Saturday, September 27, 2008

life is short people. punctuation matters.

A message went out this morning over the twitter network:
 Sad about Newman. Life is short people.
It is sad that Paul Newman died. But⎯life is short people? (Although being a short person myself, I was kind of flattered.)

Sure, grammar protocol is changing to adapt to new ways of communication--remember when polite email started with the same salutation as a letter on bond stationary? But no matter how truncated our communication becomes, punctuation will always matter. Why? Because those tiny little dots and dashes and curls contain the power to transform the meaning of words. And, though this may surprise some art directors who consider them decorative, punctuation marks are not interchangeable. A comma, for instance cannot do the work of a colon. And vice versa:
A woman, without her man, is nothing.

A woman: without her, man is nothing.
Punctuation can even impact high finances, as Canada’s largest telecommunications company learned. An attorney for Rogers Communications misplaced a comma in a contract with a company that agreed to install Rogers's cables across the Maritimes. Because of that errant squiggle, a Canadian court invalidated what was believed to be an ironclad five-year contract, costing Rogers $2.13 million. (The "Great Comma" ruling was later reversed by a judge who was presumably less of a grammarian.)

OK, I'm a grammar geek, but there are others out there far more zealous than I am. For instance, Jeff Rubin. He's a former newspaperman who was so alarmed that "punctuation is being devalued by a generation of computer wizards" that he went to the trouble of creating National Punctuation Day. You may not have noticed that it celebrated its fifth anniversary on Wednesday. There's a website, of course, and what most interests me on it is that every mention of the holiday is followed by ®. One little mark that contains a whole sentence: Steal my brilliant idea and I'll sue your pants off.


Anonymous said...

I read an obituary recently that went something like this:

"Ida Mae Brown dead, born in 1925 at 83.

Must have been a painful delivery.

Anonymous said...

Ohh, I forgot the other '"'. My bad.

Ad Broad, oldest working writer in advertising said...

Ha! Thanks for that indelible image, Auntie. Ouch. Or, "Ouch!"

Rob Buccino said...

Dear AB:

I would (although some older grammarians say 'should' is preferred in the first person singular) love to learn your thoughts about how those of us who care about punctuation, spelling, and grammar can best preach this gospel to our advertising brethren, ideally without the message being heard as a personal put-down, one-upmanship on the part of the message's sender, or its being perceived as 'preachiness'. I struggle a lot with this (not alot, as many contemporary copywriters seem to spell it), as I did recently in a debate whether to put 'alright' in a headline on a pitch comp. I argued the con, but the pros won. How do we tactfully help one another, or even cultivate an appetite for this kind of help? Any thoughts, from you or your readers, are greatly appreciated.

Anonymous said...

From Adrants today, a relevant link:

Anonymous said...

Either a punctuation issue, or confusion between Paul and Randy.

simon billing said...

Didn't mean to post anonymously (above).

Anonymous said...

Amen, sister! I had a heated email debate with an AE over the use of a dash versus a comma. She insisted they were interchangeable, and we ended up with sentences like "Last year--we updated our software.." Awful, painful stuff!

I also deplore people who use the whole "ah, people will understand what it means!" approach. There's a couple of blogs I love that just about turn me off with their consistent bad grammar/spelling/punctuation (yours is impeccable!). Linda Truss said it best: sloppy writing puts the onus on the reader to figure it out. It's just plain lazy and selfish.

Ad Broad, oldest working writer in advertising said...

@rob buccino-I don't know. I remember an English teacher in grade school getting all heated about grammatical error in Winston's ad: taste good like a cigarette should. She insisted "like" should be "as" and it was a discussion that went on in academia and the press for years. (This was when academia and the press actually cared about grammar.) With IMs, etc. grammar is becoming thought of as more and more expendable. I don't know how to woo people back to it. This post was borne of frustration like yours!

@jeremy greenfield That is BRILLIANT! Thanks for the link. "It can make your money disappear." Apt post for today, heh.

@Simon Billing Funny, I'd never noted the coincidence of their names. (Your allowed to be anon, but thanks for outing yourself.)

@anonymous Well, I must say blog reading has made me more tolerant of deviations from rules of grammar--I sympathize with bloggers who post on the run. But, interesting point you make and it's true: bad grammar makes a LOT more work for the reader.

Anonymous said...

I like the custom of not putting periods after things like Mr or Ms and use that custom in my business letters.

Also, "Palm Beach FL" rather than Palm Beach, FL. I think the commas can be distracting in examples like this one because we know the 2-letter state abbreviations so well.

And, I like short people, too...remember the song by Randy Newman?

Anonymous said...

I worked with a proofreader who slavishly adhered to her the Chicago Manual of Style, and she was a tough one to get any colloquialism past. Forget doing headlines in all caps or all lower case, she'd have none of it.

My bugaboo is ADs who don't understand the difference between an inch mark and a quotation mark, open and close quotes, and whose eyes glaze over when you say 'ligature,' 'widow,' 'orphan' or 'river.'

Ad Broad, oldest working writer in advertising said...

@anonymous I agree with you that sometimes punctuation can be distracting and that slavish devotion to it doesn't make sense if your typeface/design does the work for you. EE Cummings made himself clear with just line breaks. The point is to communicate yourself to a reader without forcing the reader to do all the work, right?

@Auntie Christ--I know that proofreader! I've had run-ins with her, too! (Of course, she retired a long time ago.) Inch mark vs. quotations, widows, orphans--the sad thing is, it's not only art directors who don't know what they are. It's writers, too.

Joker said...

I try to keep tabs on my grammar even in comments and when I see a typo I cringe at myself even if I did post on the go. True, writing styles often push for grammatical complacence because it's their "style" but I can't help but rather enjoy good grammar.

Regarding how to not come off as preachy, I think that good grammar and its importance is lost to most average people until they have a situation that could have been avoided by correct grammar ie. lawsuits, contracts, warranties and such.

Speaking as a copywriter, try this experiment: write a lame 4 word headline, then write a superb 12 word headline. See which the artist picks and after they choose the 4 word one, ask them if there's anything else going for the headline apart from being short and easy to fit into any layout.

Ad Broad, oldest working writer in advertising said...

I love that Art Director ploy, Joker. Will use it tomorrow. Four Random Words Here. Sure to work. ha ;)

Joker said...

Please keep us posted. :)