Punctuation and Politics

Many of us can remember a course or two in college that we expected to be interesting because it covered a topic we were particularly fascinated by, but we were disappointed by the droning of a dry and boring professor. On the other hand, some of us might also be able to recall a course taken solely for scheduling convenience that pleasantly surprised us. A passionate and pedagogically competent professor introduced us to what we had thought to be an arid topic. Many will undergo the latter pleasant experience when they read the current bestseller, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, by Lynne Truss. The book focuses on what many formerly believed to be the most parched of topics: punctuation and its (definitely not “it’s”) abusive use.

Clear writing and clear thinking are intimately linked, and punctuation is indispensable for clear writing. Punctuation is a late development in the history of the written word. As Truss explains, we emerged from a “scriptio continua swamp” where words where placed in sequence without punctuation, and where the reader was often required to literally divine the meaning of passages. Indeed, religious controversy swirled over the meaning of simple passages, ambiguous for the lack of punctuation.Consider the meaning of the word sequence:

“verily I say to thee this day thou shalt be with me in paradise”

Perhaps it is a promise of immediate entrance into Paradise as in:

“Verily, I say to thee. This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise.”

Or, perhaps it is a present promise for a more distant heavenly reward:

“Verily, I say to thee this day. Thou shalt be with me in Paradise.”

Despite the interesting historical lessons in punctuation, the charm of Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, rests with Truss’ sardonic British wit. She describes herself and kindred spirits as “sticklers” and half-seriously as wanting to lead the militant wing of the Apostrophe Protection Society. This militant wing would be armed with markers and paint to mark in desperately needed apostrophes or to eradicate impertinent ones from public signs.

In addition to humorous anecdotes illustrating hilarious confusion associated with misapplied punctuation, Truss uses wondrous and loving metaphors to describe punctuation. Did you know the period is male and the apostrophe is female? As Truss explains:

“In fact while one may dare to say that the full stop [a period for Americans] is the lumpen male of the punctuation world (do one job at a time; do it well; forget about it instantly), the apostrophe is the frantically multi-tasking female, dotting hither and yon and succumbing to burnout for all the thankless effort.”

Two trends have allied together to form the current assault on punctuation. The first is education. Children for the last few decades have not been instructed on the rules of punctuation. There is little wonder that the misuse of punctuation has proliferated. Second, the explosion of unedited text on the Internet and e-mail increased the speed of writing with a consequent loss of thought, consideration, (note the comma) and punctuation.

The Washington Post even once touted as an advantage of e-mail that employees “took less time to formulate their thoughts.” No wonder Truss was momentarily excited about a fictional Strunkandwhite [After the Strunk and White Style Guide] computer virus that would prevent the sending of ungrammatical e-mail.

Ironically, the lack of punctuation has compelled people to include emoticons to clarify e-mail made ambiguous with poor writing and punctuation. Add a smiley, [:-)], a facial glyph, to the end of a sentence so the reader realizes you are telling a joke. Truss laments:

“Anyone interested in punctuation has a dual reason to feel aggrieved about smileys, because not only are they a paltry substitute for expressing oneself properly; they are also designed by people who evidently thought the punctuation marks on the standard keyboard cried out for ornamental function.”

Truss awakens in the reader a sensitivity to the use of punctuation and language. With this new awareness, it becomes clear that much of the political difference between Democrats and Republicans might be rooted in minor punctuation differences.

For example, many Democrats suffer under the illusion that Bush is something of a bumbling fool and excessively dependent upon staff like National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. A Democrat might assert, “Condoleezza: without her, George is nothing.” Republicans, by contrast, understand that, “Condoleezza, without her George, is nothing.”

At one time, Democrats were friends of the working class, worried about supporting working class families. They could honestly say, “Democrats — we’re here to help you.” However, Democrats have degenerated into mouthpieces for Liberal special interests, often conspicuously dismissive of middle class values. We are forced to concede, “Democrats were here to help you.”

Seemingly trivial punctuation differences also separate Republicans and Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry. Kerry has been caught more than a few times switching positions on political questions to follow perceived public sentiment. This fluidity is a measure of what John Kerry thinks of other Americans. “The voting public, believes John Kerry, is fickle.” In response to mercurial positions, however, Republicans might assert that, “The voting public believes John Kerry is fickle.”

No person or group is perfect. Occasionally, one can find a Republican who has fallen into temptation and engaged in an “extra-marital affair.” However, as the previous president has taught us, Democrats loose the hyphen along with moral inhibitions and add one more notch to their conquests by having an “extra marital affair.”

Yes, Lynn Truss has inadvertently opened our eyes to an entirely new mode of political analysis.

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