Sunday, May 18, 2008

Of Commas and Complaints

Yesterday in class we discussed the invalidity of using "word studies" in theology, because words can have wide semantic ranges, and a word's meaning is determined by its context(s). How one author uses a word or phrase may differ across time. There's no denying that languages change, though they once did so much more slowly than in today's age of text messaging and e-mail. Sometimes my students actually say "IDK" when trying to communicate, "I don't know." Naturally, I meet them with a blank, perplexed look. When I reprimanded another student for accosting a female student in the hallway, he replied angrily, "Man, why you gotta run up on me like that? You know I was jus' tryin' to baaanng." Translation: "Why are you concerned about what I'm doing to her? I was trying to flirtatiously hump her so that she'd be my girl and I could get a little action." Yes, the English language is in flux. But this fluidity leads to communication problems.

A few years ago I read an entertaining book about the development and misuse of punctuation marks. It made me more aware of just how much the English language has changed in its spelling and structure. But being the son of a long-time Business Grammar teacher, I've been raised as somewhat of a "grammar Nazi." (I was also a county spelling bee champ back in the day.) So I lament inexpressive, miniscule vocabularies, typos, and mechanical errors.

My latest gripe is about the seemingly overnight disappearance of the comma in a direct address. I've been noticing this everywhere recently. A direct address is when you are speaking to a person by name. The standard procedure has long been to set off his name on all sides with a comma.

"Hi, Olivia!"

"Happy Mother's Day, Susan!"

"My, Olivia, you sure look attractive in summery dresses!"

"Go to work, Aaron."

"Lord, have mercy upon us."

If you do not use commas, problems like this can result:

"My Olivia you sure look attractive in summery dresses!" -- Was the use of "my" meant as an interjection expressing my delight, or did I mean to say that Olivia belongs to me?

"Happy Mother's Day Susan!" -- What am I actually wishing? Is the holiday called "Mother's Day Susan"? (Think: Merry Christmas!)

"Go to work Aaron." -- I'm trying to command Aaron to go to his job; I am not trying to tell someone else "to work [use or exercise] Aaron." Removing the comma changes "work" from being a noun to a transitive verb.

Okay, I'm being a mite whiny, and this content doesn't really fit the rest of my blog. But speaking about God involves speaking and communicating clearly (Col. 4:4). Language matters: the Lord has given us language so that we can know him, communicate him to one another, and speak about him. So for the sake of God's glory, please take the time to use real words, add commas where they belong, and stop diluting our language.

Next up: properly using commas in series and the fallacy of "gender-neutral" language. Just kidding!


Halfmom, AKA, Susan said...

Hear my tiny violins play sympathy for lost commas!

Yes, it was fun to go to dinner with Andrew. He brought us cool shawls back from Turkey - WONDERFUL!!! I was very excited to have something from his trip! Hopefully you'll actually live in BB when he returns through on his way back to Purdue so you two can actually meet each other! Between the two of you and Leigh Ann, no wonder the poor girl is dreaming about Turkey!

Ted M. Gossard said...

I like your post here (and I liked your last one, as well, but just wanted to add this parenthesis for emphasis).

I couldn't agree more that word studies are overblown and all you say on that.

I can overuse commas and underuse them, so I have to watch it.

You're a communicator, Andrew, and that probably well describes me or my aspiration anyhow. It can be challenging!