LUCY HALLMARK asks: ‘Martinis? Sure, would you like lemon peel and an apostrophe with those?’

Who’d have thought that years after Miss Trunchbull drummed ‘Mrs D- Mrs I –Mrs F-F-I’ into the children in Matilda’s classroom that people would still be unable to grasp the basic elements of punctuation and grammar?

However, today people are so concerned about our language, that we find ourselves caught somewhere amongst ‘punctuation heroes’ and ‘text speech’. If we put ourselves at one end of the scale with Lynne Truss and John Richards, the founder of the Apostrophe Protection Society, then we essentially believe that apostrophe misuse should be up there with the Ten Commandments: ‘You should not abuse punctuation’.

Truss (2003:7) claims punctuation is ‘a courtesy designed to help readers understand a story without stumbling’ and without it ‘there is no reliable way of communicating meaning’ (2003:20). She compares herself to the boy in ‘The Sixth Sense’ who can see dead people, claiming that those who can see dead punctuation which others cannot, have a ‘seventh sense’ (2003:3). Grammar perfectionist Truss has, however, found herself come under criticism when Richards (cited in Moore, 2008) claimed, of apostrophes: ‘Lynne Truss can write what she likes but she’s got to justify why you might use one when there are no missing letters and no possessive sense’. The most common punctuation howler is the ‘Greengrocer’s apostrophe’ where the writer tries to pluralize words using an apostrophe and an ‘s’ where it’s not required. This was also mentioned by Moore who found herself wondering how expensive Martini’s were compared to your average Martini. Moore (2008) claimed that owing to incorrect use of apostrophes, they are now being used as ‘visual garnish’.

However, not everyone believes that a marker pen should be at hand at all times in case we need to correct grammar and punctuation in the street. David Crystal (2006:153) believes that those sensitive to the ways language works won’t be fooled forever. Language cannot be put in a cage, as it exists to enable us to think and talk about life, which is messy and complex, therefore language must accommodate this. Crystal maintains (2006:161) that what we really need to worry about are ‘false friends’ arguing that spelling rules are the clearest indicators of standard English and so need special attention. He also explains how children shouldn’t be taking all of the blame. John Humphries (cited in Crystal, 2006:155) states ‘I wish the basic rules of grammar were still taught to every child’. This statement relates to a so-called ‘barren period’ of 1960-2000 when formal grammar was not taught at most schools. A great deal of care is now taken in teaching the national curriculum in schools, explaining and imposing rules of grammar. As this help wasn’t available for a forty year period, those who grew up during this time have turned to self help books such as ‘Eats, Shoots & Leaves’. However. Crystal argues further that these usage manuals, however well written, are of little use to us as linguistic education must take place whilst we are young, claiming ‘if usage manuals lived up to their promises, we would be home and dry by now’ (2006:57).

It is debatable whether our troubles with punctuation are due to ignorance and laziness. We have now come through a technological revolution, and as Crystal (cited in Moore, 2008) claims ‘punctuation has always been a matter of trends (…) subject to changes in fashion’.

LUCY HALLMARK, English Language undergraduate,  University of Chester (UK)

References

  • Fernandez, C,. (2009). ‘Punctuation hero’ branded a vandal for painting apostrophes on street signs.  The Daily Mail, [internet] 18 August.

Available at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1207301/Punctuation-hero-branded-vandal-inserting-apostrophes-street-signs.html#ixzz1sUqgp3oN

[Accessed 24 October 2012].

  •  Moore, V,. (2008). Apostrophe catastrophe! The rogue apostrophe is spreading like measles. It’s time to fight back…. The Daily Mail, [internet] 18 November.

Available at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1086832/Apostrophe-catastrophe-The-rogue-apostrophe-spreading-like-measles-Its-time-fight-.html#ixzz1sUrKecKO [Accessed 20 October 2012]

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5 thoughts on “LUCY HALLMARK asks: ‘Martinis? Sure, would you like lemon peel and an apostrophe with those?’

  1. Emma Rees says:

    This is a really interesting piece, Lucy, but it’s *so* even-handed that I found myself wondering which ‘side’ you were on! I do think punctuation is crucial: it makes communication intelligible. It *matters* whether we say ‘your’, ‘you’re’ or ‘their’, ‘they’re’, ‘there’, ‘its’ or ‘it’s’, because the choice changes the sense of a statement. I liked the idea of how we can’t ‘cage’ language – it does need to evolve (especially as new modes of communication appear), but don’t the basic ‘rules’ need to remain intact?

  2. Jo Close says:

    A question for you both, Lucy and Emma: but does punctuation always make communication intelligible? (We’re only talking about written language here, of course (and we could argue that spoken language is primary, but that’s a different debate)). In terms of intelligibility, if someone writes ‘your an idiot’ we still interpret this as ‘you’re (you are) an idiot’ (regardless of the bad grammar/punctuation). This is because the sentence needs a verb. In this case, punctuation is surely a marker of the writer’s education rather than of any real meaning.

    • Emma Rees says:

      That’s a really interesting approach, Jo. I think it comes down to the fact that I resent having to ‘work’ harder to interpret ‘you’re an idiot’ than I do ‘your an idiot’. The ‘work’ should have been done by the person sending that message out. Education *is* about ‘real meanings’ and the quests for them, surely? What do you think, Lucy? Am I behind the (linguistic) times?!

  3. Ian Bain says:

    Great piece Lucy, I am intrigued by how different people perceive grammar and punctuation. I agree with Crystal’s closing statement on your piece about how a technological revolution has shaped grammar and punctuation . As someone who communicates online regularly, I have noticed that my grammar and punctuation often is awful. However, when I write a Seminar paper I tend to think more about what I am actually writing and why. Personally, I have never felt the need to correct anyone’s punctuation and possibly that is one of the reasons why standards could be slipping.

    • Ian Bain says:

      If language evolves but the basic rules behind punctuation and grammar don’t, will people stop making grammar and punctuation mistakes? I feel that our grammar and punctuation doesn’t have to be perfect in modern day communication. For example, language through SMS messaging is very rarely perfect among young people. They abbreviate words or take letters out of words to make the message shorter. Yet, most people can still comprehend what the message is saying. Words and terms such as ‘YOLO’ and ‘LOL’ are modern terms, should they have to fit in to our basic rules which were around before their existence?

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