27 September 2008

Punctuating Speech, from Borge to Orwell

We don't use punctuation when we speak. (Unless, of course, we are the late, great Victor Borge, reading out punctuation marks in a comedy routine.) But we do have the sonic equivalent of punctuation: a mutually understood system of signals that add nuance to our words, such as pausing after full phrases, rising in tone at the end of a question, and speaking louder for emphasis.

The punctuation we use in written language is an attempt to approximate the nuances of oral speech. And a feeble attempt, given the ongoing lack of an irony font, or a signal for a non-grammatical caesura, or an indicator for unusually quiet or calm speech the way we can signal loud and excited speech!

During this Oz and Ends PUNCTUATION WEEK, current events have forced me to consider the plight of the transcribers tasked to render television discussions into written language. Taking down the words is relatively easy, but figuring out the speakers' meaning, and adding the right punctuation to reflect that meaning--I imagine that can be tough. Take this question and answer from a recent interview:

Why isn’t it better, [interviewee's name], to spend $700 billion helping middle-class families struggling with health care, housing, gas and groceries? Allow them to spend more and put more money into the economy? Instead of helping these big financial institutions that played a role in creating this mess?
That question takes the form of sentence fragments, each extending the previous. They could be punctuated as a single long sentence or, as here, a complete sentence and two fragments. For modern readers, the second course is easier, but both are understandable.

Here's the answer:
That's why I say I, like every American I'm speaking with, we're ill about this position that we have been put in where it is the taxpayers looking to bail out. But ultimately what the bailout does is help those who are concerned about the healthcare reform that is needed to help shore up our economy. Helping th--it's got to be all about job creation too, shoring up our economy and putting it back on the right track. So health care reform and reducing taxes and reining in spending has got to accompany tax reductions and tax relief for Americans and trade--we've got to see trade as opportunity, not as competitive, scary thing, but one in five jobs being created in the trade sector today--we've got to look at that as more opportunity.
Even with those highly flexible em-dashes, it must have been hard to stitch that answer together. Of course, the real problem doesn't lie in the limitations of our punctuation marks, but in the speech itself. No number of inky squiggles can connect thoughts and phrases that don't actually fit together in a logical way.

Zubin Jelveh tried to diagram how that answer connected topics and got this. Michael Leddy saw Orwellian rhetoric: not in the 1984 sense, but "throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in," as George Orwell wrote in the essay "Politics and the English Language."

Here's another exchange from the same conversation. This time, try to fill in the punctuation yourself!
have you ever been involved in any negotiations for example with the Russians

we have trade missions back and forth we do it's very important when you consider even national security issues with Russia as Putin rears his head and comes into the air space of the United States of America where do they go it's Alaska it's just right over the border it is from Alaska that we send those out to make sure that an eye is being kept on this very powerful nation Russia because they are right next to they are right next to our state.
I've written that "Punctuation is a moral issue." But proposing someone with such poor command of vital issues and logical thought to hold a position of power is a moral issue on a whole 'nother level.

1 comment:

Nathan said...

In regards to speaking punctuation, I've heard a recording of Allan Sherman singing "Night and Day" with punctuation marks included.