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?

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