By Kirby Vickery from the July 2014 Edition
I used to open my classes with, “I’m looking for dead words. Anybody got any?” The rules we established were that it couldn’t have been slang and it can’t be found in any current dictionary. The last one which has been found by my group is the word, “ellingness.”
Henry VIII used it in a letter to Anne Boleyn when he was courting her across the English Channel. It means, ‘loneliness.’ Today, ‘dead words’ are really making a comeback. The University of Michigan publishes a web site with that title and then gives a list of them with their definitions. If I taught today, I think I would have to find another attention getter although I still get an occasional e-mail suggesting new ones.
The other changes in our language are in punctuation. You have to understand that this is an observation made from my little corner of the literary world. I still read a lot, addressing several genres, but far from all and I edit for the Sun and for other individuals whom I consider friends. What I’m finding in the written word is running two ways. They’re running exactly opposite of each other.
First of all the prevalence of the personal electronically generated communication systems encourage brevity in all aspects of communication. More than not, the folks using them are in a hurry to get their ideas and thoughts down and to the recipient. As is the case, words like ‘you’ become ‘u’ and ‘are’ becomes ‘r.’ I saw one the other day where the author had eliminated most of the vowels in her message. Another had eliminated all the punctuation and capitols.
Both of my daughters are proficient users of ‘texting.’ I could complain except they’re both in their forties and probably wouldn’t even turn an ear. I find it very difficult to understand. All these people need is a keyboard in Pitman, Bell or Gregg and they could write novels. I think it all goes back to the need of brevity. It costs an extra thumb push to slip into the capitol letters and another just to end a sentence. The big thing here is the onomatopoeia stepped down to the individual letter level. Just where is all this headed? Can you imagine
George Orwell’s 1984 in texted Newspeak?
The antithesis of the texting brevity is being found in all different forms of written communication. During the early publications of American Modernism (A unique form of novel where the plot takes second fiddle to the expansion of the protagonist’s world of realization. I site Kesey, Hemingway, and Clemens as examples.); to today’s Dan Brown and Steven King who seem to go out of their way to describe the world surrounding their protagonist. Realism or truism exemplified, possibly. Sensationalism in text is probably more the case, but it’s the reader that decides in the end. But there is a trend here. Call it ‘flowers’ if nothing more. This trend is finally stepping over the boundaries of good grammar. Not only that, but the further down the line of authorship the worse it gets. A professional author can violate a basic (if little known) rule of grammar and call it “Style.” That author can get away with it too. I had a grammar teacher during my undergraduate days who thought that when she ran into something like this it automatically changed the rules of grammar to fit that author’s ‘style.’ A wonderful lady, quite intelligent, if not slightly confused all the time. You didn’t try that in any paper you wrote to hand in to her though.
With amateur authors and some professionals, I think it’s an effort to blossom their concepts into full color without knowing some of the basic rules of grammar. A prime example of this is in this edition of the Sun. I imported an article that is just loaded with way too long em pauses all through it. She also uses italicized lettering and font changes inappropriately. Is this style? Perhaps it is. But when it starts to interrupt the flow and subsequently the reader’s ease of understanding, then one has to take a look at the ‘style versus grammar’ concept.
Of people I read and edit that try to write, the problems, I see the most, rest in the comma usage versus the en or em pause, versus the misuse of the ellipses as a pause.
First of all, the ellipses are three periods placed after a space from the word in front of them. There are three of them with a space between them and a space after the last one (‘ellipsis’ is the spelling of just one of them – that’s for the scrabble players out there). They are used only to indicate missing words. Some of my references indicate they can be used in general text while others restrict the use of the ellipses to inside a quotation. The only other use I can find for them is within mathematical text as an indicator of missing numbers. I am unable to find any reference that allows their use as a pause of any kind.
Finding grammar rules about ‘en’ and ems’ is next to impossible because of the use of the slang expression
‘Em’! You know, “Get ‘em Marshall.” or, “We’ll head ‘em off at the pass!” I’ve got a cute little book programmed into my Kindle titled The Grammar Slammer 4.4. I use it to help me when I write or edit. It describes an ‘en’ as a small dash with a space before and after it. An ‘em’ is a dash which is twice as long as an ‘en’ and also separated from everything by a space before and after it. The pause in reading the phrase aloud for an em is twice as long as it is for and en. Having run-on ens or ems isn’t a good idea either. A writer should allow the reader that time discretion as the text is being read. By the by they are to be used sparingly and are not comma replacements.
Ian is really strict about his thousand word limit and I’ve passed it by fifty-two words. Commas and both single and double quotation marks are in next month’s edition.