How important is that comma you were thinking about putting behind the white in “red, white and blue”?
How about the apostrophe that isn’t in the phrase “childrens hospital”?
An apostrophe, it seems, could be the difference between having one child or many.
Recently I was editing a photo caption and saw the phrase “Smith said his kids favorite part of the event was the snow cone truck.” I walked over to the student photographer who wrote the caption and asked whether Mr. Smith had one child or many.
The photographer wanted to know why. The word “kids” needed an apostrophe, I replied, and where I put that punctuation mark would change the size of Mr. Smith’s family.
“Wow,” the photographer said. “One punctuation mark can make a big difference.”
This exchange isn’t made up. And the fact that it happened in the same month as National Punctuation Day — which is Sept. 24 — underscores the importance of proper use of punctuation.
You say no one cares about punctuation? I beg to differ with you. When FiveThirtyEight decides to write about the Oxford comma, you know this topic goes beyond the copy desk.
By the way, the average American is “split on that comma,” says FiveThirtyEight.com.
Moreover, look at the traffic on sites like the “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks. People care, it seems.
In fact, sometimes they care too much. As a career copy editor, I embrace proper punctuation as a big part of my life. But recently I’ve been a bit disturbed by the reaction of some to improper punctuation.
There’s been a lot of gloating by those in the know on Facebook — and, yes, at times I have been one of those gloaters.
Bashing people’s punctuation, it seems, is the new national pastime. Do we really need to be getting out our red pens and defacing the menu when we see “egg’s on toast — $2.99”? (It’s a stretch, but perhaps the writer meant one egg is on toast.)
So when I see the Pinterest of improper apostrophes, the Tumblr of comma splices, the Instagram of too many dashes and the bad semicolon Twitter feed, I cringe for more reasons than one. Sure that sign in the store is wrong, but do I have to be quite so superior and public about the fact that I know that?
Might a short note to the manager be more appropriate than a public flogging?
For National Punctuation Day, my goal is to promote proper use of commas, semicolons and the like through my good example. I will use punctuation in all text messages, never scrimp on periods on Twitter and do my best to school my iPhone in the punctuation areas where it is so sorely lacking.
And, most importantly, I’m going to make sure the new generation of copy editors understands why proper punctuation is important.
Jeff Rubin, who founded National Punctuation Day in 2004, wrote in a 2011 blog for the Missouri State Teachers Association that he started National Punctuation Day because of concern about declining language skills. He noted that a 2007 study by California State University-East Bay showed almost 60 percent of incoming college freshmen needed remedial English classes.
Information like that is where our rage should be focused. So the classroom is a great place to celebrate National Punctuation Day.
But I think I’ll keep my righteous indignation over the green grocer’s of the world to my students and myself.
Gerri Berendzen is the Knight Visiting News Editor at the Columbia Missourian, a visiting assistant professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the American Copy Editors Society Executive Committee. She admits to sometimes writing emails so fast that “it’s” becomes “its.”