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The whole system is breaking down!
Tuesday, June 12, 2007   11:10 AM

Most of us are aware that U.K. English uses different marks for some of the same purposes — J.L. Bell has hypothesized a "Great British Punctuation Shortage" — but lately I've been noticing something more complicated than the one-for-one symbol substitution of single quotes for double quotes.

I'm talking about usage differences, usually at the ideolect level, within the U.S. punctuation system, that reflect different correctness conditions.

I've run into a lot of interesting usage in my work as a QA grunt, stuff that's clearly correct for the writer but nevertheless WTF for me. For example, a lot of people think that you should end a paraphrased question with a question mark. It's part of my job to keep the clients insulated from all this wonderful variety.

The idea that even punctuation is subject to differing correctness condition was a bit of a shock for me, probably because I'm used to thinking of correctness condition differences as a product of the spoken dialect.

But I'd argue that it's hard to separate style suggestions from rules when dealing with common "errors" like the greengrocer's apostrophe, comma splice, and hyphen-as-dash. For a lot of people, our errors are their rules — they just don't have the usage guides to back their choices up.

Even language wonks can disagree. Last week another proofreader and I got into an argument over a sentence like this:

Please call me; I can help you make the best sandwich ever.

Personally, I find that usage of the semicolon not incorrect, but nevertheless offensive. I believe my exact words were "you used to be so pretty..."

I suggested replacing it with a colon, but the other proofreader insisted that colons don't work that way. She said she'd go semicolon, comma, dash, whereas my preference was colon, comma, semicolon, dash.

Luckily for me, she's a prescriptivist so all I had to do was find a textual authority that backed up my usage. I promptly did.

Looking back, I remember occasionally getting marked up in college for my generous use of em dashes. It would be interesting to known how much that had to do with correctness as opposed to aesthetics.

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