Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Best Way to Procrastinate

The best way to procrastinate on a 1500 word essay: write a 2200 word essay for fun.

Problems in Punctuation

The punctuation in common American English use is inadequate. Its point and purpose is to allow written language to mimic the logical formulations of speech, to distinguish one thought from another and to define the relationships between thoughts, but it is far too simple for this task. One symbol, the comma for instance, is often used to for several, quite different, functions, creating a fair amount of ambiguity as to its meaning. For example, in the previous sentence four commas were used to offset interjections and one to distinguish a clause. It might otherwise have read, “One symbol – the comma for instance – is often used to for several – quite different – functions, creating[…]”, but the em dash has other uses and could just as easily replace the fifth comma. Another option would be, “One symbol (the comma for instance) is often used to for several (quite different) functions, creating[…].” This emphasizes that both interjections are not necessary for the structure of the sentence, but overstates their separation; parentheses generally indicate a greater degree of separation from the main idea than in this instance. The basic logical problem is not one of clarity, for the intended thought is perfectly clear in all three versions, rather it is that the relationship the comma indicates changes, and therefore the symbol serves only the relationship to spoken language in that it indicates a pause in speech. The first set of commas indicates an interjection, a clarifying phrase that could be entirely dropped out. The second and third commas as used for a similar reason, but are not identical; they set apart the two adjectives applied to the noun “function,” but without the word “quite” they would not be necessary, as what is “several” is the difference of the functions, but what is “quite” is only the difference. The fifth comma indicates neither an true interjection nor an adjectival interjection, a series of adjectives, but a clause; it is an extension of the thought that cannot stand alone, as a semi-colon would indicate, but is not grammatically integral to the rest of the sentence, meaning that the attached thought serves it, but it does not serve the attached thought.
The ambiguity of the comma is only the tip of the iceberg of our punctuation problems. A more fundamental issue is how to indicate relationships between complete thoughts that are not reliant on each other grammatically. We have, essentially, five levels of separation, only three of which are clearly defined. The paragraph break, the period, and the semi-colon indicate progressively lesser degrees of separation. The colon and the em dash can also divide complete thoughts, thoughts that could form their own sentence grammatically, but their meaning is ambiguous and their usage debated. The colon’s most common use is to set off a list, as in, ‘here are some types of punctuation: commas, periods, semi-colons.’ This could be re-written as ‘some types of punctuation here are commas, periods, and semi-colons,’ demonstrating that the colon is really just a way of saying that what comes after is to be equated with what came before. The em dash has a very similar usage, except that it can also, as shown above, be used as a comma or an set of parentheses.
Other failings of American English punctuation include the misquotation that arises from the demand that quotation marks go outside punctuation and the limited nature of the question and exclamation mark symbols, which can only replace periods despite the turns of speech they indicate sometimes occurring within sentences, as in, “Am I asking a question, because the question mark is at the end of the sentence and this second clause is just a statement?” It would be preferable, as it is the first clause and not the second that contains the question, for the question mark to be where the comma is and for the sentence to end with a period.
These problems demand a variety of solutions. The simplest is the last – we need to have comma versions of question marks and exclamation points and quotations marks need to go inside punctuation if the quote demands it. While almost prohibitively difficult to implement on a personal scale, this would require no substantial modifications to the way we write. The comma, em dash, and semi-colon issues are more vexing. We could eliminate almost all use of all three marks in favor of their verbal replacements. ‘The comma is one instance of a symbol that is often used for multiple and quite different functions and this creates a fair amount of ambiguity as to its meaning.’ This is obviously a poor idea, for not only is the translation approximate, “multiple” must be used in place of “several” because “several” was being used as a determiner and not as an adjective, but, despite its technical integrity (the first “and” refers only to the words on either side of it, meaning that the second is permissible), it reads like a run-on sentence and the average editor would suggest the deletion of the second “and” in favor of a period or semi-colon. This would add a whole new set of a problems; with a period one might wonder what “this” and “its” refer to, while the use of a semi-colon might restrict the continuation of the thought; while not technically incorrect, the use of multiple semi-colons (“…as to its meaning; this is obviously a poor idea”) is considered bad form.
Instead of the escalating dilemmas minimizing the use of punctuation creates, what we need is a redefinition and sharpening of their meaning and use. Sentences like the example we have been using seem littered with commas, yet there is no good way to express the same thought without them. Many writers choose to simply neglect their use, just as they neglect the use of the semi-colon, but this leads only to imprecision, with breaks in sentence structure unmarked and relations between thoughts ambiguous. What this attitude amounts to is an admission that written word cannot have the same complexity as spoken word. Were one to read the sentence before the last aloud, with its three commas, it would sound perfectly natural, yet written it is cumbersomely complex. The basic problem, as we described earlier, is that the comma is serving two functions – it is setting off an interjection (“just as they neglect the use of the semi-colon”), after which the thought continues, and setting off a clause, after which it does not. The sentence we just wrote solves this problem by using an em dash to insure that every comma sets off an interjection and using a set of parentheses to avoid an awkward double interjection. That the thought does not resume after the interjection set off by the last comma should not cause one to confuse it with a clause; “after which it does not” is to “setting off a clause” what “after which the thought continues” is to “setting off an interjection.” As this last sentence demonstrates however, a semi-colon may be just as easily inserted as an em dash. The difference should be one of connectivity; when one thought applies very closely to the thought that has preceded it, a semi-colon should be used instead of a period. An em dash should imply a even closer connection – a connection between a thought and the part of the thought that preceded it, almost like a colon with only one item in the list. In a way these are all forms of commas – in speech they all translate to pauses where one would otherwise need a verbal connection. That last em dash could be replaced with ‘because’ or ‘[comma] for.’
None of this, however, solves the problem of the original sentence. If em dashes and semi-colons set apart two complete, if closely related, thoughts, they cannot set apart clauses that are not independent of each other. The previous sentence serves just as well as a example. Neither an em dash nor a semi-colon can replace the comma between “thoughts” and “they.” What we need then, is another way of setting off interjections so that commas can be exclusively used to form complex thoughts. For this, there is no existing mechanism. If brackets ([ ]) are used to clarify quotations, the existing punctuation marks on the standard keyboard without a common usage in American English prose are braces ({ }), chevrons (< >), the underscore ( _ ), the tilde (~), and the vertical bar ( | ), and all of these are on the keyboard because they have common uses outside American English prose (most notably in musical and mathematical notation). Regardless, all of these are too elaborate for our purposes, which is to find an alternative to the unobtrusive comma is its most unobtrusive form. One can imagine some sort of simple point (•) being used, but already there are complications – used like an ellipses this might seem natural for true interjections, but it would be cumbersome for adjectival interjections (the difficult• problematic• frustrating• punctuation mark).
The common answer is to write more simply. It is to restrict ourselves to those styles of communication that are not broken by punctuation because they construct their thoughts in a uncomplicated and straightforward manner. Yet, while this has a time and a place, it is not always the way one wishes to write; smooth prose, flowing off the pen and tongue, imparts a very specific tone, one that is not always appropriate or desired. The function of punctuation, and the laws of grammar that pertain to them, is to make written language as easily understood as spoken language and at this task it is failing. This is evidenced by the fact that throughout this paper we have deliberately written many intricate, convoluted, almost impenetrable, sentences, not one of which was grammatically incorrect. To some of these problems there are simple answers, to others the solutions are complex; some of these solutions can be easily implemented, others will require the creation of new punctuation marks, still others will result in frequent corrections by well-meaning editors. What they all have in common is an admission that the system as it currently stands is in need of revision, that proper American English grammar contains serious logical flaws and lacks the specificity to deal with truly complex sentences. For the moment this admission is enough.

For clarity’s sake, here is, in outline form, how you can implement our conclusions and what you can expect when you do:
- Mention, as often as is it arises, how question mark and exclamation point usage can be improved, and improvise those improvements when writing by hand.
- Insist on correct quotation, even if it results in awkward double punctuation (,”.). If a word or punctuation mark is in a set of quotation marks and is not inside brackets it should be exactly as it is found in wherever it is being quoted from; anything else is misquotation.
- Also, and this was not mentioned earlier, us the double quotation marks (“”) only when YOU are actually quoting something; use single quotation marks (‘’) when either something you are quoting is quoting something or you wish to use a word or phrase as a word or phrase and not as meaning whatever it means; this is a somewhat difficult concept to convey, but I have been careful to use both forms correctly throughout this paper.
- Use the fine distinctions I have outlined between colons, em dashes, semi-colons, periods, and paragraph breaks. These are generally issues of degree of connectivity and so the goal is to be consistent – any two thoughts set apart by a period should be about as separate from each other as any other two thoughts set apart by a period. Overuse of the period results in awkward, choppy, prose. Using the more gentle colon, em dash, and semi-colon shows connectivity between thoughts and helps the reader understand how your ideas work together.
- Use commas to offset interjections that can be removed without harming the integrity of the sentence.
- Separate elements, even the final, of an adjectival interjection (interjections that consist of lists of adjectives) with commas, but note that lists of nouns still function as true interjections and do not need a comma after the last item.
- Note that these last two are provisional; a better way of setting off interjections that does not litter sentences with contradictory commas needs to be found.

Easily implemented

Correct use of commas for interjections and clauses
Requiring non-standard marks
Improvement of ? and !
Revision of punctuation for interjections
Prone to correction
(based on 8 years of my grammar being corrected by highly educated people)
Correct use of quotation marks
Logically consistent use of semi-colons, em dashes, and periods

Funny story: my peers are generally the ones who attempt to vivisect and reform my labyrinthine sentences; my professors, I suppose, are either discerning enough to know that technically I am right or are more worried about my clear lapses in reason on an analytic level (they don’t so much care how I am saying it, they are more concerned that what I am saying is wrong). In a rare moment of triumph an English professor corrected a student who was critiquing my “run-on” sentences, saying that my compositions were actually quite architecturally impressive, if difficult to read at times.

1 comment:

  1. Ha. "Architecturally impressive." There's a literary compliment you don't hear every day. Nice.