Colonic irritation

Oh WordPress, you shouldn’t have got me started.

A recent Daily Prompt asked about punctuation. In particular, it asked ‘do you overuse exclamation marks? Do you avoid semicolons like the plague? What type of punctuation could you never live without?’ 

Like it says on Wikipedia, punctuation is:

“the use of spacing, conventional signs, and certain typographical devices as aids to the understanding and correct reading, both silently and aloud, of handwritten and printed texts.”

In other words, punctuation ensures that the meaning – especially of the written word – is properly conveyed. As Lynne Truss pointed out, there’s all the difference in the world between “eats shoots and leaves” (cute black and white bear) and “eats, shoots and leaves” (Panda with an AK47 and an attitude problem). A stray or misplaced comma can cause a lot of damage:

Punctuation2

As a point of principle I always try to use proper punctuation, because I believe very strongly that it’s important. Being hard on myself about correct punctuation, though, brings with it two sometimes difficult corollaries:

  • Firstly, setting oneself up as a punctuation paragon obviously opens up the risk of being hoist by one’s own petard, as it were. However, as much of my life in any case has been lived under the shadow of imposter syndrome – the fear of being found out – I just try to get on with it and at least minimise the number of mistakes I make.
  • The second flip-side is that when I see punctuation not being used properly, I can sometimes get on my high horse and harumph along the lines of ‘if a proper structure of language is what differentiates Homo sapiens from the animals, then what’s the bloody point if you just throw words onto a page?’ I kid you not, sometimes I’m within a hair’s-breadth of firing off a letter to the Daily Telegraph.

Going back to the specifics of the prompt, no I do not use exclamation marks other than on very rare occasions; I find it really rather irritating when I start – I usually don’t finish – to read something that’s got them scattered all over the place. It’s the linguistic equivalent of jumping up and down, frantically flapping your hands about, seeking attention. Not waving, drowning.

As to the semi-colon, I fear that it’s my Achilles Heel. I am tortured by the fear of sticking one in where it doesn’t belong or, even worse, where the correct thing would be a colon. I think I used it properly in the previous paragraph, but I’m not completely sure.

When it comes to my own punctuation tics, maybe I’m a little overfond of parentheses and em dashes, but my defence is that, as alternatives to marking off clauses with commas, they help to mix it up a bit on the page.

As to the rest of the punctuation arsenal, I’m on firmer ground. I’m not too bothered about the Oxford comma (the one you can stick in a list just before the ‘and’ that precedes the final item) although I wouldn’t choose to use it myself because I happen to think it’s both superfluous and inelegant (you see, now that’s set me off). 

But I have zero tolerance for this abomination:

NOOOOOOO!

NOOOOOOO!

The greengrocers’ apostrophe. Why? Just tell me why? Best banana’s what? Which one is the best banana? How much do the others cost?

And while I’m at it, there’s another thing…

it’s not just poor punctuation that gets me going; there’s bad grammar too (hope that semi-colon’s okay). There’s the usual problems – although I fail to understand what the problem actually is, apart from idleness – their, there and they’re aren’t interchangeable and neither are where, were and we’re. It sets my teeth on edge when I see these so obviously misused in blog posts. I presume the author knows what they they intended to put, which itself suggests very strongly that they can’t be bothered to check it. Fair enough; I won’t be bothered to read it.

For me, though, the worst grammatical faux pas is the failure to distinguish between fewer and less. Nothing is more guaranteed to get me yelling at a TV screen – except maybe Craig Joubert’s recent masterclass in rugby refereeing – than this inability (or is it simply insouciance?) to distinguish between an adverb and an adjective. There are not less tourists in the winter, there are fewer. Which bits of the tourists get left at home?

Does all this make me a grammar Nazi? I don’t think so. Maybe it would if I made a habit of gratuitously pointing out grammatical errors to their perpetrators, but I don’t.

So I’m afraid your on you’re own their.

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