Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Apologia pro Grammatica (I think this is right)

I have been on Facebook for most of the last two years. I was initially dragooned into it by a friend who was concerned about my lack of a social life and who confided that concern to Facebook. Facebook in turn- and spookily- sent me an introductory email to sign up. And so I did.

From that time until over Christmas break, I was that androgynous white head that shows up in people’s friend portfolios, and my own portfolio of friends was limited to folks who sought me out. As part of a New Year’s resolution to surrender to the zeitgeist, and in so doing avoid being presumed dead, I became an active member of Facebook in January of this year.

Now that I am an active member of Facebook, I not only know too much about a whole bunch of people, but have discovered besides, in the messages sent between users, some persistent grammar problems. The most common one is the use of ‘your’ when what is meant is ‘you’re.’ Then there is the tendency, understandable at least from a logical standpoint, to use ‘it’s’ when what is meant is ‘its’. And, alas, there is the conscious and widespread non-use of punctuation and capital letters, and the ingenious abbreviation of one syllable words (e.g. thnx instead of thanks). It is unattractive to go on about these things too long or too stridently, because nearly everyone makes mistakes in English grammar and because pedantry is boorish; although the dedicated pedant may actually round the bend, as it were, and become endearing.

Consider the case of French grammarian Dominique Bonhours, best told by Bill Bryson in The Mother Tongue (read Bill Bryson, by the way). Bonhours, just before shuffling off the mortal coil, and exemplifying what is meant by dying in the saddle, is reported to have said, “I am going to- or I am about to- die, either expression is used.” And too there is the asserted and sometimes actual utility of excluding certain grammatical formalities from a functional writing. A few people I know steadfastly refuse to use capital letters or consistent punctuation in electronic messages. They assert the utility principle (and then make fun of my lack of a social life, going so far as to suggest a connection between that fact and my inclination to write things like this post).

But if the time saved by the writer is then wasted by the reader in divining the message sent, there is no net time saved. There is but a shifting of the burden, and an announced disrespect for the reader. And the use of a construction that means something very different from what is intended seems an unmitigated error. Finally, someone has to object to ‘thnx’, or else it will become the new ‘thanks’, the new proper thing to be transgressed against (perhaps with ‘tx’), and so on until we climb back into the trees.

2 comments:

Kelly J. Bozanic said...

Ah, the power of punctuation. This reminds me of an anecdote from an English class, oh so many years ago.

The following phrase was written on the chalkboard and we were asked to punctuate it: "a woman without her man is nothing."

There were two predominant variations:

1. "A woman, without her man, is nothing."

2. "A woman: without her, man is nothing."

David Hutchinson said...

Interesting. I note that while there is nothing wrong with the punctuation in either version, the punctuation chosen for the second version produces an absurd result.