Friday, January 11, 2008

Bark: The comma touch

As a founding member of the Internet Grammar Nazi Party, I often put far too much thought into the usage of punctuation. Regular readers (all three of you) will already know of my irrational fondness for ellipsis... but something more fundamental that's been worrying me lately is comma usage.

I'm probably just obsessing a little too much; I am, after all, someone who corrects other peoples' spelling mistakes when I quote them back in email. It was reading this on Videogamer earlier that tipped me from idle wonder to full-on angst. One particular paragraph struck me.

But a problem has quickly arisen - turns out the present isn't really for me. Well officially it is. But you know how these things work. Like the Borg my girlfriend has quickly assimilated cuddly Mario into her teddy collective, alongside an Alien Face Hugger, a Christmas Final Fantasy Chocobo and three little dogs.


On first inspection, there are no screamingly obvious grammatical errors. Most people would read it and think it was perfectly fine. But I'm not "most people". In my mind, it's missing two commas. Not hugely important in the great scheme of things, you might think... Below is my version of the same paragraph.

But a problem has quickly arisen - turns out the present isn't really for me. Well, officially it is. But you know how these things work. Like the Borg, my girlfriend has quickly assimilated cuddly Mario into her teddy collective, alongside an Alien Face Hugger, a Christmas Final Fantasy Chocobo and three little dogs.


When you read both versions out loud, the extra two commas do affect the rhythm and impact of the text. At least in my overly-obsessive opinion. I tend to write in the same manner in which I would speak: the punctuation indicates pauses for breath or the conclusion of points, with textual tricks like all-caps denoting where I want to stress an UNDUE EMPHASIS. However, with my particular propensity for the use of very long sentences, perhaps I have developed a bad habit in overusing the comma. I'm not sure. I would read my copy of Eats, Shoots and Leaves again for a refresher, but it's in France at the moment spreading the good word with my girlfriend's English-speaking friends...

It's kind of ironic that I should even obsess about language this much: I never even really enjoyed English lessons at school. Things like this, however, worry me. Language isn't something that should be simplified (except maybe in legal documents, where a little clarity would be nice - but then, how would they make all their money?). Once you start taking away the nuances and subtleties of language, you're only a few steps away from Newspeak. And I think everyone agrees that this would be doubleplusungood. Or rather, a complete fucking catastrophe for the expression and articulation of thought. I find it faintly ridiculous that the standard of English and grasp of the language in today's youth is inferior to that in Victorian times and that UK children's literacy levels are amongst the worst in the world. There's a problem with our results-obsessed government: they're so desperate to give people the impression that standards are going up, they're dumbing down tests so that "they test what children know, not what they don't know". That was the defence I heard a couple of years ago about GCSE exam results constantly getting better year on year, despite industry continuing to report that the literacy and numeracy levels in school-leavers gets continually worse and worse. Both sets of people can't be right. And I know I wouldn't trust the government as far as I could throw the Houses of Parliament...

The British used to rule the biggest commonwealth the world has known. Now they can't even speak their own language properly, because it's "too hard" and has to be simplified for people to understand it. So, actually, I think I'm just going to keep overusing punctuation, because some things you should have to work for, and I'm not going to be party to the drive to suck out all the beauty and complexity from language for the sake of morons who can't be bothered to make an effort to even master their own mother tongue.
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