it unless you need it to clear up an ambiguous situation or mark for prosody. To all of you out there getting ready to take a red pen to a collection of words, before you insert a superfluous amount of commas, ask yourself one question: “Without this piece of punctuation, am I eating Grandma?”

CORRIE JACOBS does not speak for the TAs and professors of this university. Sorry if they don’t like your innovative punctuation. Direct your frustration to cljacobs@ucdavis.edu.

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