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Copyright Melanie Spiller 2012. Do not copy without permission.
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What Difference It Makes

I was surprised this last holiday season when my brother said, ďwhat difference does it makeĒ when I pointed out a punctuation error or two in his business proposal. Imagine. My own flesh and blood!

 

After I finished cursing at him and other sisterly things, I decided that it was time to address this egregious plaint. It is, after all, not the first time Iíve heard it. I was just shocked at the source. My brother is, after all, educated, the child of two very articulate and educated parents, a fine writer, and my very own personal and private sibling.

 

So hereís the thing. If youíre trying to impress some business associate, you donít show up in your old gardening clothes, unwashed, and with nothing to write upon or with. You wear shoes, you sit up straight and make sure you donít have spinach in your teeth, and you do your darndest not to produce any unseemly bodily noises. Right?

 

So why would you call something publishable that hadnít been reread, analyzed, combed for parallelism, and edited to a fare-thee-well? Isnít that like showing up in your bathrobe, with pungent breath and whiskers and maybe a suspicious stain on the front of your Ďjammies?

 

Okay, I admit that some of my grammar school teachers taught rules of punctuation that were flat out wrong. No later teacher corrected these things until I took a specialized class in editing and found out about that great harbinger of style and punctuation, the Chicago Manual of Style. Not only did those early influences teach me some wrong things, but they left me with the overwhelming impression that I could come up with my own interpretation and no one would fault me. For the most part, no one did until I got out into the real world.

 

Well, Iím sure that someone out there will call me a curmudgeon, but the rules are rules for a reason. If we all agree that commas make lists and pauses but that they donít link disparate chunks of sentences, well, think how much easier it is to read a long sentence, one that wanders in and out of the subject, such as this one?

 

The fine folks who invent the languages we all love to code in (my brother is one of them), have the same casual approach to punctuation for English that I got in grammar school, and yet have decided various bits of punctuation that will be inflexibly grammatically correct in the language that they created and code in, right? For instance, to comment out something, you use a single quotation mark in one language, a pound symbol in another, and a slash in yet another.

 

It isnít that these languages use different words or punctuation to mean the same thingóthatís not a problem. My point is that within each language, the team of language developers agreed that one symbol meant the same thing no matter where it was found.

 

Your trick as a developer in more than one language is to figure out the rules for each and keep track of which detail goes with which language. Itís not a hard concept.

 

So when weíre all agreeing to write in English, or Sanskrit, or Dutch, we need to agree on some basic things, as well. We agree that there are several forms of some words. Through and threw, for instance, or two, too, and to. We know that if itís spelled one way, it means one thing; spelled another way, it means something else. We English-speakers decided, oh gosh, back at the end of the 19th century, that we would standardize spelling when Mr. Webster published his dictionary. Except for a few marketing people who have convinced a whole generation that light can also be spelled lite, we all happily comply with this standardization.

 

So, having agreed that spellings are standardized, why wouldnít we standardize on those bits of punctuation that keep one word from plowing into another?

 

I, mean? wouldn;t it be harder::: to makeí senseĒĒĒ of pretty= much any) sentence, if. There. weren+t that! sense ;of order% provided[ so-nimbly(] by punctuation/