Saturday, January 12, 2008

Language vs. punctuation

Language—what linguists primarily concern themselves with—is what we humans speak. The very word language comes from the same root as the word tongue.

But what I concern myself with as an editor is not quite the same thing as our mother tongue. I work instead with the writing system, which is at best a mere shadow of the language—a projection of it onto the plane of paper or monitor, a flattening, to be sure, but also and inevitably a formalization and conventionalization of it.

What do I mean? I mean that writing is not a transcription of speech. And edited writing is not the natural stream of words that spews from the writer’s keyboard, let alone the writer’s mouth. Instead, it is an arrangement of formal symbols—the alphabet, some punctuation marks, various sorts of spaces, and so forth—that somehow evoke in the reader’s mind something akin to what the writer might be trying to say aloud were he or she in the room. And I mean that careful writers and editors usually try to follow some consistent set of conventions, embodied in a style guide, for the way those symbols are arranged. Readers don’t, as a rule, pay a lot of conscious attention to those conventions, but the conventions nonetheless help the reader glean meaning.

Conventions change over time. Pick up a book from as recently as fifty years ago and immediately the vocabulary, sentence structure, spelling, and punctuation will be noticeably different from that of a book published this year. This is independent of linguistic change—the change in the spoken language. It’s specifically about changing fashions among editors.

And at any given time, there are specific conventions in a state of flux.

One that came up today on a mailing list is the use of commas to set off a year or a state or country in constructions such as, “The Declaration of Independence is dated July 4, 1776, and was signed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, by 56 people.”

Pretty much all of us editors agreed that those commas are necessary, before and after 1776 and before and after Pennsylvania. But we all have noticed that unedited manuscripts often omit one or more of them. It would not be unusual to receive a manuscript reading, “The Declaration of Independence is dated July 4, 1776 and was signed in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by 56 people.”

So I proposed a test.

Here is a sentence you might read somewhere, perhaps in dialogue. It’s not a particularly graceful sentence, but that isn’t the point. The question is, if you were to encounter the sentence, would your reading be stalled, would your stomach churn? Rank these in order of preference—not how you would edit the sentence if you had the chance but how you would react upon encountering it in the wild.
  1. The last time I went to Boston Massachusetts was in the summer.
  2. The last time I went to Boston, Massachusetts was in the summer.
  3. The last time I went to Boston Massachusetts, was in the summer.
  4. The last time I went to Boston, Massachusetts, was in the summer.
This is not a question about right and wrong; it’s a question about the way conventions drift.

Responses in the comments, please.


Anonymous said...

2, 1, 4, 3

Anonymous said...

2, 4, 3, 1

Zora said...

4, 2, 1, 3

Anonymous said...

4,3,1,2, with not much to choose between #1 and #3.

I don't get the appeal of #2: it seems to be the one option that actively encourages the misreading equivalent to "I was last in Boston when Massachussets was in the summer".