The Weekly Challenge is a column that tackles self-improvement seven days at a time.
Christmas came early for grammar geeks last week when extraneous punctuation on an Obama campaign poster (“FORWARD.”) proved just how many of us care about the proper use of the English language. Mostly, I was just surprised that this dot made it through the legions of presidential staffers who presumably vet (and double vet, and triple vet) such things. The point is, an unwelcome period hasn’t caused this much panic since you wore white shorts to high-school gym class.
The timing of period-gate was particularly rich because it happened to overlap with the release of a new study out of Wake Forest University, which suggests that today’s text-obsessed youth wouldn’t know proper comma placement if it punched them in the face. But is it just the next generation that fails in the elements of style department? Hardly.
As society becomes increasingly unbuttoned, many of us regularly commit grammar fouls that likely have Mr. Orwell rolling in his grave. I’m certainly guilty of certain abuses, such as using obnoxious acronyms, short-forms, sentence fragments. I also have a dirty little grammar secret: I don’t know how to use a semicolon. Or rather I didn’t before I embarked on this week’s challenge: To spend a week using the Queen’s English, no ifs, ands or OMGs about it.
The long and the short of it
The difficulties of this experiment became clear as soon a I went to type an e-mail and realized that what I have always considered time-saving shorthand amounted to a grammatical bloodbath. Typing an error-free message took a lot longer and required a total about-face from standard practice. Turns out convenience (along with the abolishment of all capital letters) is addictive.
Proofreading my messages before I hit send, I noticed that some of them didn’t even sound like me. Whether “me” was what I actually wanted to sound like is something I contemplated while trying to rein in a semi-incessant use of half-words like “perf,” “obv,” “whatevs.” Tut-tut all you want – I realize this teeny-bopper lingo isn’t going to lead anyone to believe I’m smarter than I am, but to be honest I don’t really care. (And I suspect that Mr. Orwell might prefer “perf” to a 25-cent cousin like paradisiacal). Up at a friend’s cottage, I frequently fell off the whole-words wagon, though I was usually able to make a quick save along the lines of: “A swim? That sounds perf ... fffect.”
One small step for grammar; a giant leap for me
Day five and I could no longer put off trying to making peace with the semicolon, a punctuation mark I had previously employed only when typing the winky face emoticon. First I read the relevant chapter in the grammarian’s bible Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Still confused about why one would use a semicolon when a dash would do, I called my friend Amy Harkness, the former copy chief at Toronto Life magazine and a woman whose devotion to language runs so deep that she has a cat named Grammar.
She is in the “no period” camp in the Obama “FORWARD.” scandal, and concedes that proper comma and apostrophe use have gone out the window in most forms of casual writing. She’s particularly vexed about the lack of attention to grammar in Facebook updates (“It’s not like a text between two friends – a Facebook post is going out to everyone you know and you are being judged on it!!”).
When the subject turns to semicolons I explained how I am frustrated by the subjectiveness of it all. Unlike an apostrophe or a comma, the semicolon is as much a stylistic decision as a grammatical one; I prefer my punctuation laws to be ironclad; that’s probably why I have always been good at math. (You saw what I just did there, right? I know, I know – it’s like watching Picasso with a paintbrush!). Seriously though – it does feel good to master any skill that has long eluded you.
After a week of going by the book, I look forward to resuming more relaxed grammar habits in realms like e-mail, texting and friendly conversation, which is not to say I’m not saddened by the notion of a whole generation that probably thinks Em-Dash is a cool new hip hop star.
Teddy Roosevelt said, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” I say, “Speak casually and carry a good understanding of grammar.“ I certainly don’t plan to kick the half-word habit. Being casual is part of who I am – judge me, don’t judge me. Whatevs.
“You couldn’t have chosen a worse week as we are bombarded with “I believe in the power of you and me” on radio and TV.” Carol Purdy
“LMKHIG (let me know how it goes)” Kyle F. G. Purdy
“I’m probably one of six young Canadians who choose full sentences and grammar in text messages all the time. I can’t write with excessive short forms. I recommend this practice, especially since texting is becoming cheaper and cheaper as phone companies change their approach to texting charges. Pam Lupa
“Not poss. 140 charac. in TWTR only!” Chantal Saville
Next Challenge: Still not on Twitter? What’s the hold up? Too shy? Too old-fashioned? Too put off by the narcissism of it all? In the spirit of not knocking what you haven’t tried, immerse yourself in the Twitterverse for a full week. Tweet, follow and hashtag until your thumbs are blue. Abhorrent or strangely addictive? Let us know on Facebook. Or even better, tweet @GlobeLife.