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Punctuation Gone “Wild”

The Book of The Book of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks by Bethany Keeley

Reviewed by Megan Zabel
Powells.com

You've seen them on billboards, church marquees, and bathroom stalls: a pair of renegade quotation marks that ultimately results in an unfortunate, unintentional innuendo. You might think that a book comprised solely of photos of publicly displayed punctuation gaffes, accompanied by witty commentary, might get old after awhile. Well, you would be wrong.

The Book of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks, based on the popular blog created by Bethany Keeley, features reader-contributed photos of these superfluous punctuation faux pas. The book's organized into categories like "At Work," "Social Graces," and "In the Bathroom," and Keeley provides funny commentary without being overly snarky. Even though the book repeats a different shade of the same joke over and over, the variations manage to seem wholly original when applied to different contexts. What self-respecting consumer of words could help from giggling after seeing a billboard that reads:

"Jesus" is Coming

Or, what about a customer feedback box from a national restaurant chain (I'm looking at you, Taco Bell) with a sign proclaiming:

"We Care." Please Let Us Know How You Feel

English is complex -- so what's the big deal if these avant-garde painters of language take the laws of grammar into their own hands and use the world's billboards, Post-it Notes, and sandwich boards as their canvases?

This is the big deal: Rules are rules, folks. Just like stop signs, speed limits, and laws that prohibit you from marrying your cousins, the regulations placed on the use of punctuation were created to benefit society as a whole. They exist so you don't unwittingly make fun of your own products, accidentally give the impression you're not being honest, or unintentionally dispute the existence of "the Lord." (See what I did there?)

Some might argue that only privileged people with soft hands have the time or energy to poke fun at the misuse of punctuation. Perhaps these bold folks going hog-wild with the quotation marks simply have more pressing things to worry about. Maybe so. They're trying to get people to buy their "soup," attend their "church," or simply just "flush" the toilet. They want emphasis and don't care how they go about achieving it.

Sorry, you syntax rebels, I'm taking the hardliner approach. We've got punctuation for a reason, and it's to fine-tune the sentiment behind our communication. Anyone with the wherewithal to own a business, buy billboard space, or design a product label should know better. Or use a proofreader. Google it. Something! If you break the rules, prepare to pay the price. (Which is being publicly shamed in this book.)

With that said, Keeley is fairly gentle. She focuses more energy poking fun at the absurdity of the unintended implications and less calling out the language skills of the perpetrators. Read it and chuckle with a good conscience, and think: Oh, that zany language of ours. Always up to "something."

Megan Zabel works in marketing for Powell's. She can switch out a bike tube in six minutes, but unfortunately can't whistle or perform a legitimate cartwheel. You can follow her often misguided adventures at www.marthazinger.com.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. The Book of "Unnecessary" Quotation...
    Used Hardcover $7.95



3 Responses to "Punctuation Gone “Wild”"

  1.  
    local nudist August 14th, 2010 at 6:14 am

    Excellent "review". I often get stuck "between" making fun "of" these faux pas, and "avoiding" overt prescriptivism. I "appreciate" that the reviewer points out that "rules" are there to ensure clear "communication". While I try to make "allowances" for non-standard usage of grammatical "elements", many "people" assume that I'm advocating for an anything "goes" approach to communication. In "fact", I'm trying to point out that while "we" "have" commonly held rules to make sure we understand each other, those rules change over "time" by group "consensus" and are dependent upon "context".

    Now if only we could "do" something about those lower-case "L's" (http://lowercasel.blogspot.com/)

  2.  
    s h a r o n August 14th, 2010 at 6:17 am

    Megan, dear, you employ commas when they're unnecessary. To wit:
    "accompanied by witty commentary" does not need to be surrounded by commas. A list of three or under does not require a comma before the last item; therefore the phrase should read, "the book's [should not be contracted as if it were possessive, but should say, "the book is"] organized into categories like "At Work", [the comma goes AFTER the quote] "Social Graces" and "In the Bathroom", [the comma goes after the last item in the quoted phrase/title].

    Another three-item list beginning with "the world's billboards" needs only two commas (none before the third in the list). (A list containing more than three items would contain commas separating EACH item.) Thus, the last item in the sentence beginning "Just like stop signs" does not take a comma before "and laws that prohibit...", and, similarly, the three-item list beginning with "They exist so..." does not take a comma before "...or unintentionally..." Finally, "the Lord." should be "the Lord". The same goes for the items "soup" and "church",... [See what I did there? The period goes after "the Lord"; the commas go outside the quotes--except the second item in that series, "church" needs no comma after it because it is the last in a series of only three.]

    The last two sentences in your review should read: "Oh, that zany language of ours--always up to "something". ["Always up to "something." is not a complete sentence.]

    Tootles!

  3.  
    Heather September 28th, 2010 at 12:24 pm

    Sharon’s comment is a great example of “just because it’s not the way I would write it, doesn’t mean it’s wrong.” See what I did there? Turns out, it is perfectly acceptable—even preferable—to place the punctuation inside the quotation marks. In addition, while some writers make the distinction between commas that logically belong to the whole sentence and those that apply only to the quoted material, this distinction is no longer common in current practice. In fact, anyone who’s ever picked up an AP Style manual will notice the directive to ALWAYS place commas and periods INSIDE quotation marks.

    The comma before the final AND in a series is similarly squishy. Some styles ban the serial comma in all but a few circumstances; others actually require it. Not quite as black and white as some people make it sound, is it?

    The time of those who care about preserving the English language might be better spent correcting actual usage errors. For example, instead of fixating on the subjective use of commas and their placement, Sharon might have noted that "comprise" means to contain. Therefore, it is incorrect and illogical to use the construction "comprised of." Would you say, “contained of”? "Composed of" is what is called for. I would point this out myself if I weren’t so “polite.” Given the theme of the book, one could assume that Sharon was limiting her corrections to punctuation; however, she asserts that the final fragment is wrong because it’s “not a complete sentence” while ignoring several other examples of partial thought. This strikes me as evidence that punctuation is more of a gray area than it first appears.

    Some people are intimidated by writing because they are afraid they don’t know all of The Rules. Too often, there’s someone who’s quick to prove them right by pouncing upon every errant comma. I’ll let you in on a little secret. Yes, there are some hard and fast rules, and if I had a million dollars, I’d post billboards that state one simple fact until we knew it as well as our own names: it’s = it is. The bottom line is that while proper punctuation is all well and good, the real trick to writing is having something constructive and worthwhile to say.

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