Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The comma as a sign of respect

Liz Wolgemuth, who covers careers and business etiquette and all that jazz for U.S. New & World Report, asked a question on her blog today that is near and dear to this English major's heart: Does Grammar Really Matter Anymore? It's so near to my heart, in fact, that just hours before Wolgemuth's article appeared in Google Reader, my husband and I had been bemoaning the state of communication today in the U.S. of A.

That should be enough to alert you to our grammatical crisis, because my husband is not exactly a stickler for grammar. He's been saying "have went" for all of our 26 years of marriage, despite my stellar grammatical modeling and my occasional, pointed, maybe-a-bit-too-loud "have gone" by way of correction. And yet, he gets irked by the instances of grammatical looseness he encounters every day.

Here's the thing: I became reconciled to the fluid nature of language some time ago. I realize that language is an ever-changing factor of human life that shifts according to a multitude of influences, not the least being the ever-changing nature of human nature. Language evolves naturally.

But linguistic and grammatical changes become problematic when people make them intentionally and carelessly, without regard for the rest of humanity. Or English-speaking humanity, in this case.

The point of language is communication, but our ability to communicate with each other is severely diminished when we make up our own rules for grammar, spelling, usage and word definitions. (I'm OK with some forms of shorthand, by the way, if you're texting someone who understands the shorthand. This is why I don't ever text or IM. And yes, I know I just used "text" as a verb. I hate myself for it, all right?)

But here's the bottom line for me, as both an editor and a writer: Following the rules for punctuation and spelling and all the rest is a sign of respect for the reader. I remember hearing such great things about Cold Mountain, but after a few pages I found it was just too annoying to try to read dialogue that had no quotation marks. Plus, I had a hard time suppressing the urge to mark up the book. By all accounts, it's a wonderful book. I'll never know. I felt as if the author had ignored convention for an artistic purpose with little regard for the reader.

That's really what it comes down to—respect and regard for the reader. As an editor, I'm required to follow the dictates of The Associated Press Stylebook when I'm editing news, The Chicago Manual of Style when I'm editing books, and the style guides my clients have developed to supplement those two books. Even so, there are cases in which the style guides just don't make sense, and that's when I break the rules in order to make a particular sentence more readable and understandable.

What do you think? I really don't believe I'm off-base in suggesting that we need to consider our readers, whether we're writing an email, a blog or a book. Or am I?

Monday, August 11, 2008

Remembering Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

I've hoped for a week now that I would be able to come up with a brilliant, poignant tribute to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, an author whose impact on my life has been immeasurable. Others have done far better than I could in the week or so since he passed away. But I can't let his death go unmentioned, especially after reading a New York Times article about the absence of a national outpouring of grief in Russia, a country that owes him so very much.

I was in my 20s when the great writer was forced to leave his homeland. This is a portion of what I wrote about him in 2005 in God Between the Covers, an annotated bibliography of the books that had a significant impacted on my life:
Several years after his exile, he emigrated to the United States, where he proceeded to alternately enchant and offend the media and the masses. At first he was a media darling and a trophy émigré for the American government: “Look! A Russian who found faith in a prison camp and got out and chose to live where? In the U.S., of course!” But he fell out of favor when he began criticizing the West for its complacency, lack of moral courage, and legalistic attitudes.

I ignored the backlash and concentrated on what Solzhenitsyn had to say, mainly through One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and his monumental work, The Gulag Archipelago, a disturbing account of life in the Soviet labor camp system that was based on his observations as a prisoner as well as the experiences of other prisoners. The Soviets did not take kindly to this exposé, which is why he was finally booted out. The combination of the depth of his faith and the courage it took for him to stand up for his convictions stood in marked contrast to what I saw in the church at that time (and, well, what I saw in my own life). I thought we could use a few more troublemakers like him. I still do.
God, send us more troublemakers like Solzhenitsyn. He stands apart as one of the true heroes of the 20th century.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Photoshopping of America

I realize this is nothing new, and I'm pretty late to the game in writing about it. But I had a conversation the other day with a guy who uses an online dating service, and we got to talking about women (and men, I'm sure) who are less than honest when they give out information about themselves on Internet sites. Like many men, my friend has wasted time online with women who turned out not to be who or what they said they were.

Just as bad is all the altered photos. I personally know a woman who Photoshopped herself right into disfigurement, and she just can't see it. Even to the untrained eye, her online photo makes her face look distorted. To the trained eye, it's downright laughable; one of her eyes in no way matches the other, and one cheekbone looks as if it's swollen—but in a really odd way, not the way it might naturally swell up if she was injured.

This woman has fallen prey to one of the greatest deceptions to befall women in recent decades with regard to their appearance: that it's OK to deceive men by altering their photos, because once those same men are introduced to the woman's stellar personality, it won't matter that she's 10 years older or 20 pounds heavier. But it will. Because deception is crummy foundation for a relationship, which is presumably what some of those men, at least, are looking for through an online dating service.

I don't get it. Sure, my photo over there on the side of this post may not make me look so hot, but that's me. Not so hot, but honest. (Oh, and happily married...not on the dating market.)