Sunday, 8 June 2008

Eats, shits and leaves: colonic irritation

I am not a terrible writer. I've got a reputation for turning out technical documents that make complex things seem almost understandable. I somehow fluked getting a paper published when I was a mere first-year undergraduate, and was editor of my university weekly newsletter. 

As a very little thing I took to writing rapidly. I would say that I've been using the written word usefully for about 27 years, and yet yesterday afternoon my relationship with writing changed completely. I am transformed. Can you tell what it is yet?

Reader, yesterday I learned how to punctuate.

Ms M has been dutifully reading my chapter drafts, and during a beautiful stroll through fields of wildflowers in the morning she commented gently on the liberal use of dashes in my writing. She had a very good point. As we chatted, it became obvious that neither of us had more than the most shaky grasp of the rules of punctuation. 

Newsflash: The rules of punctuation rock!

As soon as we got back from our walk, I pulled out The Penguin Guide to Punctuation. Bloody brilliant. (Use of fragments is permitted for stylistic impact.)

I learned that - and this was a big revelation - dashes can be used to off set strong interruption. Commas, less popular in blogland, only indicate a weak interruption. Brackets are a legal substitute for either, but are preferred where the content is an aside to the reader (obviously) or is an additional level of detail.

Fantastic stuff! I couldn't put it down. Ms M "oohed" and "ahed" as I read out the exact circumstances under which it is appropriate to use an apostrophe-s to indicate a plural while she baked date and apple brownies. We are so rock and roll.

As any good geek would, I knocked up a crib-sheet (picture above) and whizzed through the first few chapters of my book with comma-confidence, banishing fudged subclauses and brandishing my new secret weapon: the colon.

It's ironic really. I would think nothing of picking up a new computer language and cramming my brain full of obscure syntax and semantics, and yet I secretly shook at the mere mention of a semi-colon. It turns out it's all quite straightforward if you're a rules-kinda-person. I am a rules-kinda-person. 


Misssy M said...

Chasing Sheep is a public service! If only I were still teaching! I could have flung this at my punctuationally challenged students.

As I am determined to rear two children who know how to use an apostrophe correctly (unlike the millions of people who have a bag of them like birdseed in their pockets just to liberally sprinkle over everything they write)I will quote your crib sheet to them instead.

Caroline said...

I have major 'dash' problems. Major - major - major ones.

Just thought I'd share that with you. And don't get me started on the semi-colon ...


Ms Melancholy said...

Hi there Misssy M , I couldn't agree more on the issue of apostrophe crimes. I think the worst one I ever saw was Pizza's, actually etched into a glass partition in a Pizza Express. Come to think of it, I don't think I ever went back there. So, you can only imagine how excited I was to discover that there are circumstances under which it is correct to use an apostrophe-s to indicate a plural. Examples: CD's, e.g.'s, UFO's. Note the use of italics (and irony). God, we know how to entertain ourselves out here in the country.

I would highly recommend you force feed this to your children. From now on Master Melancholy's pocket money will be dependent upon him demonstrating appropriate use of the hyphen in compound modifiers.

Hey lovely Cas, I totally know what you mean - I too have an addiction to the dash. Stray and I decided - after much discussion - that dashes may be sprinkled liberally in blog writing and emails. And anyway, you are a novelist darling so you can get away with pretty much anything. Even fragments. Lots of them.

As for the semi-colon - I remain ignorant with you, although I would like to congratulate you on your effective use of ellipsis at the end of that sentence :)

pierre l said...

Thank you for that chart, Stray. I am very careful with my apostrophes; looking at the chart I am now confused and in need of further research. Is a box containing a number of Compact Discs full of CDs or CD's? I have been using CDs as part of an apostrophe-reducing exercise. So I shall add "the Penguin Guide to Punctuation" to my collection (I also need to find my copy of "Eats Shoots and Leaves").

Miss Tickle said...

Stray you are a genius. Genius. I love it. I might blow it up to A2 size and put it on my wall.

Stray said...

Misssy M - do you think we should apply for a grant or something? Lottery funding perhaps?

Good luck with your children, it is a fine thing to give the world: two human beings who can punctuate correctly.

Cas - yes, the dash is my downfall too. As Ms M said thought, you novelists can get away with murder. And fragments.

Ms M - thank you for being my co-geek. Did you say etched. Good lord.

Pierre - thanks for saying hello. CDs is an interesting one. The purpose of the 's is to allow you to pluralise in a way that is easier to read. I would imagine that it's CDs or cd's or c.d.'s, but CD's would be good form too. Bad form would be c.d.s or cds. Wonderful book though - I thoroughly recommend it.

Miss Tickle - bless you. I am going to mount it next to my desk, but Ms M has drawn a line at blutacking next to the bed, even though I sometimes write on my laptop in there to escape the bustle.

Reading the Signs said...

Stray, the semi-colon is a thing of beauty, I love it more than any other kind of punctuation. It is endlessly allowing, gives permission, leaves a space for the hitherto unthought-of possibility. I could live without the colon, but not without the semi. A close second is brackets, though I like to call them parentheses (I dunno, it's a sound thing). So much can go on in parentheses - it's a bit like life really, the action often being where you least expect to find it. Though it has to be said that not everyone uses them in that way. Oh, and the full stop: people should be bolder with those, is what I think. Allow them to interrupt a sentence sometimes, for extraordinary effect. Just because.

I'll shut up now.

Anonymous said...

I have very little grasp of correct grammar. In primary school, I had an eccentric English teacher. I was so taken with her tales of how her husband used to stand on his head whilst naked, that I never thought to listen to the actual grammar part.

Ms Melancholy said...

Hey Pierre, I feel an urge to intervene on the CD debate. Stray and I have just had a conversation, and agreed that it is one of the occasions when one would definitely use an apostrophe. You also have the option of using partially italics, though remember not to include the apostrophe-s. Like thus: CD's

Rock and roll x

pierre l said...

Thanks ms melancholy, CD's it will be. I also would be tempted not to eat at a place that offered "pizza's". I must say that the possessive "its" is a difficult one; I'm sure I get it right most of the time, but it requires a pause for thought.

Stray said...

Ms Signs - ah yes, semi-colons do afford a wonderfully ambiguous linkage. Lots of poetic licence available.

Bugger, now I am worried about how to spell licence / license in this instance. Shit shit. Is it a noun or a verb? Are you taking it or getting one? I'm going with noun. And substituting advice/advise in my head to find the correct spelling.

Hullaballoo, I imagine that a woman who is 9/8ths composed of different nationalities, and harassed by the drivers of 15 wheel vehicles, exists in a universe of flexible punctuation. I'm not sure I should tell you the rules: with your AS personality you'll only want to break them. ;)

Pierre - Ms M is correct, and, brace yourself, we were recently at a 'restaurant' offering steak with peas but chicken with pea's. We were unsure whether our order needed to specify whether we wanted an apostrophe in our peas or not. The waitress was not amused.

Chips said...

omg you've blown my head off with the apostrophe s thing. I'm not gonna be as poetic as these other readers. I just don't get it. How can CD's look better than CDs? I thought I understood apostrophes and now I just DON'T. Waaaaaaaah!!!!

Hope I didn't use too many exclamation marks or anything.

Stray said...

I know Chips! I know! It totally blew our minds as well.

My favourite sentiment from the book is that punctuation is an aid to comprehension, and not to respiration or decoration.

The explanation is that in order to aid clarity, when using an abbreviation it is important to separate the acronym from the plurality.

For example, CDS actually stands for 'Credit Default Swap', a boring accounting thing.

And CDSS stands for 'Clinical Decision Support System', a computer application designed to help doctors decide on a diagnosis or treatment.

So, with that in mind, you can imagine that if my company was entering into a CDS with another company which published CDSSs on CDs, it might be easier to understand with some apostrophes. At least then someone could read it all in either upper or lower case and still make sense of it, both of which should be considered when writing text for the internet because some people with visual impairments or dyslexia will apply their own stylesheet to get this effect.

Thanks for your question Chips, I'm quite sure I now understand it better myself.


Chips said...

Thank you for explaining. I think I can accept it. (I don't have to like it, do I?) And sometimes it is hard to do the right thing, especially when it feels so wrong. So it's probably good for the soul too.

Sorry 'bout the fragmentation thing. Grammar is not designed for a dog's brain.