Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Grammarians at the gates...

My friend Rebecca is a high school English teacher. The other day she posted this on her Facebook page:
Punctuation, grammar and spelling are like traffic signs. They smooth the flow of communication and you may be cited for an infraction. And they can and will change without warning. But they are not a Moral Issue.
That's a great quote. There followed a lively back-and-forth in her comments string involving Oxford commas and the murderous passions that we have seen inflamed by grammatical debate. (It occurs to me that I have a gloriously nerdy circle of friends.) Her point is excellent. Punctuation is the servant of the sentence, not the master. Pacing and traffic flow are paramount and punctuation must serve this need and not hinder passage nor cause a pileup. Professional writers should learn from this lesson aimed at high school students. Especially the 'morality issue'. Every writer should bone-up on punctuation and grammar and keep their Bedford Guide or Hacker close at hand. There are rules of usage and words mean certain things. As Rebecca noted, some rules are enforced unevenly and you may be cited for violations. If you choose for stylistic purposes to avoid or ignore rules, it should be conscious and it should be consistent. Ever read Cormac McCarthy's The Road? Goest thou and do likewise. But it's not a moral issue. Not knowing or not following every rule doesn't make you an evil person. In my view, there's nothing wrong with having rules of the road, but when those rules constrain or restrain you beyond your ability to tell a story, set them aside. Let the children (and their teachers) lead them. Tell your story as clearly and concisely as you can. If you need to break a rule, do it. Don't let the semicolons boss you around. Put the pedants on 'pause' and let your morality rest easy -- when you are writing a story, you are answering a higher calling.
Scott Walker Perkins writes literary thrillers and novels of suspense woven from the threads of history. His current novel is The Palimpsest and he is working on another tentatively titled 42 Lines. Email: swalkerperkins@gmail.com Blog: Pages to Type Before I Sleep
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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).