Hello, Failure

Of all the enemies of literature, success is the most insidious

Thursday, April 03, 2003

Failure of the Day: Punctuation

Again, I'm off in the all-too-specific land of copy editordom, but here's the thing: I read one of Chris's brilliant stories last night (written when he was 17, the fucker), and even at that tender age, his syntax and grammar were impeccable. But his use of punctuation is unique. And commas that appear where I don't expect them have all the characteristics of Mexican jumping beans to me since becoming a professional nit-picker; they completely spoil my concentration on the text, spitting up at me from the page in an orgy of slippery usage rules. Do they really have to separate every imperative clause? Or just the ones in which the meaning might otherwise be obscured?

When I took French in high school, we always pelted poor Mr. Koppel with questions like "But WHY is the noun garbage can feminine?" And he always replied with whisper-thin patience "Ask Le Acadamie Francais!" And that did a fine job of settling it for me. The idea that there was some ruling body in France in charge of assigning gender to nouns and coming up with other pointless language rules made a kind of sense, if only Oooooh, it's bureaucracy! That's why! (I should point out that only now, some 20 years later as I am writing this, does it occur to me that there might not actually be any such body in France. It might have been schoolteacher shorthand for shut the fuck up.)

I suppose though, if there is such a thing as Le Acadamie Fran├žais, the American English version is the Chicago Manual of Style. I read the hideous orange thing cover to cover when I started this job because I understood it to be that thing, that ruler by which grammar and usage is measured, but even now, even at this very instant, my brain is recoiling at the thought. Chicago? Says who? Who put them in charge? Was there a vote that I didn't hear about? My first two years of college all my professors insisted our papers were written up to MLA snuff, but my last two years, the profs all wanted Chicago. Was it some sort of horse race between the two and Chicago nosed ahead during the summer between my sophomore and junior year?

Like everything else, my problem here is conceptual. The Modern Language Association just sounds like the name of the organazation that should be in charge of these things. And as a Californian, it irks me that someone has apparently handed over the reins to a rich boy fancy pants college in the midwest. Bellow, Shmellow, it's just not right. And none of this is to say that the MLA styleguide is better than Chicago; the truth is, I have no idea whether it is or not. I haven't used it since I was a sophomore in college. What I'm saying is that is sounds better. So that when some poor French kid is learning English in high school, and she asks her teacher why you separate spans of numbers with an en-dash instead of a hyphen, the teacher doesn't have to say "Ask Chicago!" To which the student would have to reply "Oooooooh, Chicago! Where they film Oprah!"

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