On punctuation

There is within me a great, raging conflict, an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, that keeps me awake at nights—neurological fuck-ups notwithstanding—and it concerns the matter of writing.

As a sociolinguist, albeit of the dismal, failed variety, I know that there is no such thing as “correct” or “incorrect” language use; that we acquire our habits of speech from our social environment; and that to assert that certain forms are truer, more accurate, or better is to impose a distasteful and discriminatory social elistism that sets the particular patterns and habits of the privileged few as an unjustifiable standard, and then uses them as a stick with which to beat people who never had exposure to these norms and cannot therefore be reasonably expected to reproduce them.

As an editor, however, I know that there is a right way to do things, and that you just did it wrong.

The sociolinguist wins, almost all the time, but there is an interesting issue around punctuation where the waters are a bit murkier. Speech is, of course, punctuated; but the mechanisms of punctuation are very different to those of writing: pauses, gestures, facial expressions, and non-verbal cues such as (in English) tone and intensity. Written punctuation is a very different matter: it belongs entirely to the realm of literacy, and literacy is a secondary skill that supervenes upon language use and is learnt rather than acquired.

We learn a great many skills as children, some formally (such as arithmetic), other less so (such as wedgie technique). In the context of formal learning, it does not seem as egregiously unjust to propose certain favoured norms, as it is no longer the case that the naturally-acquired habits of a few are being imposed upon and in contradistinction to the habits of the majority. We all must learn the norms of literacy and, as long as the proposed norms do not surreptitiously support or reinforce the spoken behaviours of the elite, then I cannot find it in myself to object too strongly.

Punctuation, then, seems a clear position where the editor in me can flex his muscles a little. Spelling, less so: we may have standardized spellings, but these could be seen to be imposing certain pronunciations over others. But punctuation is so arbitrary and independent of lexical content that here, at least, I feel I may be entitled to allow myself a little prescriptivism.

Does this mean, then, that I decry the grocer’s apostrophe—as more than a few people think I should?

Well yes, and then again, no. I cannot deny that I wince when I see it but—cursed egalitarian that I am—I rather feel that in this class-bedevilled society certain groups of people have access to higher-quality education than others, and that members of that group with access to only the poorest level of schooling are more likely to go on to be grocers than, for instance, Old Etonians. I don’t like to see the grocer’s apostrophe, but I find it very hard to lay the blame at the door of the individual who has written the sign. The putatively terrifying deficit aside, we are one of the richest nations on the world and, if we are to promote cross-dialectical norms in even this one small matter, it seems a piteous failure of our society if we cannot manage to educate everyone about it.

  1. In fact, of course, “you just did it wrongly.” Case in point, however: both forms are equally understandable, and the insistence on the “correct” use of the adverbial form just results in a cumbersome and ugly locution, not to mention ruining some of the effect by terminating an humourously over-emphasized phrase on an unstressed syllable.
  2. Though when the sign was written by a member of exactly that elite who do insist that the uneducated emulate the forms of the educated, the matter is maybe slightly different.

Cf. supra? Wevs, bro.

This is a rant, and it’s a rant about language. I have been having an intermittent altercation with a friend on Facebook—

A Reader [who we could just as well call The Plain People of Ireland, so nakedly is this device stolen from Myles na gCopaleen]: Facebook? Again? Are you ever off that dratted site?

Me: Look, buster, it’s my only contact with the world at the moment. I just moved to a new city where I have no social circle and have had no time to form one, what with the hours spent producing beautiful Arabic/English books, writing witty invective such as this and, um, faffing around on Facebook.

—concerning certain items in use in certain registers of English, and the time has come for me to set out my views clearly for the world to hear. Tremble, you pillars of academe, for it is at you that my guns are turned. My thesis is simple, and it is the following:

Enough! Enough with your cfs and your vide supras. Enough with your flourits and enough with your ibids. Your passims are passé. I am counter-contra, I oppose your opus, I vilify your videlicet. And the loc where you may cit your anno domini, well, in ano est.

These and similar abbreviated Latinities are, in my possibly not-so-humble opinion, stuffy and antiquated relics that serve no purpose other than to obfuscate and obscure, and should be done away with, with immediate effect. There is not a single one of them for which a simple English-language formulation will not perform an exactly synonymous function, with the added benefit of not sending newcomers hunting through abbreviation lists or glossaries.

I am not opposed to jargon. In fact, as a sociolinguist and lover of all things meta, I would have to point out that “jargon” can itself be jargon. Every specialist domain needs words for things not in general use (such as “quark” or “alveolar flap”), or more constrained meanings to words in common use (such as the physicist’s understanding of “energy” or the linguist’s understanding of “jargon”). But these, the objects of my ire, are not specialist terms, they do not have specific meanings that require a special word. They have simple and exactly synonymous English cognates.

Here’s a piece of jargon for you, in fact. Barrier to entry. This term, from economics, applies in its narrow meaning to costs that have to be incurred by newcomers to a market, that are not borne by existing participants in that market. But in its wider sense, it can be seen as “anything that prevents entry when entry is socially beneficial” (Franklin M. Fisher). Free market comparisons? Do they really stand? I suppose it’s whether you think academe should be a self-selecting elect guarded by portals such as grammar schools, the Oxford entrance exam, and the ability to conjugate the verb “to go” in a language not productively used since the nineteenth century, and vernacularly not since long before that. But I take a different view. Karl Popper, in The Poverty of Historicism observed that “Science, and more especially scientific progress, are the results not of isolated efforts, but of the free competition of thought.” Amen to that. And these Latinities are nothing more than barriers to entry, unnecessary hurdles placed to socially restrict access to certain types of text by making them abstruse and difficult to the uninitiate — regardless of whether that individual would actually have the ability to understand the content itself.

I’m a publisher, and I have spent the majority of my career working in the academic sector on supposedly audience-broadening texts, and it boils my blood that many of these books, which are purportedly intended to draw in new readers to the wonders of non-western literatures, speckle themselves with these alienating italicised lexical affronts. In fact, one of my authors—an Emeritus at Oxford, no less—routinely confused q.v. and s.v. Presumably, in fifty years of publishing, he has had editors fix them for him. If you really must know, q.v. is quod vide (“which see”) and comes after a mention of a topic or word indicating it is discussed in depth elsewhere, whereas s.v. is sub verbo (“under the word”), comes before said word, and is specifically and only used to give the headword in a glossary or dictionary under which to look. If he’d have been able to bring himself to simply write “see elsewhere” and “see under” then he wouldn’t have made these errors. And if an Oxford don can’t actually correctly handle this vocabulary, what chance for the rest of us?

Here is my golden rule: if the expansion of a term in your abbreviations list itself requires a gloss then there is something very wrong with your idea of clarity.

Enough! I have more on this topic: so far I have only covered the first part of the title. Wevs, bro is to come, and will clearly and simply, with no obscure Latinities and no italicised alienation, explain why initialised and contracted slang terms are a whole different issue: they are to be celebrated and savoured as part of the joyous innovation that keeps language alive and exciting, not fossilised, elitist, and occult. But no tl;dr posts from me, so I shall save that for later. Vide infra, when it comes. Bah!