Monday, July 16, 2007

Et tu, comma?

Take that, prescriptivist!

Since language is a human activity, it shares all of humanity's foibles and frailties. Among these is the exasperating quality of living. Living languages change, sometimes leaving behind those who love them best.

Like many people who love language, I tend to be fond of the rhetorical forms and devices that are familiar to me. Not just familiar, in fact, but—dare I say it?—correct.

Yes, at heart I am a prescriptivist. I like to think that there are ways of expressing oneself that are correct, and ways that are incorrect. In a living language, however, correct and incorrect are moving targets. In addition, language is large. No one knows it all and no one can safely wave an admonitory finger and hold forth authoritatively on exactly what is right and what is wrong. That is a fool's errand. Anyone who tries too hard to fill the role of grammar police is certain to find him- or herself brought up on false arrest charges.

Yet prescriptivism has a certain snob appeal. I'm right and you're wrong. So there! There's the generational aspect, too, in which elders get to decry that sloppiness of the young people. This is great fun for old fogies, especially those for whom complaining is a much-indulged past-time. (I must increasingly plead guilty to that charge.)

Fortunately, as a teacher, I have a ready outlet for my didactic tendencies. Since my field is math, I do not get to hold forth at length about the language crimes in the writing of my students, but math is conveniently less forgiving than English. I content myself with correcting misbegotten calculations and erroneous use of standard notations. I take it easy on any language errors. I'm not alone in hesitating to come down too hard on language faux pas. Even my much-beset colleagues in the English department tend these days to be ecstatically happy when students attempt to express their thoughts and shy away from policing usage and construction too closely. They are most likely right to do so, since rigid enforcement of old norms is a cheerless occupation. I do, however, wonder sometimes if they have given up too much.

The absence of rules is chaos. I often feel a frisson of dismay when I see language rendered ambiguous by clumsy construction. Language Log provides us with the useful parable of a self-appointed grammar cop sparked into action by the civic pride pitch “Run easy Boston.” The Grammar Vandal inserts an appositive comma and renders the motto as “Run easy, Boston.” I admit that her action warms my heart.

Some freelance grammarian at the Boston Globe oversold the Grammar Vandal story by highlighting the “easy” in “Run easy Boston.” The Globe inserted a parenthetical comment:
(Grammar note: “Easy” is an adjective, which must never be used to describe a verb, such as “run”; that task calls for the adverb “easily.” A sentence addressing someone directly, such as “Run easily,” must separate that address from the party being addressed—in this case, Boston—with a comma.)
Go see Mark Liberman's definitive take-down of the “adverbs must end in ly” myth in his post at Language Log. The matter of the missing comma, however, resonates strongly with me. It takes me back a couple of decades.

I used to grind my teeth in dismay during the morning commute when I worked in the state legislature in downtown Sacramento. It wasn't the traffic. A freeway billboard on the approach to the capital city used to tempt people with promises of fun and frolic in Reno. Just keep driving and experience the delights of Nevada's legalized gambling! One of the billboard advertisers was Caesar's Palace. This establishment, as you may or may not know, subtly blends the ambiance of the late Roman Republic with twentieth century casino sensibilities—an incipient-empire-with-slots theme park. Caesar's Palace hires actors (or models who want to be actors) to portray Julius Caesar and Cleopatra. The models stroll about the grounds and mingle with the guests, many of whom eagerly buy the photographs depicting their make-believe brush with Roman or Egyptian despotism. Good clean fun.

One of the advertising campaigns mounted by Caesar's Palace included billboard-size head-shots of Cleopatra grinning seductively at the freeway traffic. The words on the sign (in a bold typeface, of course) shouted out, “Party on Caesar! Party on Cleo!” I think we were supposed to assume that Cleopatra was exhorting the dictator of Rome to “party on” and that Julius was echoing the same sentiment in return to the human avatar of the divine Isis. Cool.

The missing commas bugged me every time I saw that billboard. It did, of course, occur to me that I was wrong to think the appositive commas were supposed to be there. Perhaps the text was correct. Guests were being invited to party on Cleopatra. Or, if you prefer, Julius. (History suggests he was universally persuadable in that regard.) It may be that I just don't understand marketing. Perhaps, as Apple says, I should “think different.”


Karen said...

you are clearly not an aficionado of "texting", wherein grammar is cast almost completely aside. Welcome to the Old Fogie Club. (I get two text messages a month. The first tells me that my cell phone bill is due, and the second thanks me for my payment. At least my service provider uses reasonably correct grammar and unabbreviated words.)

You are indeed fortunate to be teaching math, instead of, say, science. I've avoided teaching as a graduate student, but my advisor struggles grading almost every paper he assigns. He simply _can't_ avoid correcting grammar or spelling. He's done this too many years, and the habit is too ingrained. I tease him that he's single-handedly supporting the market in blue ink, and he just sighs.

eProf2 said...

Eats, Shoots and Leaves!! Now, if we could only hire headline writers who have actually read the story, we might make a wee bit of progress with the text messaging crowd. Nice post!

Anonymous said...

You're lucky, Karen. I had the misfortune of seeing this in my browser while setting up my cell phone for autopay:

"You still have a remaining balance on your acount of $57.12. You will need to make one more payment prior to AutoPay going into affect."

Now that's what I call emotional investment!

disturbingtheuniverse said...

Speaking of Eats, Shoots and Leaves, my favorite comma story is about a traffic sign that read "Children drive slowly" that someone tried to fix by inserting a comma thusly: "Children, drive slowly".

Kate said...

Karen, what drives me crazy is that they call it Caesars Palace, NOT Caesar's Palace!!

Thanks for the mention. You rock.