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C O N T E X T U R E Literary Expressions


Punctuation
Another Counter-Revolutionary Casus Belli

by Ignor A. Misolog


I've finally figured it out! In a society where the average person can't distinguish between a comma splice and parallel construction, a dangling participle and split infinitive, the language is changing ... and I now understand why.

English, which ostensibly began with the primal scream and now arguably entails the largest vocabulary of any language, does not have a regulatory council, such as the braille standards commission, nor does it have a supervening authority, such as the French academy, to arrogantly dictate proper usage. Instead, English has evolved by borrowing loan words from the massively heterogeneous mix of contributing influences, until it's become the cross-cultural language of science and the lingua franca of multimedia. So, in this freewheeling libertarian paradise of linguistic competition, who keeps changing all the rules? ... who arrogates the authority?!

The era of the dictionary seems to be finding its own level, from a rash of authoritative glossaries to a host of specialty references. Having developed from the printer's need to standardize spelling, the debate over proscriptive or descriptive definitions has become moot with alternative pictographs and ideograms. After the market has been exploited, style guides may eventually compromise and consolidate to a select few. During the interim, the problem is which, if any, to follow, since most are esoteric and contradictory. They are Biblical in their injunctions, and spare in their logic or rationale. The writing acolyte is simply enjoined to obey the strict commandments if desirous of favorable publication in the legitimate press. These heedless guides are seemingly as dense as the Talmud, as obscure as Cabalism, and as relevant as Sumerian cuneiform. The fine art of natural writing is an unknown quality to these formulaic handbooks. For that matter, why should anyone pay attention to them at all if they can't agree? ... can't we all just get along to go along?!

As if the world revolved around the internal administrative decisions at each newspaper of record, or each academic cloister, or government bureau, they promulgate their arcane guidelines like holy writ to the great unwashed. Priests have had to defend their privileged status, and argue for compensation, so it's reasonable that editors be compelled to periodically justify their existence. However, in times past, tribes used to sacrifice the priest when things didn't improve. Since the effete rules don't seem to be improving our native language, perhaps it's time for another purge of the managerial class, and their repressive imprimatur. The nattering quibblers decry the devolution of standards during the last abolition of copyright, but since the French Revolution affected much more than publishing, such a conclusion is specious ... like saying that normal episodes are comparable to abnormal or extreme ones, or that wartime conduct and attitudes are equivalent to peacetime epiphenomena.

Teachers are human; being therefore both fallible and inconsistent. Students once diagramed sentences the way everyone now flowcharts logical sets. If you grew-up dissecting Latin declensions and parsing English syntax, then you probably emend the copy in your daily newspaper ... just because imperfection offends your rectitude. If you grew-up with punctuation as expressive emphasis, then you're probably mystified by the new Simon Says caveats on punctuation as decoration. If you grew-up with unstructured laisser-faire grammar, then your native tongue is as arbitrary to you as any foreign language. The antidisestablishment tongue is falling on deaf ears, and the reformations posted at <www.bbs.web> are even making a travesty of NewSpeak.

Do you remember those pencil-necked geeks and pimple-faced nerds who used to run the school newspaper (because they couldn't run anything else)? They were the ones who pretended not to be, but were indistinguishable from all the other lost souls and drooling groupies. Do you recall that unrequited few, who only exceeded and succeeded in their dreams?! ... well, all those neurotic wimps and dysfunctional milksops have acceded to the commissioned endowments of the Lexicographic Regulars. These quivering toadies, lacking the talent for entertainment, lacking the guts for business, and lacking the fire for politics, are card-carrying members of the Fourth Estate! And now, these pathetic specimens of human accretion, from the wretched insularity of their plaintive jobs, are lording it over the rest of us with their niggling little rules on usage.

They excise superfluous punctuation because columnar space is at a premium. They eliminate initial paragraph indention as more stylistically elegant. They convert readability marks into text separators. They merge as many hyphenated phrases as possible. And they've confused pronoun genders until language labors to communicate. They believe that visual media have shrunk the average person's attention span, so they shorten all their stories to the point where they have no point. These are the same people who invented the concept of photojournalism, because they believe people get more information from pictures than from words. Ancient maxims to the contrary, an image out of context can mean anything or nothing; so unless the illustration is purely decorative, its presence needs to be explained. They perform all these abominations to save copy space that can then be sold to other businesses.

Wisdom once decreed that all the rules needed adherence before any rule could be broken, such that the exception proved the rule. The noteworthy effect of breaking a rule is lost when the rules are fungible or irrelevant. The semicolon and virgule/solidus have now migrated into programming languages, along with various styles of brackets, as being unsuitable for regular English. The ellipsis has been replaced with an em-dash, which also serves to dramatize nouveau compositions. The expulsion of the Oxford comma and the rejection of British quotation marks has been embraced as if these Tory influences threatened to rescind American independence from the King! If newspapers are permitted to redefine linguistic style, such that books reiterate and letters imitate, such that academics conform and jurists comply, then advertisers should designate new grammatical rules, and commerce should delineate spelling improvements. Our mother tongue is besieged!

The only sane solution is to write it right! They'll change it anyway, just to prove they have the power to censor, just to prove they're smarter than the author, just to prove they can have the last word. But the coming e-revolution in electronic publishing will put all of these megalomaniacal editors out of work. So, while these useless editors join the ranks of the buggy-whip brigade on civilization's discard heap, writers and readers will begin having direct literary contact for the first time in the modern era. The revenge will be utterly sweet.