English Language in its 21st-Century Avatar

Last week, author and grammar columnist June Casagrande wrote on the use, misuse, or overuse of the semicolon in the English language, the “strange little squiggles” as she calls it (A Word Please, July 17). This follows her earlier blasé dismissal of the rules for periods with initials.

So how much of a stickler can a writer or an editor be for punctuation?  Or, for that matter, for the grammar rules of the purist?

The Panda Who Ate, Shot, and Left

A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and proceeds to fire it at the other patrons. “Why?” asks the confused, surviving waiter amidst the carnage, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder.”Well, I’m a panda,” he says. “Look it up.” The waiter turns to the relevant entry in the manual and, sure enough, finds an explanation. “Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.”          

From Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots and Leaves (2003)

 

When former BBC Radio host Lynne Truss—sometimes nicknamed “the comma queen”—penned her humorous and yet instructive Eats, Shoots and Leaves (2003), it set off a debate in America and the British Isles on the usage of punctuation in English writing. In this war of words, dramatic phrases like “grammar bullies” and “grammar fascists” were thrown at the so-called linguistic purism of Truss’s work. There were even accusations that Eats… is too rigid a prescription for the English language in its 21st century avatar. Truss’s own one-time colleague and language expert David Crystal openly mocked Truss in his book, The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left.

Few years ago, when I read Truss’s rather diminutive book for the first time, its humor and instructive content were both bang on. But that was when the new millennium was yet to break free from the shackles of the purists of the English language and grammar rules. The language of technology (texting, chat, and ‘big-brother’ email) was just a budding cult, and the world of communication still traversed in straight-jacketed stipulations of English writing.

English Language of the 21st Century: Style vs. Correctness  

But a decade down the technology ride, mobile and web telephony has fashioned an entirely new technology language, which is challenging and thinning the line between informal and formal writing. It’s not unusual to find graphone “sentences” floating between cellular towers and among the tech-savvy GEN Y and Z. This posits the danger of some elements of this casual communication style creeping into formal writing.

That’s where the editor comes in, pruning and mowing the language, style, and grammar “correctness” to make writing fit for its target reader.

But does that imply going back to the grammar books of the last century? Apparently not. The English language has changed from the Shakespearean age and through the centuries, and continues to evolve even now. Strange (or “un-English”) words are creeping into the dictionary through usage, and some words are being pushed into writing even before you can find them in any English dictionary. In fact, for the editor, for many of his or her decisions, it’s no longer a question of RIGHT or WRONG; it’s finally coming down to STYLE. Do I insert the Oxford comma here? Do I insert periods for initials? Is a hyphen really necessary here, or an en dash? Is a semicolon better, or a comma, or just a plain simple period?

Writers, including seasoned writers, often defy grammar rules to confirm to their writing style (the “Don’t mess with my style” attitude) and are averse to an over-enthusiastic editor’s pen. In such tricky scenarios, it’s really up to the editor to emerge unscathed by shedding some of the century-old grammar baggage of the purists and being more modern. In many ways, therefore, the editor can no longer afford to nit-pick for prescribed rules of grammar; being a grammar guru is fine, but keeping an astute eye on how the English language is evolving with changes in society, technology, and means of communication is an equally strong trait of a good editor or writer.

So where does all this leave us with the panda who eats, shoots and leaves? Truss’s work was a bestseller for a good reason; it succeeded in using humor to bring to the fore major fallacies that could be avoided with correct use of the punctuation in written English. However, the problem was in the book’s subtitle: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. With the English language now well into its 21st century avatar, “zero tolerance” is no longer valid. Even in formal writing, the world is much more amenable to conversational, as against turgid or terse, writing. Each day, the written word hits readers from various mediums, and choice of attention is made almost instantaneously based on two factors: correct language skills and good writing style. One without the other would be like a boat without the oar; you might not sink, but you’ll not move either!


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