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Steven Pinker’s Sense of Style and Placing Commas

In a recent interview, “‘Literally,’ Emojis, and Other Trends That Aren’t Destroying English“,  Steven Pinker directs his usual optimism to writing style. I’ve been guilty too often of reckless hyperbole, but at least I’m not alone. Pinker notes: “We are always in search of superlatives, of ways of impressing upon our hearer that something that happened is noteworthy or even extraordinary. And the words we use to signal that eventually lose their meaning. ‘Awesome’ is a recent example. In the UK, ‘brilliant’ is used for the most banal observations. Before that, words like ‘terrific,’ meaning inspiring terror, ‘wonderful,’ inspiring wonder, ‘fabulous,’ worthy of fable. We see the fossils of dead superlatives that our ancestors overused the way we overuse ‘awesome.’ ‘Literally’ is a victim of a similar type of inflation. The figurative use doesn’t mean the language is deteriorating. Hyperbole has probably been around as long as language has been around.” What I most appreciated in the interview is that, like me, Pinker is a proponent of placing grammatical delimiters outside of quotations, preserving their ownership by the sentence, to which they properly belong. In response to the interviewer’s insistence that it is untidy to place a comma outside of the quotation mark, Pinker argues: “Your aesthetics may have been shaped by a lifetime of seeing it in the American pattern, but this would be a case in which any aesthetic reaction should be trumped by logic. Messing up the order of delimiters in a way that doesn’t reflect the logical nesting of their content is just an affront to an orderly mind.” Hear. Hear.

Some time ago, I wrote at greater length about where punctuation belongs.

Hyphens Are Not Barbells

The standard convention is to insert the hyphenated clause—such as this one—without buffering the emdashes with spaces. The problem is that this approach connects the word pairings on either side of the clause rather than the clause itself. Visually, it suggests a connection between “clause—such” and “one—without” rather than the intended connection: “such as this one”. As a result, one often has to retreat a few words having realized you’ve stumbled into a clause and missed the intended emphasis. Additionally, using the hyphen thusly risks it being mistaken for an endash. So, may I commend to you — writers, editors, and bloggers — that you begin giving the hyphen a little breathing room, both to the right and to the left. Take a gander at A List Apart’s “The Trouble with EM ‘n EN”, which corrects many other hyphenation issues while illustrating this one. And for what it’s worth, I think ellipses (…) merit the same treatment. (Note: I’ve used “hyphen” colloquially here. Actually, a hyphen is what most call a dash, as I have called it in the following.)

Quotation Marks: The Queen’s and the Colonialists’

As for semantics, I consider both the British and American rules for quotation marks insufficient to clearly communicate what is in fact being quoted. American English grammar dictates: “the period that concludes this sentence should fall within these quotation marks.” And, “if the quoted clause lands mid-sentence,” the comma should again be nested within the quotes. The problem is, the period and comma both belong to the sentence, not to the quoted clause. For example, consider how odd it would read if I had “correctly” punctuated this sentence in the previous paragraph: “… all possesive nouns are supposed to carry the trailing apostrophe and “s.” Okay, that’s not a good example. But how about, “if I placed this question mark inside the quotes?” British English improves upon this situation, placing the punctuation mark after the quotations. Unfortunately, as best I can tell, it does so uniformly, even when a full sentence is being quoted. My own view is that, if a full sentence is being quoted, the period should be included within the quotation marks, whereas if it the quote is merely a clause, sentence punctuation should fall outside. To coin a phrase (and to illustrate): “What lies within, should fall within!” And, vice versa.

On Being an Orthographic Rebel

As a rule, I am a believer in conforming to the letter of the law when constructing sentences. Grammatical correctness communicates competence and care. Plus, when the rules are generally reinforced, intentional deviations from English orthography can serve a creative role, a la e.e. cummings. However, there are deficiencies in any written language. I’m all for doing my part to contribute to its evolution. No doubt I’ve inadvertently committed grammatical errors here, even as I’ve been niggling about grammar. I appreciate the irony. In my defense, it is inherently tricky to use sentences to speak self-referentially about sentences. In any case, in the gray areas of grammar, I was taught that deviations from the norm are acceptable as long as they are applied consistently within a document. That is a rule I can follow.

As a designer, it is possible — likely, perhaps — that I’m more fickle about the look of a word or phrase than the average Joe. Typesetting isn’t a professional endeavor for most. Nonetheless, in the case of hyphens and quotations marks, my considered deviations are in the interest of communicating as best we can. If you are of the same mind, join my rebel cause. All I ask is that you do so consistently.


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