June 23, 2004

Obsessing about punctuation

I have a confession to make: I have almost no interest in punctuation. Out of respect for the opinions of others, I try to use apostrophes and commas correctly, but I'm less interested in the details of punctuation than in nearly any other topic I can think of. Give me a choice between talking about varieties of dashes and debating the choice of lining material for suit jackets, for example, and I'll be all over the rayon-vs.-polyester controversy. Give me a choice between reading about the order of quotation marks and commas or perusing a random phone book, and I'll dive right into the A's.

Luckily, these are not choices that life has often presented me with. Aside from the occasional copy editor, I've rarely met anyone who focused much on punctuation. So I was skeptical of this paragraph in Louis Menand's review of Eats, Shoots and Leaves in the New Yorker:

The supreme peculiarity of this peculiar publishing phenomenon is that the British are less rigid about punctuation and related matters, such as footnote and bibliographic form, than Americans are. An Englishwoman lecturing Americans on semicolons is a little like an American lecturing the French on sauces. Some of Truss’s departures from punctuation norms are just British laxness. In a book that pretends to be all about firmness, though, this is not a good excuse. The main rule in grammatical form is to stick to whatever rules you start out with, and the most objectionable thing about Truss’s writing is its inconsistency.

Well, I thought, I guess Louis Menand hobnobs with a different class of Americans than I do. But Margaret Marks at Transblawg zeroed right in on this passage, and she agrees with it:

How true this rings. Oh, the times I used to tell my students, ‘You can’t do that. You know, the Americans are even more pedantic than we British are.’ Did they believe me? No - because pedantry is bad and Americans are good.

(Dr. Marks is a professional translator who has dealt with clients from many countries, and in this passage she is explaining the norms of the business to her students.)

Reading this, my instinct was to leap to the defense of my fellow Americans, who are surely... But wait a minute, should that be "fellow-Americans", as Edmund Morris has it in his New Yorker piece on Ronald Reagan:

Merely by breathing, “My fellow-Americans,” he made his listener trust him.

In fact, this seems to be one of the rules that they stick to over there at the New Yorker:

(link) Kerry had made the decision along with three close friends, classmates and fellow-members of Yale's not so secret society, Skull and Bones...
(link) While Lieberman and his fellow-Democrats were doing the bidding of the public-employee unions...
(link) The camera captures one particularly wild-eyed defendant in a green caftan as he extends his arms through the bars of the cage, screams, and then faints into the arms of a fellow-prisoner.
(link) This is what happened when a fellow-critic and I emerged, on December 11th, from a screening of “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.”

This is something that you see in lists of punctuation principles -- it's rule #4 in this list, for example -- but I find it weird. Seeing "my fellow-Americans" in the Edmund Morris article took me aback just as much as seeing a non-standard apostrophe did in Jefferson's letter ("we are disgusted with it's deformity").

While the New Yorker isn't alone in hyphenating this way, it disagrees with the practice of most other American publications, such as the New York Times:

(link) But do Americans really despise the beliefs of half of their fellow citizens?
(link) "American Taboo" has assembled considerable evidence that Mr. Priven murdered one of his fellow volunteers and got away with it.
(link) As European leaders gathered in Brussels over the last few days to negotiate a proposed constitution for their ever-closer union, hundreds of thousands of soccer fans from all over the continent descended on Portugal for the 2004 European Championships, to wave their national flags and jeer at their fellow Europeans.

the Washington Post:

(link) But most of her fellow Christians still do not view gay marriage as a personal threat, Raglin said.
(link) His paper is both a catalogue of recent examples of such partnerships and a call to fellow environmentalists to look more actively for common ground with the world's religious.
(link) "Art brings us closer to our fellow man" -- is true only in a grim, comical sense.

And the Atlantic:

(link) The continental peoples are grave, compared with our jocose fellow citizens, and especially in their hours of business.
(link) ...for all intents and purposes embracing Dylan as a fellow wordsmith, perhaps even a fellow poet...
(link) He had been highly respected by fellow specialists for the papers he wrote while in charge of Lepidoptera at Harvard's Museum of Comparative Zoology...


Shucks, maybe Margaret is right.

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 23, 2004 06:41 AM