Sunday, June 03, 2012

Say What?

I was minding my own business, playing games online and looking through the most recent Facebook comment when I saw this:  "[S]ome authors, like myself, have their own style of punctuation and capitalization. It's a matter of preference." 

Uh, no, punctualization is not a matter of preference. It a matter of rules.

Make up words for your science fiction and fantasy novels and stories. Make up names. Don't make up words; there are rules in place for a reason.

Communication, especially in writing, has rules for a reason, so that we are all, in a manner of speaking, on the same page. I've edited work where the writers decided that the day the wrote chapter 10 was a day without commas, the next day it was a day without periods, or making up sentences that had no subject or no verb or were all subject or all verb. Not only was their work incomprehensible but the writers' explanation of being above the stupid rules of grammar and punctuation made me see red -- and so did the writers when they read the edits -- blood all over the page.

While there are some rules that could use some revising and some well know writers, like E. L. Doctorow and some UK writers, that decide that quotation marks around dialogue is a waste of time or, at best, a silly convention, at least they stick to the hard and fast rules like ending sentences with periods, capitalizing proper names, and putting in commas so their page long sentences can be read once and understood. Putting a comma between too and the rest of a sentence is a bit archaic and I have flirted with leaving out the comma, but I have never had an editor or a reader ask me what I was writing about because it wasn't clear. I write the way I speak and I edit my work by reading aloud. My background in theater has a good deal to do with where I place commas, but that is why commas were invented -- so actors knew when and how long to pause (semi-colons and colons have a different pause length than commas and periods) and so they wouldn't run out of breath reading a speech that went on for a page or two. It just makes common sense as well as grammar sense.

The current trend among younger writers who believe that grammar is optional I think is pure laziness. They didn't learn the rules of grammar, can't remember learning the rules of grammar, or thing that their work is so artistic that the rules of grammar don't apply (it's still called being lazy). The rules aren't difficult and there is a slim volume by Strunk & White, The Elements of Style, that every writer should have either on their computer or on their desk, but definitely prominently displayed and well thumbed. Writers should buy more than one copy if they don't have a special place to write all the time and because consistent use of the book will wear it out. Grammar and punctuation won't be worn out, but reviewing the rules and reasons for the rules is something that should be constantly studied and applied.

I met a man many years ago who had decided to write a book about his experiences about healing himself using the energy of the earth. He had been unable to walk at all and had crawled out into the back yard to lie on the grass in the sun and wait to die. After several hours of lying there, when it got dark, he got up and stumbled back into the house. He hadn't died but he did feel better. He repeated the same process every day until soon he was able to walk out and sit on the ground to meditate and walk back into the house without a walker, cane, or other assistive device. He was on his way to be healed.

What struck me wasn't his story of how he healed himself but what he told me about wanting to write about his experiences. "My grammar was rusted beyond use and school was too many decades behind me to remember what I had learned, so I hired a teacher to teach me the rules of grammar and sentence construction. It took a long time, but by the end of it, I diagrammed complex sentences and my grammar was flawless." I asked him if it was worth it just to write his story and he said, "Yes, of course it was. I want everyone to understand me."

That's what grammar and punctuation are all about, rules that everyone takes for granted, but not when they're reading. They may not be good at spelling, but they know when something doesn't look right. The lazy reader will keep on reading and the rest will look up the word to find out how the word is spelled.

We live in a world of convenience where text messages (c u ltr = I will see you later) are commonplace and the people who write them too lazy or far too busy and important to write it all out. Well, there is the whole issue of going over the text message limit on the cell phone, but people who write more than a 1000 text messages a day aren't worried about limits, just making things easy.

While we can understand, after a fashion, such shorthand, and shorthand is great for taking dictation when someone speaks quickly or jotting down notes that are written out later, grammar and punctuation should not be optional.

Grammar and punctuation rules were written in a time when understanding each other was paramount and having a common ground, especially for foreigners learning a new language, made communication much easier. English is hard enough to learn because it is a polyglot of words borrowed from other languages, but grammar and punctuation in writing make understanding the writers' meanings much easier.

Doing things the easy way seems the best way to go, but when it comes to writing, expressing oneself clearly and concisely is more important than ignoring punctuation and grammar rules because it's a matter of preference. I prefer not to read books that can't follow the simple rules of subject, verb, and predicate with the requisite period at the end and commas used where appropriate so I don't have to read and reread the sentence a dozen times to figure out what the writer is saying. A writer whose preference is for ignoring the rules that make communication rich and expressive -- and understandable -- will not get my hard earned money for their failed attempts to communicate or entertain, but they will get a review that will let everyone else know to avoid them as if they have the plague -- the same plague that struck those working on the Tower of Babel when the common language was suspended and no one understood what anyone else said. It put an end to the building of the tower and the beginning of setting down common rules so that a meeting of minds would occur and people would be able to communicate and understand each other.

As far as I am concerned, I prefer not to have to work that hard to understand a writer's story. I'd rather laugh, cry, get angry, or be entertained and informed. That won't happen if the rules are broken because it's a good day to leave out verbs or periods and punctuation.

Just so you know, yes, I am the person who called a local radio station and told the manager that it was FEWER commercials and not LESS commercials.