Some Rules of the Road

As you must have guessed, I read. A lot.

I have always had a wide-ranging appetite for the written word, fiction and non-fiction, romance and sci-fi, biography and crime cozies. In fact, I've often joked that I'll read a cereal box if there's nothing else around.

As a result, I have witnessed such a rapid degradation in our ability to communicate by the written word that I have to speculate why? And where are these emerging flaws most evident?

Of course, language changes over time. The lingua franca (bridge language) right now is English, for better or worse. But it was not always so. Latin prevailed for a long time among the educated, and of course for a greater part, it is still the language of science as knowledge of Latin wasn't restricted by national origin. So Latin, and to an extent, Greek, are most frequently found in anatomical terms, astronomy, and botany.

And within a language there are adaptations as new words are added to the vocabulary, and old words adopt new meanings. Languages are, it has been postulated, living things.

While I agree, and I enjoy the creative use of a word or phrase, I have to object to outright — pardon my French — bastardization of a language, especially in written form. When speaking, we take liberties and have fun with words and sentences, in part because we can add physical cues — facial expressions, hand gestures — that make clear our meaning.

It's pretty clear that the culprit in all this is the computer, in particular our smart phones. Unfortunately, the feedback from these devices has resulted in the deterioration of all of our writing.

I'm working with a writer presently who has adopted the elipsis to cover all manner of pauses in his writing. He was confounded when I changed many of them. Why? he wanted to know.

So, I decided to devote this article not to a book review, but to writing in general, and cover some of my pet peeves. That's one of them right there — catch phrases. We use them often, perhaps too often, and now I find that people don't even bother to use the right words (typically they use a homophone or even a made-up word), and they certainly don't understand where the expression originated.

Many of our common expressions came from — somewhat strangely, I think — sailing terms.
Above board
Keep abreast of
Armed to the teeth
At loose ends

And those are just some of the "A's." (Or more properly, the As, though I generally fall on the side of the apostrophe in this case, to distinguish the letter A from a word formed by adding an "s," such as "as.") Understanding where these phrases comes from, and knowing what the word or phrase really is, makes a world of difference in our writing.

Moving right along (she said, using a catch phrase): loose. This is a (with intended sarcasm) pet peeve of mine. Lose, loose. Lose is a verb, always. Lose is to fail, not win, be unable to find. Loser is one who loses. Loose can be an adjective: a loose sweater is one that is not tight. It can be morals, as in "loose" morals. It can also be a verb meaning to set free — he "loosed the dog" (untied the dog and let it go — the deeper implication is that the dog was straining to get loose).

Back to my friend's difficulty - oh, but wait, how about the apostrophe, which I just used? It's used in contractions (it is becomes it's; not the frequently mistaken its, which is the possessive). I grant that  typically the possessive is formed using the apostrophe, as in "Dan's pencil," "Louise's paper." But when the word ends in an "s," this rule changes to merely adding the apostrophe — Phyllis' notebook. The plural is formed just by adding an "s" to the word, except in the cases of a word ending in s, when most of the time we add "es."

Finally, back to the pause as indicated in the written word. Remember, all writing is an attempt to communicate, and punctuation is just a set of rules that were actually relatively late-comers to writing, as was spelling. Part of good writing is helping the reader "get" your meaning.

To communicate a pause in writing, we have several choices. Each one is used to direct the reader in comprehending our meaning.

The comma, first. The poor comma. In older writing, commas were used frequently, perhaps even too frequently for modern readers. At some point, newspapers found that they could save enough money to make it worth their while to eliminate some of them (it saved on ink). So the serial or "Oxford" comma was excised. Thus, when writing a list of things: "She took her coat, her hat, and her notebook" became "She took her coat, her hat and her notebook." As a reader, I much prefer the addition of commas to indicate a slight pause in the sentence. The serial comma makes a distinction between the actions or objects in a series. "And," because it's a conjunction (a joining), can sometimes refer to the final two (or any two) items in a series having a special relationship, or simply finalize the series. The comma before the finalizing "and" makes it clear that all the items in the list have the same relationship.

The famous example of the failure to use a comma, and the failure of a sentence is: "Eats shoots and leaves." "Eats shoots, and leaves." "Eats, shoots, and leaves." Either of the first two let you know the eater is not also a killer.

The comma is the first level of pause in a sentence. A brief break in a thought. (And yes, that's a sentence fragment; once a definite no-no, they are now accepted as adding emphasis to an idea.)

Next, the dash. Specifically the em-dash. If you don't know the keystroke combination to create an em dash, it's "alt 0151" (on the keypad only); in Word it can be accomplished by typing two regular dashes (en dash or hyphen). The dash is used to interrupt a thought with another, usually returning to the next thought. So I might write: "I went for a walk — taking my umbrella in case of rain — and got a little air." A comma just won't do here because the phrase I'm adding isn't really necessary to my main sentence, and as such it's not just a slight pause but an actual interruption in my thought.

Then we have the semi-colon. ";" (I am using the quote marks as "literals" the way a programmer would: what is inside them is to be used as a fixed thing. This is a word that has been tortured of late with our political figures insisting that something is "literally thus and such," when it's not at all, it is merely tending toward something.) The semi-colon separates two distinct but related sentences, but not so much as a period would. The important rule here is that each sentence be complete with its own subject and predicate, noun and verb. However, they are closely linked, hence the semi-colon.

Now, a colon is usually used to introduce a list of things, and each thing in the list is separate by a semi-colon, not a comma. The things in the list can be phrases or words, so such a sentence might read: "They prepared for Christmas: they bought a tree; they baked cookies; they practiced Christmas carols; they decorated the house."

And on to the elipsis. "..." This poor creature gets greatly misused these days, largely, I think, because of texting. In texting it stands in for one of those dangling sentences so frequent in conversation. When we chat (face-to-face), we will often start to say something, but not finish because the remainder of the thought is understood by the listener. It's often used to indicate a joking tone, or when a facial expression completes the thought. So in texting we've adopted the elipsis to indicate the dangling sentences, the ironic intent, the raised eyebrow, the smirk.

However, people are now using the elipsis in writing in place of an em-dash, or even a full stop (period).

My recommendation is to read the sentence out loud. Does the speaker really trail off, or is it an interrupted thought? Is it a completed thought that deserves a period? Perhaps it's two closely related thoughts that should be separated by a semi-colon.

Then there is the parenthetical phrase: the phrase set off by parentheses. Again, this is typically an addition to the sentence that isn't necessary to complete the thought, but adds related information. It is an interruption of the main thought, and can be removed without changing the main body of the sentence.

A little trick of punctuation that will make you stand out as knowing what you're doing: if a sentence ends with a quote, the final punctuation mark goes inside the quotation mark. I know it seems counter-intuitive, and I always thought it was outside (and, in fact, British English does do it that way).  I'm pretty sure my error was a result of reading too much Jane Austen, but nevertheless, just remember, "If you are quoting something, and have to end a sentence, even though the quote is contained within another sentence, the punctuation mark goes inside the quote." Like that.

Now, a word about the hyphenated word.

It's just this simple: "He set up the tree." "The set-up of the tree was difficult." If it's a verb, no hyphen. If it's a verb made into a noun, add the hyphen. Hyphens are also used for compound words, such as heavy-set.  Some compound words are simply two words mashed together, but again my simple rule is: what makes its easiest to understand? 

In general, that's all grammar and spelling really are, and it's why rules have been created. We want to communicate our thoughts as clearly as possible to others, and when we have a simple set of rules to follow, we can be sure that anyone who knows these rules is going to be able to understand our meaning.

It is possible to break all the rules and still be understood — think of the book, The Road, and its complete lack of punctuation. But in general, it's a difficult trick to pull off and requires a masterful writer. Easier by far to stick to the rules and be reasonably sure of being understood.


Paul Landes said…
Complicated. I'll just keep practicing until I do it correctly, or maybe, just maybe,there really isn't a correct way?
Anonymous said…
Quelle phrase magnifique
Nancy Roberts said…
You're probably write. ;-)

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