Saturday, January 8, 2011


Good article on "sentences that clunk" and why students can't punctuate.


Edittorrent said...

I particularly liked this paragraph, which seems to me to neatly summarize the foundation for most of the errors we see on a daily basis:

Standard written English is a whole other language from its spoken (and texted) counterpart, with conventions not just of punctuation but also of many shortcuts to meaning—streamlined words and phrases, ellipses (omitted word or words), idioms, figures of speech—that have developed over many years. You learn them by reading. And if you haven't read much, when you set pen to paper yourself, you take things more slowly and apply a literal-minded logic, as you would in finding your way through a dark house.


Adrian said...

I think there are some overlooked forces that have been shaping some of the changes ("mistakes") that Mr. Yagoda is pointing out.

Lawyers: In the business world, lawyers worry about details that wouldn't occur to most of us. For example, there are rules about how a company can and cannot use its trademarks in order to protect the trademark. In particular, you don't ever use variations of it, unless those variations are also trademarked. The trademarked name of the Yankees baseball team has an s. Writing Yankee instead is not a proper use of the trademark. Owners of trademarks (or their lawyers) often ask the media to respect the trademarks by using them correctly. You can find plenty of examples of this for Xerox, Kleenex, Spam (Hormell), and Google. So it doesn't surprise me when Yagoda points out that The New York Times shifted to the legally-correct usage. (Not to mention that Yankee game is ever so slightly more ambiguous than Yankees game.)

(I know one Microsoft employee who likes to say, "I'll google it on Bing.")

Technology: Computers are picky about punctuation. If you're one of those people who answers your family and friends' technical questions, you've probably wrestled with the logical inconsistency of the English convention to put the punctuation inside the closing quotation mark rather than with the outer sentence to which it belongs. When you email your cousin-in-law, explaining that he needs to click on the box and type "fizzbin", you have to make sure he doesn't put the comma or period (or the quotation marks themselves) there. Lots of software manuals adopt this convention to minimize confusion. Most young people are tech support for their families, so they tend to be accustomed to this change.

Ironically, the older convention is also an artifact of technology. I once read that setting a period or comma inside the closing quotation mark was more stable for the printing press than the other way around.

Typed Conversations: People, especially young people, converse largely through keyboards. Email, instant messaging, and texting have replaced a lot of spoken conversion. Casual, conversational English over these channels is common. ("U eat yet?") I imagine that when you switch gears to formal writing, you become hyper-conscious of all those words we leave out. ("Did you eat yet?") It's easy to overcorrect, especially--as Yagoda notes--if you're uncertain about the actual rules.

The dropping of words in conversation is something I struggle with in my dialogue.

Globalization: Worldwide, most English speakers use something closer to the Queen's English than the President's English. The Internet is the new melting pot. We are exposed to a lot of English from the four corners of the world, often without knowing which corner. In high school, it was easy to recognize that all those surprising spellings and punctuation variations were in my British Lit books but not in my American Lit ones. Today, we routinely read blogs and user comments that come from England, India, Netherlands, Australia, Canada, South Africa, etc. We also read a lot of text from people for whom even a local dialect of English is not their primary language. It all starts to blur together. You'd have to pay a lot of attention to recognize the origins for conventions like grey versus gray, Mr versus Mr., etc. Furthermore, most of what we read today is not professionally copy-edited to any standard.

Bonus Discussion: Did you notice Yagoda used a semicolon? How old skool!

Wes said...

Good article.

LOL-type abbreviations, and slang terms like "diss" or "phat" are beginning to show up in job applications which I immediately put in the round file. WTF are the applicants thinking?

Alicia said...

Wes, I think it goes along with wearing sneakers to the interview.

Wes said...

Good one!!!!

I tried to hire an intern last summer who was attending a top B-school. I warned him about the drug test, and sure enough, he flunked it.