If there’s an evolution going on in the English language, on both sides of the pond (see Roz’s recent post), there’s a revolution going on when it comes to what my English teachers called mechanics.
Or so it seems to me. Maybe it’s just that my greatest strength and favorite pastime has been remembering rules most people deem pesky and contemplating styles that many think (and were taught) are rules. It’s hard to be a boomer, not only because we think we need to restore our hair color and protect our joints with glucosamine, but because the use of e-mails, texts, and tweets has obliterated many of the punctuation rules we so painstakingly learned.
Question: When no one knows or cares that something is wrong, is it still wrong? Maybe it doesn’t matter, for many, as long as they communicate their intended meaning. But for professional writers, yeah, methinks wrong is, well, wrong.
The advent of touch screens, voice commands, and texts has rendered my second-greatest strength—fast typing—even more worthless. Yes, I do send texts without commas and semicolons (but only rarely, when I’m really in a rush), and I do it very s-l-o-w-l-y and inaccurately. What I was good at has been replaced by something I’m bad at. I shouldn’t complain, though, since that comes with the blessing of living longer, just as surely as good knees are replaced by achy ones.
Of course the way we use language, grammar rules, and punctuation isn't the only thing that has changed through the years. Roz and I happily traded our manual typewriters for electrics, which we later replaced with word processors and then computers. And we rejoiced when we could use faxes and then e-mails instead of snail-mail to send each other our chapters. So we’ll (almost) graciously accept other changes too.
Roz and Patty (with Patty’s daughter Melissa of Mel’s Green Garden) when they still wrote with typewriters.
Roz and Patty graduated to computers and faxes about the time Patty sported this hideous hairdo.
I still recommend knowing the rules before changing (aka breaking) them. So go ahead and omit punctuation in favor of another letter or word in order to keep your tweets at 140 characters, but know that if you write your novel like that, you’ll probably lose your reader before the end of the first chapter, if not the first page.
And so I continue to learn the latest, often when I go to an online dictionary or reference site for confirmation when I’m teaching grandchildren or others whom I’m editing the error of their ways—only to find there’s been another rule change, or a rule that’s been relegated to a style choice, or a style choice that’s become obsolete.
I’m thinking of the two spaces after every period that my fingers have automatically typed—and then keyed in—since I was fifteen years old. I’ve learned to put only one space now. This practice changed when typewriters, with their same-size letters, gave way to computers and the fonts that allowed an I, for example, to occupy less space than a W. The eye no longer needs extra space between sentences.
The biggest change I notice, and the grayest area I see when perusing different grammar books and style manuals, is in the two tiny marks that take up the biggest part of my editing time: commas and hyphens. (And yes the Internal Revenue Code has some real competition when it comes to black-and-white vs. gray-and-murky.) Commas and hyphens seem to be required in fewer instances than back when I learned to conjugate verbs and diagram sentences, although both remain crucial to the meaning a writer wants to convey (didn’t the comma single-handedly propel the book Eats, Shoots & Leaves to the bestseller list?). Two quick examples of their importance from the latest in our Val & Kit Mystery Series, Death in Door County:
She wore blue pencil pants and had a soft-pink wool cardigan. The hyphen makes it clear the color of the cardigan was a soft shade of pink, not a bright pink or dark pink. Without the hyphen, we would have been telling the reader the sweater felt soft, not rough.
As we ate, the three of them talked about Doris. With or without the comma, the meaning would be clear for most readers once they finished the sentence. But without the comma, some might pause—and gag—at the thought of Val and Kit eating the three other women at their table.
Granted, many unnecessary uses have been eliminated, making even me happy. What was once to morrow became to-morrow and is now the far-superior tomorrow. Then again, it was already tomorrow when I first laid eyes on it, so I didn’t experience any growing pains. Perhaps remembering this example will help me embrace change.
But because punctuation is so important and because of the ever-changing rules and acceptable styles, there are two writing habits I’m not going to change:
- Staying abreast of current rules so that if I break them, it’s for good reason (for effect, perhaps, especially in dialogue or first person).
- Being consistent. Many “rules” are just style choices, but pick and stick to give the reader a more seamless reading experience. Follow the MLA Style Manual, for example, and put a comma before the adverb too at the end of a sentence. Or abide by The Chicago Manual of Style and omit such a comma. Just be consistent.
Be consistent, that is, until things change. And they will. That will never change.