Friday, July 22, 2011

Punctuation Pedantry

Words are wonderful, but they're tricky. It's hard to pin down that one word or phrase that expresses precisely what one wants to say, with all the requisite nuance. Particularly if one is writing, and doesn't have recourse to all the non-verbal signals and natural inflections of spoken conversation.

Which is where punctuation comes in.

Like most people, I learnt my first few lessons in punctuation from a battered copy of Wren and Martin. We were assigned sentences and later paragraphs, and asked to punctuate them correctly. Back then, this seemed like a less than compelling way to spend one's time. An improvement on needlework, but not by much. Seventh grade English brought with it another seemingly obscure exercise - précis writing, or the compression of 250 to 300 words into 75 or a 100, impossible to accomplish without the correct use of punctuation.

It’s only now, when I read text messages in SMS speak, when I notice that the Times of India routinely uses ‘i’ to express the first person singular, when I read essays and e-mails that are indecipherable because people think that their written departures-from-the-norm are charming idiosyncrasies, that I realize that grammar (and by extension, punctuation) is a social contract. The rules exist so that we are able to understand one another. When one doesn’t write by the rules, it means that one either assumes that one’s rules (or the absence thereof) apply equally to everyone; or because one is concerned only with expression and not actual communication.

The space left vacant by punctuation, is now being filled with emoticons, which is part of a larger shift towards a more visual vocabulary. It’s interesting to see how rules around the use of emoticons are developing – is it OK to insert a smiley into a work-email, or not? Companies now have policies about these things. I’m also intrigued by the ways in which we use emoticons to ‘manage’ conversations – redeem a seemingly rude or stinging rebuttal with :), turn down an invitation slightly more gently with :(, indicate that a comment was tongue-in-cheek by using ;), take the edge off sarcasm with :P *

But do emoticons really mean the same, or even similar things, everywhere? What if some nuance was to get lost in translation? With punctuation, what you see is what you get. It’s used differently by different writers, and helps them cultivate a certain style, but we’re all in agreement about what the characters indicate. In some cases, such as with Jose Saramago’s writing, the almost complete absence of punctuation makes for difficult and demanding reading. The sentences move in their own way, and have to be read and re-read to be fully comprehended. At least Mr. Saramago has a logic for why he’s evolved this style – it may not be for everyone, but there’s no arguing with a Nobel Laureate.

Those of us who aren’t in the running for literary awards, but still retain some commitment to the idea of written coherence, have punctuation and grammar to fall back on. What's unfortunate is that this is increasingly beginning to feel like a Last Stand.

*We’ve all done it.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Mid-Week Myth-Busting

Inspiration comes upon us in a flash. Ideas strike us, light bulbs blink and wink when things fall into place. There’s a certain poetry to the speed with which our intellect and intuition are supposed to work. It’s exciting to think of the mind operating in terms of powerful, lightning quick neural connections.  

And yet, when we’re speaking in terms of flexing our intellectual muscles, we fail to acknowledge the fact that it is persistence – slow, steady, patient and plodding –   that does most of the heavy lifting.

Untangling mental knots, teasing pieces of a puzzle apart, and then together, thinking, re-thinking, writing, re-writing, crafting, re-crafting, doing, un-doing, finding solutions and then improving upon them - all of this takes work. But in our eagerness to be inspired, in our desire to wait for that one, golden moment, we tend to forget that it is equally important to be enthused and to get started.

Persistence is deeply unfashionable. It indicates that one is committed to actually doing things, and what could be less suited to a careful cultivation of world-weariness than that? Persistence is bourgeoisie, athletic rather than aesthetic, and I doubt very much whether it has ever been at the heart of the zeitgeist, anywhere. Except perhaps in times of war and strife.

But if creativity is a process, and intelligence is a journey, we’d do well to embrace persistence in all its ungainliness, in its insinuations of considerable, almost corporeal effort. Even the Greeks among the Romans would have to agree that there’s no going anywhere without first getting there.
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