20 May 2008

Punctuation as a Moral Issue

I put so much attention toward details of punctuation over the past week or so because of the feeling expressed in my tag for this topic. For a lot of editors...

Punctuation is a moral issue.
Not such a compelling moral issue as plagiarism or fraud or cruelty, of course. In fact, punctuation and related writing details probably shouldn't be moral matters at all.

But as an editor, you spend so much time working on the details of a book that when you see a manuscript that gets the basics wrong, it bothers you at a deep level. The fact that its problems are a relatively easy fix just makes the error seem worse. You don't want to make judgments based on these things, but they just don't sit right with you. They're wrong.

I'm not talking about such subtleties as when to capitalize after a colon according to the latest Chicago Manual of Style, or whether a newspaper journalist should use the serial comma when writing a book. I'm talking about basic things like putting single-quote marks around a quote within a quote, and not trying to make "however" into a pure conjunction (e.g., "We had recess, however it was raining").

Perhaps some editors look at such details in a manuscript and think, "A chance to be useful!" But I bet most at some level are stewing: "How can someone who wants to be a professional writer care so little about proper writing? It's not that hard to learn the difference between it's and its! Haven't you read enough books to know that the essay at the start is a foreword, not a 'forward'? Why can't you see that that's wrong?"

And that attitude not restricted to publishing. I suspect people in every profession are prey to similar feelings about their beloved customers. My automobile mechanics were probably shaken to their core by how haphazardly I maintained my car, even though that meant more work for them. Piano technicians can be baffled and even offended by the ways that piano-owners treat their instruments. Web designers think about the ethics of target="_blank" links. Dentists care deeply about other people's mouths, which are both their business and none of their business.

And by and large that's a Good Thing. We want professionals to care deeply about the quality of their work and its outcomes. We want them to believe in the value of their efforts and wish the best for us, despite our repeated failures to measure up. If editors didn't feel that proper punctuation and grammar and exciting storytelling and clear writing were noble causes, then books would be far, far worse (because their salaries sure aren't big enough to motivate them).

Of course, most editors tamp down these feelings when it's time for lunch with their authors. Punctuation is, after all, an easy fix. But the inescapable conviction that punctuation (and other technical aspects of writing) is a moral issue can come up when editors are reviewing manuscripts, even if they don't want it to.

If a book is totally brilliant and/or highly commercial, an editor will chase after it even if the manuscript is written with no punctuation on paper towel with a lipstick. But most projects aren't at that level. They're in a gray area, and the gray gets darker if an author or subject doesn't have a good sales record. All the more reason for aspiring authors to learn the rules and do an extra round of proofreading.

(Punctuation art from Esther Raizen and Jane Lippmann at the University of Texas at Austin.)

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