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From The Vaults: Essay I wrote for a really awful nonfiction course at Smith

On Grammar, Syntax, Punctuation, Spelling, and Capitalization


Gandhi once said that a society could be judged by the way it treats its animals; but in truth punctuation is the one true measure d’une societé, the one true measure of a society. Whole city layouts can be read in its skillful use: the courthouses, the main thoroughfares, the corner delis, the red-light districts, the dog pound and its attendant heap of euthanized corpses. When punctuation is misused, cities come tumbling down in stature; the great city of Athens becomes Des Moines or Winnemucca, Nevada overnight.

Indeed, punctuation quite literally inspires us to write; without it, every citizen would recoil from writing, fearful of picking up his fountain pen and ruining his good name and future standing in society by penning a run-on sentence. Punctuation piles the Ossa of refined society on the Parmenides of the worldÂ’s great thinkers; punctuation is next to godliness– nay, is godliness!–; punctuation is modern civilizationÂ’s glob of AquaLube, closest to our thoughts in our most intimate moments.

One embarassing example of mispunctuation I can think of appeared in the New York Times in an article about the brands of boots that locals wear to line-dancing clubs. The hyphen in “sh!t-kickers” was inadvertently omitted throughout the article.

Needless to say, their editorial mailbags were full for the next week. “If you don’t know a good pair of sh!t-kickers from a couple of dirty sh!t kickers,” one irate third-grade teacher wrote, “I’ll never help fill the space you provide for Letters To The Editor again, and let me tell you, I’ve been a regular contributor.”

It was fortunate that this eighty-one-year-old guardian of the English language notified the Times copy editors of their error, or they might have gone on for the rest of their lives unaware that the two phrases they pronounced “sh!t kickers” had embarassingly different meanings. Imagine being at a post-rodeo cocktail party and suggesting that a business colleague admire the sh!t kickers on your feet!


“There’s nothing to spelling,” Lance Fugrath, chairman general of the Copy Editors Society of America, once expostulated. “All you do is sit down at a typewriter– having lived within the culture that uses the words you want to spell, of course, and read their dictionaries a while, perhaps gone to school with their kids, or ordered some Hooked On Phonics tapes (and I don’t mean that as an endorsement of any of these products)– and then probably spelling will come naturally, like opening a vein. Except even I’ve done that and I still never get those rules where words pronounced ‘ruff’ and ‘throo’ happen to end in some completely nonsensical phonetic pattern like ‘ough.'”

A quotable man, was Fugrath. And mostly right, too: There’s absollutely nothing to spelling. The fear of appearing idiotic in front of one’s peers should be enough to shame those who can’t spell into learning this simple skill, at least, if not keep them sensibly constrained to verbal modes of communication. I once witnessed a group of schoolchildren for whom English was not their first language aprehensively passing a piece of chalk between them, trying not to be the one called upon to record the group’s thoughts on bilinguallism on the blackboard. None of them had learned to spell correctly, of course, and none wanted to reveal that failling. In the end, they stood mute and wrote only a few words. The teacher, who wisely judged that it was more important for the children to learn to spell than to express themselves, ceased the lesson and adminestered a pop spelling quiz.

The skills of the average American in spelling are dropping alarmingly. It seems that never again shall we see the kind of spelling proficency demonstrated by our hallowed forefathers in the drafting of the Mayflower Compact. The American language has steadily been beaten to a bloodier and bloodier pulp by the scourge of poor spellers, cheered on by such demons as the rock group Metallica, 99-cent specials at fast-food restauraunts, Velcro, divorced atheist parents, and ever-expanding government welfare grants. The spoken language, willful and unruly as it is, has also aided in the downfall of spelling; sometimes I think it should just be banned entirely. Are you listening, Mr. President?

Anyway, your message, as I hope I have proven in these paragraphs, will be thouroughly incomprehensable to others if you misspell.

Grammar and Syntax

Many people now see fit to festoon their sentences with dangling participles, coming up with such sentences as “He’s someone I just can’t put up with.” Everybody makes these mistakes nowadays, and I find it morally reprehensible. The proper construction, of course, moves the gerundive before the subject, separating the nominative clause and the parenthetical nomendubium from the conjunction and flipping the verb into a sort of enjoyable syntactic limbo.

It is these same people who find it perfectly acceptible to split infinitives. Grammatical monstrosities such as “To boldly go…” should be done away with just as family heirlooms should be thrown out and replaced if they do not match your house’s decor. Who wants a battered old Queen Anne chair when a new one from Ikea will suffice?

What is so odd is that college English professors, novelists, and the editors of Harper’s and the New Yorker seem prepared to allow these constructions to burn, pillage, and r^pe every sentence in their path. The president of Harvard University even told me to “go away and leave [him] alone” when I asked him how he could allow his English department to continue giving Bs to students who did not know the difference between “lay” and “lie!” Imagine the nerve!

Here are a few tips to improve your grammar and syntax:

•The words “The,” “His,” “Her,” “I,” “My,” and “Suddenly” lead into many a meaningless message, just as marijuana leads to the abuse of harder drugs. Avoid them at all costs.

•If you must breathe new life into American literature, try experimenting with adverbs and adjectives; not enough young writers are willing to do this. Think how much improved the public’s impression of Emily Dickinson might have been had she given up her capitols and dashes in favor of more descriptive words!:

I felt a grand funeral in my tired brain

and wretched mourners to and fro

kept slowly treading, treading carefully, until it seemed

that sense was slowly but surely breaking through.

•Try running a pen through every one of your sentences. It will improve your writing fantastically– youÂ’ll notice immediate results.

•No other writing is as lean and practical as a grocery list. Try writing your essays as a grocery list first, and then give them the sort of connections you’d see in an office memo or a brochure for medical equipment. I do it all the time, and I’ve been published.

* * *

Seriously, though, punctuation, grammar, syntax, and spelling should be given exactly the same amount of attention you would devote to buying a rhinestone cape for your Chihuahua. Because, really: if you own a Chihuahua, and you are inclined to worry that it is naked, you probably shouldn’t walk it in public to begin with.

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