Saturday, April 19, 2014

And Here Is My Point


I have always been sensitive to punctuation.  It sets the pace for the prose and tells it when to gallop or stop or just pull up slightly and peer over the fence. I'm very deliberate about where I put my punctuation marks. People might disagree with me over some of it but there's nothing haphazard about it. I have preferences. For instance, sometimes, I use fewer commas than my English teachers would have liked, because, sometimes, I want to charge ahead. I even use comma splices, where a semi-colon is usually called for, because I want the prose to just pop a little shrug, and not actually pause with its chin in its hand.

My father, who was a fine slinger of verbiage, was a huge fan of the semi-colon. He could not not use it. I picked that up from him, initially, but now I really try to fend it off. Instead I use a long dash--it has the same effect, but it feels different. The dash is a gentle hand on your arm. The semi-colon is dusting off its tweed sleeve and puffing at its pipe before it continues. Dad used to use so many semi-colons that his paragraphs developed a predictable, hypnotic rhythm. He'd send me a typewritten letter once a week and by the end of it my eyelids were sliding shut.

Punctuation shouldn't have the ability to make me sleepy, but I'm delicately wired that way. I don't read very fast, and I follow directions. I gallop and whoa when I'm told to. You present me with a name like "U'Neek" or "La'Shawna" and I will read a hiccup into it. I have a few friends who use ellipses. A lot. They're just in there as spacers for their thoughts. It makes all their thoughts equally important, or unimportant. "Hi...saw June the other day at the market...she says hi...doing pretty well since that monkey ate off her face...don't know if you heard about that...maybe we can get together sometime soon...okay gotta run..." When I read something like this, I actually feel myself nodding off at every ellipse. And in my mind's ear, I hear it in the same annoying intonation that is so prevalent these days: a sort of lazy, I-don't-care dip at the end of every phrase in which the vocal cords just sort of give up, and speech crumbles into rubble at the back of the throat. The speaker sounds bored as hell. Even NPR commentators do it. I want to poke at them with a sharp stick. It's possible I'm too delicately wired about some things.

So when I first saw text messaging, as practiced by the younger set, I read it the same way. There was no punctuation. No capital letters. Everything just drifted off into some neutral, apathetic space. The message felt like just one "what-ever" after another. Act like you care! I thought. Give it some voice! And sometimes, if I was feeling especially peevish, get a damn job!

Naturally, when I first started texting, I capitalized where I was supposed to and went to the trouble of inserting punctuation. I had to. It was a pain in the ass, but I didn't want it to seem like I didn't care. I still do it. But right away I could see why people didn't bother. It's a lot to ask of the thumbs. It's not necessary. It isn't a novel. It's a whole new way of communicating.

And as such, it's made its own rules. For one thing, you really shouldn't use periods at all. Instead you just start a new line. If you use a period, which requires a whole new thumb-stroke, people have to assume you went to the trouble because you were done with the conversation, and maybe not too pleased with their end of it. If you text someone "are you going to the party tonight" and she writes back "no" you have your information. If she writes back "No." you know she's definitely not going, and she's irritated about something. And it might be you. It could be that thing you did at the last party that you hoped everyone had forgotten about. Why else would she put such a final note on the conversation? If you leave off the period, everyone knows you're still available to chat.

So I get it. Text messaging has its own punctuation. It's either none, or it's a whole bunch of exclamation points or question marks to indicate sincerity or incredulity, which are not otherwise obvious in microcommunication. I'm fine with it, I really am [rogue comma splice]. I'm still going to have to capitalize and put in punctuation. I'm retired--I've got all day. And I know that my contemporaries won't be put off, and younger folk will smile indulgently and say "it's just Murr. She can't help it." Consider my text message punctuation the wistful, charming freight from a bygone era. It's the lilac scent wafting from an elderly aunt's stationery.

69 comments:

  1. I capitalise and punctuate my text messages too, my daughter's replies are either one word or a whole sentence, with no spaces if she is in a hurry, so I then have to decipher it. Keeps life interesting.

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    1. It still works. I wouldn't want to read a novel that way, although didn't someone already write one? James Joyce or someone?

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  2. I often use...'s. Did not know they had a name. I hope I don't abuse them, now you have made me self-conscious.

    I do not text too often, did not realize there were rules. I think I break a few of them.

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    1. Oh I hate when I make people self-conscious. I'm persnickety, personally, but I'm not a curmudgeon. You go ahead and use those ellipses and I'll sail on your sentence like it's a gentle sea.

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  3. I use ellipses way too much...it is just me! I do avoid exclamation points! Too much excitement! I hate the ambiguity of texting and it drifts into FB as well. You are a great read and I wish you had been my grammar and syntax teacher; I might have learned something!

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    1. I don't think I ever learned much. I did absorb a lot though. I wonder: do they teach sentence diagramming anymore?

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    2. In middle and high schools? Nope.
      I taught it in a review sort of way when I taught college freshmen; they couldn't write a grammatical sentence to save their lives.

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    3. I have no idea what syntax is.

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    4. It's why alcohol costs more than it ought to.

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  4. I sprinkle commas everywhere[,] and then must backtrack and tidy up.

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  5. Frankly, my dear, I rather enjoy your use of punctuation! It gives me the tools necessary to interpret exactly how you mean what you say. I worry about my own use, but don't obsess about it. If it feels right, do it!

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  6. Okay: how do you depict a razzberry in letters? Serious question. Well, sort of serious.

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    1. I usually do something like "phlbbbbbtttt". It may not be perfect but it seems to get the message across.

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    2. PBBFFTT!!! At least that's how Bloom County did it.

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    3. Right! And that's how I do it too. Too much PB and not enough FFTT. Dave tried to teach me one day on the back porch and our neighbors pull their blinds to this day when they see us come outside.

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  7. I'm with you on punctuation. Use it! Correctly! My older daughter came home from college and showed me a paper she had written; I told her that the instructor had missed the run-on sentences. My daughter told me that they were comma splices. So now they are ok? I had never heard of them.

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    1. And now she is a proofreader/copy editor. So I guess that eventually, she got it right.

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    2. I'm sort of amazed no one ever calls me on some of my comma splices or usage. Because I do break some rules.

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    3. Murr - I think it's sort of like umpires: you can call it a strike "anywhere you want" --- but you have to be consistent (or consistently inconsistent?). And I made up my own rule for ending a text conversation, that seems to work most of the time: I send a "cool" emoticon -- the one wearing sunglasses!

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    4. I'll bet I have emoticons on my phone somewhere. And I'll bet they're all lined up knocking back tequila shots and laughing at me and taking bets as to how long it will take for me to find them.

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  8. I used to love punctuation and grammar and thought I knew just about everything there was to know about them. Then I subscribed to about.com's grammar and composition newsletter and fell into the abyss of my own ignorance. After I climbed my way out, I shrugged and told myself that good enough is good enough. If I waited to be perfect, I'd never write another sentence. Besides, as I learned along the way, language is an ever-evolving thing. That's my story and I AM sticking to it.

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    1. Rats! I forgot to tell you how much I loved your post - really!! Your descriptions are priceless and right on.

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    2. A lot of the time it's just better to be ignorant, because knowing the truth just makes you unhappy. For instance, "enormity" and "cogent" don't mean what people think they mean. And what I used to think they mean. Now every time I hear them used, my nasty little internal editor pipes up. I wish she'd shut up.

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    3. probably they get cogent confused with cogitate; enormity speaks for itself.

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  9. --I am so guilty!... I always thought an 'ellipse' was called 'dot-dot-dot'..???

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    1. It is totally called a dot dot dot. You're in the clear.

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  10. Oh, that "crumble into rubble" you hear is called "vocal fry" and it is intentional. Annoys the %^& out of me.

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    1. THANK YOU. I didn't know it had a name, and that also means I'm not the only one who notices it. I hated it when I was a little kid. You didn't hear it as much then. But I used to call it a "graham-cracker voice" because it made me feel the way I felt eating graham crackers, which I did not like. Don't ask.

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  11. i need 2 update my texting style

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  12. I like today's picture - scary!

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    1. I magine t exting u sing C hinese c haracters.

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    2. You'd have to have a long skinny phone.

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  13. Cogent? I've been using it wrong? How? The enormity is overwhelming me. Great post, but your responses to comments may be even better.

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    1. Oh heck no, not you, Chris. The other people. Cogent means powerful and enormity means great evil. I used to think a cogent argument was spare and well thought-out. Cogitated-upon.

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    2. Cogent means clear, logical and convincing. Thank you, signed Noah Webster.

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    3. Also, enormity has several meanings, one of which is "great size", so you were okay there, too. (signed Merriam Webster)

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    4. Well goody. When I think about it, "enormity," even when used to mean something like enormousness, is kind of special. I mean, you'd use it in a different way than enormousness. You would not say an elephant had enormity. Interesting.

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    5. More likely the enormity of the project overwhelmed her...

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  14. Ny daughter informed me that when I just say 'k' instead of 'ok', it means I'm pissed off. k?

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    1. You pissed off? I can't tell without the emoticon.

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  15. Your cogent argument has shown me the enormity of my sinful ways when it comes to ellipses. I use them to sound as though I'm dwindling away into another thought or leaving the room while still talking. Semi colons don't put me to sleep, they sort of give me a nudge in a slightly different direction. They are a bit tweedy though, I'll give you that. Now a colon: there's a bop on the beak to keep you awake. Dashes remind me of talking to my 94 year old mother who self-interrupts and rides madly off in all directions with the best of them, so I try to rein those in.

    But the thing that makes me look like your pic up top, Murr, is the person who screeches at me with their cap locks on or else Tries To Make Very Important Points By Capitalizing Every Blasted Word. I'd like to lay about them with my grade six teacher's wooden pointer.

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    1. The more modern way of doing that last thing is to put. Everything. In. Its. Own. Sentence. Molly Ivins, I think, was the first to do that ("Get. The. Damn. Mammogram.") that I noticed, and it was real effective. Doesn't stand up to repetition, though.

      Yeah, it was the way Dad used semi-colons (in almost every sentence) that put me to sleep. I like "bop on the beak!"

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    2. And yes, I think using ellipses exactly the way you describe works perfectly. It's just that some people are constantly leaving the room.

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  16. I always use way too much punctuation and ellipses, semi-colons and dashes are my favorites, along with exclamation points (never more then 3 at a time.) All my texts are grammatically and punctuationally correct (yes, it's a word - I just made it up.)

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  17. I dragged out my old 1980s (70s?) dictionary and it has only two definitions for both cogent and enormity. My thesaurus however, has 23 different words for cogent and 19 for enormity. So there's a lot to choose from if you're checking that your usage is correct. I need to be a little more careful with my ellipses, I do use more than I need.

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    1. Okay, here's the last I'll say about it. (As if.) I believe I got turned around on those words because they showed up on an internet list of "words you're probably using incorrectly," in which they said cogent meant powerful. And it's true cogent means powerful, but in the sense of being convincing because of being well-thought-out; so most of us really are using it correctly. Now, enormity does have "immenseness" as a definition, but not the first or second definition, and I suspect it's one of those words that the dictionary people had to cave on because of the way it was being used. My older American Heritage has a usage note that it should not be used for things like the "enormity of her inheritance," but should be used for the "enormity of Pol Pot's oppression." Great evil is implied. When a word is specific like that, I like to be careful about using it, rather than flinging it about willy-nilly and diluting its meaning.

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  18. I love semicolons.
    the Ol'Buzzard

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  19. How did they know it was June they were talking to?

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    1. Even without her face, she still had that vocal fry.

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  20. I. Love. This. (Intentional periodic emphasis)

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  21. I feel very old when I text, but my kids and other young ones seem to put up with the full words, punctuation and all. But I got a huge laugh when my son-in-law (age 35) complained about his class of college students who could not write an email. Apparently this (even younger) generation has devolved to the point that they only text and do not use email. Son-in-law was horrified at the lack of skills in this group of students.

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    1. Ha! Thirty years from now his students will be complaining about abbreviated grunts.

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  22. Murr, I use too many semicolons. My book is littered with the damned things. Correct, accurate, but as you say, a little chin-in-hand. I am rarely so solemn in real life; damn my education. Roth x

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    1. Oh trust me. There is no education that can't be unlearned, forgotten, lost for good. I used to know stuff. Lots of stuff.

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  23. I have stacks of postcards from my grandparents when they were young in the early 1900s. Read one the other day--"How R U? I will B 2 C you Tues." The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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    1. Now that you mention it, I remember seeing my mom's old school autograph book with a lot of the same things.

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    2. And my own yearbooks, for that matter--"2 sweet 2 B 4gotten."

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  24. My sin these days (as I think Mrs.DeWitt -- 7th grade English -- would see it) is to lead off sentences with conjunctions like "and" or "but". But sometimes that just works, even if it's bass ackwards.

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    1. Totally legitimate. As are incomplete sentences.

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