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  • The laws of English punctuation

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mburke@stlcc.edu Oct 23, 2011 6:08 pm

I'll stipulate that punctuation is largely arbitrary, that it has changed over time, and is much the product of the invention of printing. But you have to admit that it makes reading much less tedious, clarifies ambiguity when done well, and is a marker for class and education in our culture. Your dismissal of its importance is, I think, unfair, rooted perhaps in being tired of answering what to you seems a trivial question. Thus it deprecates the interlocutor and lets you establish a stance that combines world-weariness and erudition, something at odds with what many consider to be the prime purpose of college professors, to educate others and, better yet, inspire them to educate themselves. Perhaps you could write a column about language questions you like to answer.

Reply to mburke@stlcc.edu at 6:08 pm
jack_runnels@hotmail.com Oct 23, 2011 7:26 pm

I think that the bottom line is that while it is important to mark up a student's paper for incorrect or unclear punctuation, making up a greengrocer's sign for similar errors--especially when the meaning can be discerned by the educated and uneducated alike--is just plain silly.

Reply to jack_runnels@hotmail.com at 7:26 pm
bill@emr.net Oct 23, 2011 8:05 pm

I like punctuation, too. See! However, I agree with what seems to be the gist of the article, that the most important thing about the message is the meaning, not necessarily the delivery.

Reply to bill@emr.net at 8:05 pm
duncan.mitchel@gmail.com Oct 24, 2011 10:57 pm

"and is a marker for class and education in our culture."That's one of the things that are wrong with the obsession with punctuation, spelling, and grammar (PSG): it's a marker for class and education in our culture. Which means that "correct" PSG is determined by contemporary fads and fashions in those areas. The Constitution was written by educated men, for example, who didn't care much about punctuation, at least by today's standards; they had other ways of showing rank. I believe I read somewhere that "dropped" g's for example, used to be a marker of upper class; but no longer. PSG obsessives talk as though they believed that correct spelling is timeless and somehow inherent in the language; but show them examples of change -- erratic punctuation in the Constitution, double negatives in Shakespeare -- and they suddenly become radical relativists: Shakespeare's English was primitive and undeveloped, but our English is correct! The Founders were backward and didn't know any better, but we do!So what makes me seriously angry about PSG obsessives is that a large part of what drives them is a desire to feel superior to other people who are really not their inferiors at all, over matters of no real importance. When PSG obsessives look down on other people for their supposed of education as shown in their use of language, that reflects badly on them, not on the people they despise. It's a form of bigotry, and should be regarded and treated as such. I'll agree that I enjoy the skillful use of punctuation, and I'm neurotic enough that the greengrocer's apostrophe drives me up the wall sometimes. But it's only a neurotic reaction. It's not important at all. Which makes your complaint to Prof. Baron rather ironic."Thus it deprecates the interlocutor and lets you establish a stance that combines world-weariness and erudition, something at odds with what many consider to be the prime purpose of college professors, to educate others and, better yet, inspire them to educate themselves." By your own account you don't really believe this: you think that education is a class marker, to enable people to feel superior to others. Even the best professors are entitled to get tired of being asked, repetitively, stupid questions by people who don't really want to be "educated" but rather want their prejudices to validated, so they can continue to look down on others. I took this post to be an expression of exasperation, which I can well understand. The readers of Prof. Baron's blog aren't students, aren't a captive audience whose feelings might be hurt by his use of his authority. And what he's said here isn't nearly as offensive as PSG obsessives who pretend, for example, not to be able to understand other people's perfectly understandable English speech or writing, to express their wishfully superior education and class standing.

Reply to duncan.mitchel@gmail.com at 10:57 pm
mburke@stlcc.edu Oct 28, 2011 8:48 am

I am not a PSG obsessive. I do think education is a class marker, in that if people want to move up economically/socially/whatever, they have to have a fair amount of education (one-offs like Bill Gates aside). And I think my job as a teacher, especially in a community college, is to help my students join the "company of educated men and women," as a university graduation speaker I once heard said. I can't change the larger social structures that govern so much of our lives--too old for Occupy Wall Street, alas. But I can try to make sure my students do not foreclose their options. That is why I also teach Shakespeare--BTW--I do find Professor Baron exasperating--challenging, too. This column did not show him in his best light.

Reply to mburke@stlcc.edu at 8:48 am