In Defense of Punctuation
Because I like to waste my time, I recently took an “OCD test” from a link on Facebook. I scored 100%. The test confidently explained that I “have a killer eye for spotting the tiniest, most invisible inaccuracies, errors, and mistakes” and that “it’s very important to [me] to correct them.” (It said it’s okay, though--I just need to “give myself a break sometimes.”)
Despite its deep wisdom, the Facebook quiz didn’t catalyze a spiritual breakthrough. I know this about myself. As long as I can remember, I’ve had perfectionist tendencies, and being a grammar snob has been one part of that. For the longest time I wrote “apostrophe advocate” in my social media profiles. I thought it was clever, quirky way for me to hint at my passion for grammar, especially for the apostrophe, which is a shockingly misused piece of punctuation.
I know what you’re thinking--I’m just another one of those know-it-all, aaactually types who laments incorrectly used semicolons and has a weird love for identifying a dangling modifier. I’m not saying you’re totally wrong.
I remember when I first learned the word “pedantic.” I was looking at a cartoon drawing of a door with a sign taped to it, and in big letters the sign said “Pedants Meeting Here.” Under that was some smaller writing that said “Well, not actually here--in the room behind this door.” It resonated almost to the point of embarrassment.
On one level, yeah, I’ll cop to it. I was an English teacher for several years, and I’m now an editor. I have an eye for the details of grammar and syntax, and I can be a little pedantic about it. I believe good grammar is important. But it’s not about being right or my need for things to be just so. I’ll reluctantly admit that’s probably partially true, but really my love for grammar comes from a deeper well.
Language conventions exist for a reason.
If we all used punctuation and words and sentences however we wanted to, we would have a hard time communicating effectively with one another. And that’s what the written word is all about. It’s about interacting with clarity, about the flow of ideas between minds. What is writing if not a conversation between the writer and the reader? We need agreed-upon rules and norms to help us have the conversation.
I hear people saying all the time “I never really learned grammar,” despite schools’ notorious drills and worksheets. This is never shocking to me--that type of grammar instruction straight up doesn’t work. And it frankly gives grammar a bad name. Grammar for grammar’s sake doesn’t make sense at all; grammar is about its service to writing. When I taught 12- and 13-year-old students, I tried my damnedest to be true to this reality. Instead of grammar lessons or grammar units, I taught it in the context of writing.
First, my students had the freedom to write authentic writing pieces, not just papers on an assigned topic for my eyes only. They wrote gratitude letters to loved ones, essays for magazines or contests, op-eds for the newspaper on topics they cared about. I also emphasized the real writing process that writers engage in. When it came time for revision and editing, I’d sit down with students and their drafts and say things like this: “Hey, I love what you’re doing here. You know what might really help? A dash. Let me show you how they work.” I’d point out the grammar used in texts they were reading, too: “Look what this writer did. Let’s read this out loud. See how you could write your sentence like that?” I got some flack from parents for not “teaching enough grammar.” And maybe I didn’t. But I truly believe that grammar means nothing if it’s not helping you share your thoughts on the page. I wanted my students to truly learn and appreciate grammar for what it is: a tool to help us write better.
As passionate as I am about the grammar’s true purpose, I also believe that it’s totally acceptable to break grammar rules. I hung a big sign in my classroom: Grammar - know the rules SO YOU CAN BREAK THEM. Yes, part of that was a shameless appeal to middle schoolers’ desire for rebellion and independence. But it’s also really, really true. The most captivating writing doesn’t rigidly follow all the rules; rather, it purposefully and creatively breaks them. The catch? You have to know the rules first before you can most effectively break them.
I suppose I am a grammar snob. I truly can’t help it; I couldn’t change that about myself if I tried. But I like to think I care about grammar because I care about something more - about our words’ ability to bust our hearts wide open and affirm our shared humanity. Just don’t mess up an apostrophe, mmkay?