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Fighting Words

I have the makings of a first class pedant. From the moment I received my red Olivetti Valentine typewriter in the Fourth grade, I was fascinated by writing right. I inhaled the gospel of words from my parents, both academic types, proud that I put the comma inside the quotation marks, left infinitives uncleaved, and made two spaces between a period and the beginning of the next sentence. I knew my “its” from my “it’s,” my “theirs” and “theres” from my “they’res,” and the difference between a colon and a semicolon. It made me proud to use the language correctly, to demonstrate that I was literate and, as I matured, to understand that in many cases I was giving the correct signals to a reader so that what I wrote was easy, clear and (most important to me) above reproach. By college, I might receive a “B” on a paper because my thesis was “tendentious,” but never because there was a glitch in its infrastructure.


It has always been clear that some rules have no pragmatic basis; they are archaic and following them amounts to little more than a parlor trick, a kind of sleight of hand for the well educated. There is a substantive difference between a full colon and a semicolon, but there is no reason not to split infinitives with wild abandon, strewing rose petals and dancing wildly on the heath. It is incorrect and confusing to write about “they’re beliefs,” but absolutely inconsequential how many spaces follow a period.  There are some rules, like avoidance of the passive voice, that I have never followed because I like James more than Hemingway. Stylistically, I like an elegant, Byzantine, long-assed sentence. I am not writing technical literature.


Recently, The Language Gods, who I believe are called the ALA, have begun to make changes. It is now acceptable to split infinitives and to begin sentences with conjunctions. It was rocky for me, and I flinched for a while every time I saw a sentence that began with a “But” or an “And,” but I’ve turned the corner. When the rule about the number of spaces after a sentence was changed, it took me a long, long time to remember that I needed to hit just “space” rather than “space, space.” The change seemed silly, unless someone was terribly concerned about potential blindness from excessive whiteness on the page, but I did not want to look stupid or, even deadlier, wrong. I toed the line.


Two days ago I learned that it is now acceptable to put punctuation outside of quotation marks. “I’m going to split an infinitive”, she said blithely, wielding a shiny machete. My understanding is that this has some vague relationship to computers. On this, I throw down the gauntlet. It may be archaic, pointless, and troubling to speakers of binary code, but computers, of all people, should understand the illogic involved in such a change. If people can’t write today, they aren’t aware that punctuation is supposed to be enclosed by the quotation marks. They will not smack their empty heads and cry “Eureka!” in unison because they are free at last. If people can write, they know the rule as it has existed for decades, and a new rule will create an unfair and ridiculous stumbling block on the road to fluid composition. Will we look stupid to other pedants if we continue to follow the “inside” rule? Will old-school pedants judge us if we follow the new “outside” rule? Will either option make anything one iota clearer to any reader on earth?

It will not.


Dear ALA, you’re killing me. Your killing me. I am being killed by you.


About imagineannie

I feel like I'm fifteen - does that count? I'm lots of things, I get paid to be the Managing Editor for a local news publication, and I love my job. I am also inordinately fond of reading, animals (I have four), elephants, owls, hedgehogs writing, tramping in the woods, cooking India, Ireland, England, avocado toast, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, Little Women, Fun Home, Lumber Janes, Fangirl, magic, Neil Gaiman, Jane Austen, YA books, not YA books, classical music, Salinger (OMG SALINGER), Brahms, key lime pie, indie music, podcasts, sleeping in, road trips, marmalade, museums, bookstores, the Oxford comma, BBC, The Miss Fisher Mysteries, birdwatching, seashells, kombucha, and stickers. Not a huge fan of chewing gum, jazz, trucker hats or dystopian and/or post-apolcalyptic fiction (but I'll try anything).

One response »

  1. The rule about placing a period or comma before a closing quotation mark is unique to the U.S. The rest of the English-speaking world thinks we are rather backward.


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