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MLP: Punctuate this.

by SHOLEH PATRICK
| September 22, 2022 1:00 AM

To all who lament language’s languorous demise, take heart! Saturday is for lovers of all things linguistic, when guardians of grammar grace center stage. National Punctuation Day is at hand!

Punctuation is about as old as civilization, preceding even the founding of that rough-and-tumble, cruel and yet brilliantly organized cradle of much societies still emulate: Ancient Rome. Did they punctuate? Most certainly. But unlike legislatures and the like, the Romans couldn’t have invented these clarifying marks creating a sentence.

The earliest known punctuation was found on a stone tablet called the Mesha Stele (Moabite Stone) chronicling the exploits of some god or other in 840 B.C.E. Still, precursors of periods, commas, semicolons, parentheticals and the like may have predated that old rock.

History aside, punctuation is no simple matter of punctiliousness. No; your Mrs. Language Person, Mr. Principal Person and their ilk do not instruct, correct and lament merely to vex the linguistically challenged. Grammar is serious business, as any good editor knows.

This is no less true in cyberspace than on that tactile, tree-preserving treasure: Paper (and please note: paper does NOT kill trees! Less demand for it means tree stands get paved over, never to be replanted. The climate desperately needs more trees, so please use paper, Dear Readers).

Your MLP does digress. Please note:

Emojis do not substitute for punctuation, a fact some texters and posters seem to have missed. So annoying :/

An apostrophe represents an omitted letter (or indicates possession); it’s useful so don’t skip it. And don’t force that poor apostrophe into a plural. The Johnson’s do not live here; the Johnsons do.

Stop! Using!! Exclamation points!!! So often!!!! They’re meant to be exceptional and it’s (there’s that apostrophe) extremely! annoying!!

Consider the lofty comma. Skipping it may mean the difference between life and cannibalism. A common example circulating the odious pages of that death-knell to good grammar, social media: Let’s eat Grandma! Let’s eat, Grandma.

Only if one is a big, bad wolf (yes, a comma should separate two juxtaposed adjectives) would the first version be intended. Others, one hopes, have different tastes.

Grammar isn’t all fun and games; its clarity is absolutely essential to law. How often does the disgruntled public complain about alleged criminals “getting off” on “technicalities,” sometimes a matter of less-than-careful statutory verbiage? Your MLP spent a few years in law school, and quickly learned the value of not only each word, but also their careful placement and — yes — punctuation.

Punctuation has made the difference between victory and a payout. Consider the 2015 Ohio case of W. Jefferson vs. Cammelleri. Defendant and ostensible word nerd Andrea Cammelleri parked her pickup where she shouldn’t. A city ordinance declared it illegal to park “any motor vehicle camper, trailer, farm implement and/or non-motorized vehicle” on a street for more than 24 hours.

She argued it was not a “motor vehicle camper” nor any other item listed which she parked. The trial judge bought the city’s argument that the ordinance missed a comma (motor vehicle, camper, trailer…) and the meaning was obvious.

That’s not where the story ended. The appellate court judge, bless his grammar-lovin’ heart, ruled if a comma was what was intended, they should have put one in the ordinance. The law must, he said, be construed according to the rules of grammar. The law must be reliable and clear.

Huzzah! Victory for Ms. Cammelleri.

Grammar matters, as a matter of law. Take that, you skippers of semicolons, you abusers of apostrophes, you lackluster lazies.

The arbiters of democracy have her back; your MLP has the last laugh. If you will write, Dear Reader — professional presentation, love letter, or (shudder) feckless Facebook, write right or — yes, she will say it — don’t write at all.

A final note on National Punctuation Day for those who endeavor to “write right” (journalistic license permits this sounds-better option to “write well”). The best and briefest guide to all things grammar is “Elements of Style” by Strunk and White. This writer’s mini-Bible may be found at your local independent bookseller, The Well-Read Moose in Coeur d’Alene, which is a lot more fun to browse than Amazon.

• • •

Mrs. Language Person and Sholeh Patrick are columnists for the Hagadone News Network. Contact them at Sholeh@cdapress.com.

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