The proper use of dots and lines

Posted Sept. 25, 2009, at 7:56 p.m.

Most people standing in the unemployment line these days are likely more concerned with finding a job than with improving their punctuation skills.

National Punctuation Day, observed for the first time on Thursday, may not have done a whole lot to dissipate the miasma of doom and gloom that seems our lot in this era of world-class economic uncertainty. Most people standing in the unemployment line these days are likely more concerned with finding a job than with im-proving their punctuation skills.

But if the newest imitation “holiday” served to help rub out the scourge of apostrophic misunderstanding evident in such misguided signs as “Member’s Only” and “Apple’s For Sale” that one often encounters in the countryside, it will have accomplished something useful and may well be an idea whose time has arrived.

“Fowler’s Modern English Usage” — considered by many word mavens to be the final authority on how the language should be employed — says of such punctuation misadventures, “To insert an apostrophe in the plural of an ordinary noun is a fatuous vulgarism.” H.W. Fowler and his collaborating brother, Frank, were feisty old birds who took great offense at such assaults on the sensibilities, as well they should have.

Their influence remains strong today. According to a wire story in the Tuesday newspaper, it apparently was such fatuous vulgarisms that led Jeff Rubin, a 59-year-old former copy editor, to successfully lobby Chase’s Calendar of Events to list Sept. 24 as National Punctuation Day in its comprehensive national compilation of special observances.

On his Web site, NationalPunctuationDay.com, Rubin sees the event as “a celebration of the lowly comma, correctly used quotes, and proper use of periods, semi-colons, and the ever-mysterious ellipsis.” The site features instruction in the proper use of every punctuation mark in the English language — marks which Fowler re-fers to as “stops,” except for the period, which is called a “full stop.”

Somehow that is mindful of the old days of telegraphy, when Western Union telegrams featured brevity in the extreme, and — because punctuation reportedly cost extra — use of the word “stop” in place of a period. (“Arrived Monday Stop Send Money Stop”)

Rubin suggests a number of ways to observe National Punctuation Day. You might take a leisurely stroll downtown, he advises, “paying close attention to store signs with incorrectly punctuated messages. Stop in the stores to correct the owners. If they are not there, leave notes.” The notes presumably would instruct owners on how to atone for their deficiencies.

If memory serves, that was somewhat the modus operandi of two nit-picking stalwarts calling themselves the Typo Eradication Advancement League (TEAL) who cut a swath across the republic earlier this year.

The two young men, on a spell-check mission of mercy that probably had seemed like a swell idea at the time, set about correcting misspellings and expunging unwanted apostrophes and commas from commercial and governmental signage that didn’t quite cut the mustard punctuation-wise.

When they corrected a registered National Historic Landmark sign in the Grand Canyon National Park — changing the spelling “emense” to “immense” — it turned out to be one correction too many. They were collared by the long arm of the law and subsequently ordered by a federal court to rid themselves of their magnificent obsession.

In the fallout from their covert operation to promote proper punctuation, the pair were praised as visionaries in some quarters and castigated as vigilantes in others. Many an old editor or proofreader likely saw promise in their short-lived quixotic crusade.

Should the duo break loose to conduct a future campaign to rein in the over-excitable and over-used exclamation mark, perhaps the most worthless piece of punctuation known to mankind, it would be fine with me.

“Cut out all those exclamation marks,” advised author F. Scott Fitzgerald, who practiced what he preached. “An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke.” The man had it about right, though Fowler counsels that “not to use an exclamation mark is sometimes wrong,” and makes a cogent argument to support his case.

So I suppose the old grammarian had a point. There may be rare occasions when the exclamation mark crutch is necessary when mere words fail to set the tone of a sentence otherwise dead on arrival. But as I write on this National Punctuation Day I can’t recall ever having encountered one.

BDN columnist Kent Ward lives in Limestone. Readers may reach him by e-mail at olddawg@bangordailynews.net.

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