Whatever happened to good grammar?

Sep 25, 2020 4:59 AM

I doubt I’ll get a lot of blowback from a pronouncement that, in general terms, the year 2020 sucks like a Hoover Superspeed vacuum.

In addition to all the physical and economic grief the pandemic has caused us, we’ve also suffered the loss of important figures like Chadwick Boseman, the Notorious RBG, Kobe Bryant, Wilford Brimley, Regis Philbin and dozens more.

I am now adding to this list of dearly departed another institution that has been on life support for years, but is now officially dead and buried. That would be Correct Punctuation. I capitalize the term because it has been that important in our culture for generations, but is now deemed obsolete and unnecessary by the general population.

The most obvious culprit in the demise of punctuation is the cell phone, with the boneheaded emails and shorthand text messages that fill it.

“I mis u unk…. so tk car til nxt (tyme).” That consonantal assault was relayed to me recently by my darling niece and it was accompanied by three heart emojis and what looked like a ballerina with a leg cramp. The intent of the message was appreciated, but I had to read it four times to decipher her exact message.

I recognize that mourning the death of punctuation officially labels me an old fogey. I can live with that, but I reserve the right to be a little sad.

As someone who has made a living stringing words and images together for my entire adult life, and who spent six years of higher education studying precisely when to use a semicolon and an interior quotation mark, it grieves me that most folks under the age of 30 think quadruple exclamation points can substitute for nearly any other mark of punctuation.

I taught the dreaded college class English 101 for two years in grad school and four years at UNLV. The compensation for this craft was far less than the change girls make in an Elko casino, but I never complained. I freely chose to take the gig because I enjoyed interacting with students, and I love language. In addition to feeling that I was stifling a national epidemic of illiteracy, being behind the instructor’s podium forced me to learn the intricacies of grammar and punctuation and proved an important step in a later career of writing magazine articles, books, and screenplays.

One year in Rebelville I taught four consecutive 101 classes, at 7, 8, 9, and 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. No dentist specializing in root canals ever peered into more yawning caverns of teeth than I did in those sessions. The 18-year-olds who slumped into my classroom to catch another hour of sleep looked like prisoners being taken to the gas chamber.

Check Out More Lifestyle Here

Maybe an average of two students out of the 30 in each class enjoyed learning about the difference between a hyphen and a long dash, or when to italicize rather than boldface a word. The others were there solely because freshman English was a required class, and college curriculum planners deemed success or failure in the subject as a harbinger of future academic success.

I urged kids who were pathetic in essay writing either to find a home in the math or science department—even business majors required some writing — or maybe use family juice to find a good paying job dealing blackjack or parking cars on the Strip.

The only consolation about the death of Punctuation is that it did live a long life, all the way back to Shakespeare and Chaucer and the other wordsmiths who wrote for an audience that appreciated the difference between brackets and parentheses.

I still try to adhere to all those ancient rules when sending texts and emails to friends. I’m sure they wonder why I bother going to the trouble. Perhaps it’s that old habits die hard, or just that all my years of reading and admiring great literature has ingrained an appreciation for the subtlety of disciplined punctuation.

Take this sentence: Many are called; few are chosen. That is using a semicolon most effectively, by taking two independent clauses and not separating them by an intrusive period, but marrying them with a mark of punctuation that functions as a fulcrum balancing equal parts.

I can now hear everyone under 25 groaning loudly at that example, as if they are supposed to care.