Friday, December 19, 2014

Dinner at Downton

I’m thinking about punctuation. This morning I wrote dialogue without quotation marks and thought of a discussion I had at Le Moyne in which I stated that the apostrophe is used not for understanding but to indicate a writer’s status. Use of the apostrophe marks the writer more than it serves the reader.


As with most language matters, texting leads the way by largely neglecting the apostrophe which is reserved for cover letters and school essays. Reading texts, we may mourn the apostrophe’s disappearance, but we suffer no hindrance to comprehension. Written language is over-burdened with punctuation that marks class distinction just as the place settings at a Downton Abbey dinner separate those who do or do not understand their uses and who can or cannot afford to own elaborate collections of china, silver, and crystal.


My feet are on both sides of the border. In essay writing, I’m careful enough to use a comma and apostrophe in this sentence. I know the rules. However, in my prose poetry, I confine myself to the period, comma, and apostrophe, hoping to convey understanding through word choice. I use the period and comma for rhythm and pacing. I use the apostrophe because the lack of it is glaring, but avoid the question mark which seems the equivalent of an emoji.


I suffer no confusion as to how to use an apostrophe. I’m prone to mistake it’s and its, but this doesn’t obstruct understanding in any way. Yet teachers, myself included, waste hours teaching it knowing that students will be marked as dumb-asses if they choose incorrectly. Good Lord, this writer doesn’t know with which fork to eat his shrimp cocktail! And yes, please do pour me another brandy, Lord Grantham.


Ditching the apostrophe loses tradition, but imagine the gains when we let it go, when we focus on communication rather than class. The formal dinner is possible with one plate, a fork, knife and spoon, or a pair of chopsticks. We diners can dress well without grooms or a lady’s maid. The qualities of the food and conversation are what make the meal.


Punctuation’s best role is to foster understanding. The period is a democratic mark, the staples of any language meal. The apostrophe, the semicolon, and even the question mark are remnants of a time when three sets of china seemed necessary and show was more important than real work. They are no longer worthy of the time and effort we put into teaching and learning them.

The food is ready. The drinks are poured. Sit and talk while we eat. Don’t worry about what utensil you use so long as what you have to say is so interesting that I want to hear every word and never once wonder where the apostrophes all go.