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Russell Smith: On Culture

A nation of language obsessives has roared Add to ...

Of course my inbox only attracts a certain sort of e-mail, so it is not representative of Canadians or even of Globe and Mail readers, but it does create a captivating illusion of a nation of language obsessives. My inbox would give you the impression that this nation is entirely peopled by 65-year-old retired English teachers, occasionally interspersed with 50-year-old editors and 40-year-old typographers for its total demographic variety. This country is a vast snowy acreage of preserved typewriters and red pens, a frozen repository of dictionaries and usage guides. There are no young people here, no text messagers, no blasé Skypists.

This is soothing and reassuring. That dormant mass awoke last week, after I asked them their opinion on a matter of typing. They joined their voices and rose up with a great national roar. The question of how many spaces to put after a period in a written document provoked a greater response than any column I have written in the past five years: I had hundreds of e-mails, many of them stretching into multipage disquisitions on periods, commas and the history of printing. It was the most engaged response I've had, proving that the issue is far from irrelevant. It is about how emotionally people feel about change.

There are too many arguments and opinions to reply to individually, so I will summarize the results very roughly. By a generous margin, the majority of correspondents were two-spacers, that is they hit the space bar twice (some even three times) after a period, regardless of what font they were using or for what medium they were writing. Most of them said they only did it because they had been taught to do it that way and could not unlearn the habit now. Many even admitted they had had no idea the practice was now outdated before reading my column. Many justified it in terms of legibility; some stated the space forced them to slow down their reading and add a pause between sentences (a dubious claim given that the period serves this function admirably for most people). Anyway, typographers and proofreaders offered a vigorous opposition to the double space, but in terms of sheer numbers they lost this poll.

This surprises me. But then I am often surprised by the power of the ideology of habit.

The other issue that was passionately debated was the serial or Oxford comma, the comma before the last element in a list. The surprising revelation here was not that people had strong and elegantly articulated views on the use or misuse of the serial comma, but that despite the ardour of their convictions, they could not come to even a rough consensus. Views on the serial comma, at least in Globeland, are split exactly down the middle. Many referred to the famous example of a hypothetical dedication that is made confusing without the comma: "For my parents, Ayn Rand and God." But for every pedant inventing sentences full of unlikely lists to show possible ambiguities without the comma, there is a traditionalist who points out that we don't write a comma after "and" in a list of two ("I bought eggs, and milk").

So the issue of the serial comma is unresolved by the learned Canadian cloud. For what it's worth, the Canadian Press stylebook advises against the comma. (That's the more conservative British style.) Editing Canadian English (second edition) does not take a stand, pointing out cautiously that the comma is rarely used in Canadian newspapers and magazines. At The Globe and Mail, the official style is to avoid the comma unless that would cause ambiguity. So the policy is flexible.

The next issue that readers clamoured to have solved is the question of where to put punctuation when using quotation marks. "In Canada," Smith said, "we include final punctuation inside the quotation marks." Note the position of period that ends this sentence. I didn't think this was at all debatable, but have just learned that this is considered to be an American style (showing once again how torn we are by two traditions). But that, even I must admit, is a question that just really does not matter at all. As with all these things, the only necessary practice is consistency.

 

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