I’ve been part of the Dead Guys team for more than six years now, wearing several different hats; there are Wednesdays which follow a pretty routine week, when I sit and stare at the screen for far too long, wondering what the heck I can post about that I haven’t said before half a dozen times.
Fortunately most weeks something happens to stimulate my blog post juices. This week, amazingly, there were two things. So I’ll launch into one, see how much outpouring it generates, and segué into the other if the post is looking a tad sparse. And since neither of these topics is going away any time soon, if the first one runs far enough, I’ll have something to post about next week.
The first was a newspaper article by a lady you may have heard of. Her name is Lynne Truss, and I have great admiration for her, for two reasons. One is that we share not only a first name, but also a spelling of said name which must be unusual, given the way people spell it wrongly so often, even when they’re replying to an e-mail from me. The other, which is far more significant, is that she is as picky about punctuation as I am. Possibly even pickier.
Except now she’s decided not to be. That’s what her newspaper article was about: she’s given up trying to convince people who compose signs and notices in public places that the placing (or not) of a comma or colon, or the dreaded apostrophe before the s in a plural, can actually change the meaning. She cites several instances where an important piece of information on a notice means the exact opposite of what was intended because there’s a comma in the wrong place.
She can’t understand why people put inverted commas round a word to denote emphasis, when what they’re really doing is casting doubt on the intended meaning. And as for that apostrophe... Sometimes it’s funny as well as misleading. I liked this one best: Room to let. Bill’s included. Bill Clinton? Bill Gates? Bill Murray? I wonder if he knows...
The problem is that the people who compose these signs and notices simply don’t realize there’s a problem, and even when it’s explained to them they don’t understand why it matters. Why all the fuss? they say nonchalantly; everyone knows what it means.
I would dispute everyone. Lynne Truss and I can’t be the only people to look at a wrongly punctuated sentence and see what’s actually there, rather than what some well-meaning but short-sighted person intended. But that reaction is why Lynne T has given up; you can only bang your head against a brick wall for so long before realizing it isn’t going to crumble.
The fact is, and go easy on the indignant comments, I know I’m preaching to the choir here, punctuation isn’t just a stupid set of rules which a pernickety English teacher uses to catch you out; it’s an invaluable device which helps everyone, not only writers, make sense of words on the page, or in a more public place such as a rail station or airport. And if people like Lynne Truss stop pointing them out, the errors and inconsistencies which arise when it’s used wrongly won’t just continue; they will proliferate.
Here’s a little conundrum for you, also culled from Lynne Truss’s article. Take this sentence, and add two commas which switch the meaning right round.
The defendant said his barrister had a history of drug abuse.
Sorry, no prizes; statistically the winner would be in the US, and the postage costs would bankrupt me.
I had a feeling this topic would carry me away on a flood of strong feelings. Which is good; I still have something to post about next week. Watch this space!