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It's time to give grammar and punctuation a makeover


Grammar books aren't what most people think of when they're looking for some good bedtime reading, but writers have been know to wax enthusiastic over cleverly crafted works that do more than explain usage and punctuation. Patricia T. O'Conner's Woe Is I, for example, is a delightful book chock full of information about the language written with wit and humor likely to appeal to anyone who cares about how English is used.

As much as i enjoy O'Conner, and other tomes of that type, over the years i've concluded english grammar needs a serious makeover. If people can have makeovers, why not the language?

Let's start with everyone's favorite: the pronoun I. I'm hoping some linguist will explain why, of all the languages on the planet, only english insists on capitalizing I. In italian, it's io; in spanish, it's yo; and on and on. Except for the start of a sentence, there is no reason to capitalize i. Au contraire; there is every reason not to capitalize it.

Why should i be more important than You? If we learned at an early age that You were capitalized but i were not, is it not possible that we'd be less ego-driven, less concerned with our own welfare and more concerned with Yours? And if this occurred, it's likely, or at least possible, that one outcome would be a significant increase in the degree of harmony informing social relations.

Skeptical readers may conclude an uncapitalized ich didn't keep the germans from eschewing militarization over the course of their history, nor any other group determined to wage war from doing so; but the other side of the equation is as important, if not more so. What if every language group capitalized You? OK, maybe world peace and universal justice wouldn't necessarily turn on this grammatical change, but there is still no good reason for english to maintain I when i serves as well.

And since we're on the topic of capitalization, i don't see any need for capitals anywhere. The start of a sentence makes sense, but other than that, why bother? Suppose president and pope and janitor were all lowercase. And why is earth uppercase in some instances but lowercase in others? Or Democrat and democrat? And for what good reason is it Senator Putz, but Putz, the senator? I know the rule, but i'm not convinced it's needed.

Why does the language demand a distinction between proper and common nouns? Does an uppercase president and a lowercase janitor make the prez a proper person and the janitor a common one? I think not. Perhaps the differentiation is a nod to class. Perhaps the entire structure of language rests on how a language-speaking people envision themselves.

The idea is not to deconstruct the language, but to make it more accessible. While weird writers may enjoy quibbling over usage, most people would rather just get their point across.

I concede the necessity of commas. Consider the following sentences: George said John was a coward. George, said John, was a coward. Depending on the comma, either George or John is the coward. Commas are clearly earning their keep, so hanging on to them is a good idea.

But what about the subjunctive? If i were in kansas, i'd visit dorothy is correct, but why not drop the subjunctive entirely? If i was in kansas, i'd visit dorothy is comprehensible, even though according to grammatical rules the use of was is incorrect.

Even if we admit that some grammatical rules make sense, or at least contribute to the flow of the language, some are downright ridiculous. Take the use of periods with parenthesis in the following examples. Carol is considering Botox injections (the silly girl). Carol is considering Botox injections. (That's silly.) What possible logic dictates where the period falls in those examples? If a period marks the end of a sentence, it should not surrender its place to a puny parenthetical.

And just for the sake of total confusion, while dashes and parenthesis can often be used interchangeably, the rules governing their use are different. Brandy--distraught and at her wit's end--decided to end her life of crime. Brandy (distraught and at her wit's end), decided to end her life of crime. The comma after the parenthesis is the sticking point. Why is it there? Should it be there? If so, why? What possible sense does it make to add a comma after a phrase that naturally gives the reader pause? Incidentally, in all my years of reading, i've never found any consistency in how writers use commas (especially with parenthetical phrases). This makes sense since, despite the rules, there is some latitude in comma usage. I'd like to see still more flexibility. Why confine the language to a set of rules when breaking them helps make the writer's point? (This assumes readers know the rules and understand the scribbler's intent). (See, doesn't that period seem right there?).

Next time: Why adhering to grammatical rules is the mark of an intelligent person and anyone who dares break them is clearly an illiterate nincompoop.

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