We still use language for the same purposes we did when I was a child. For that reason, I’m generally averse to changing a term’s definition, especially when we need that word (like ‘literally’; without it, we have no way to separate metaphor and exaggeration from accurate recitation), or when the word has been redefined not because it needed redefinition, but due to basic sociopolitical cowardice.
What we don’t do the same is commit language to record. We do not type on manual typewriters, where it took physical effort to begin a new line. We do not type on electric typewriters, where one used to hit a button for that purpose. If we wanted center justification, we did elementary mathematics. Younger people who never used typewriters would be astonished at how much of Word’s superficial presentation originates in the typewriter, such as tab stops. The earliest word processing was meant to imitate what people understood best, and that was the typewriter.
We also don’t write with a pencil or pen in our dominant hand. Many of us can no longer write a word of cursive English beyond our own signatures, and schools are discontinuing its instruction. One day the ability to read cursive English will be a specialized skill for wonks only.
Nowadays, we either type on a computer keyboard, a laptop keyboard (I only consider laptops as half a computer), or some tiny chiclet-sized key images on a glass surface. We do have to hit the space bar after a word or punctuation–the space itself is a character–and we have had some more years to debate the way punctuation inflects meaning.
We also don’t so often print the words on paper. We often send them electronically. No one–at least, no one whose hands are not too arthritic to type in the first place–is going to type several hundred pages of text, revise it with multiple rewrites, and send this ream-sized manuscript to one publisher at a time, awaiting its return and enduring its entire loss if it is not returned. We can wave the mouse and make the whole document double-spaced. We can enforce a paragraph-opening indent. We don’t need underlines or caps for emphasis. We have proportional fonts with automatic kerning. We don’t even need font cartridges, as we used to use in the earlier days of inkjet printers.
What we learned as kids, and in typing class, was what teachers of the day were conditioned to teach us. Some of it made sense. Some really didn’t. We got marked down if we did it differently, conditioning us to consider it ‘correct.’ Then: the way we committed language to record transformed. Those of us in ‘the industry’ transformed with it. Those not, mostly did not, obstinately insisting that what they learned in 1963 must still be right, and if you don’t like it, get off my lawn and stay off my Social Security.
It is time they–you, if you are reading this, and you are over fifty–awaken to what you are doing wrong. This is especially true if you start a blog, or start shopping your manuscript. If your editor tells you we don’t do it that way any more, believe him or her and cooperate. I would not lie to you about the industry standards, and if I tried, I could not get away with it.
Most people over fifty are doing some things wrong.
The Comma Formerly Known As Oxford. I have often vented about my refusal to recognize Oxford’s moral authority over the English language, but this comma phenomenon exists by any name. When presenting a listing with commas, our grade school teachers taught us to omit the comma before the conjunction (typically ‘and’ or ‘or’). Thus, “Seattle, Pullman, Eugene and Corvallis have I-A football teams.” They and we were doing it wrong most of the time, and here is why: failure to use this comma creates an association between the last two items in the list. If we want that association, we should omit it. If we do not, we should use the comma. There is no mindless rule yea or nay. So no, TCFKAO is not always required, but is usually appropriate; intended meaning must govern. We were taught wrong, and rather than continue to do it wrong, we must improve. I don’t care what Miss Unruh taught you back in school. Start doing it right.
Two spaces vs. one space. This did not exist for me until I began to type. Our typing teachers taught us: two spaces after a period, exclamation point, or colon. One after everything else. For some reason, my age group and those older cling to this obsolete usage as though it were heavenly gospel. It existed because, on the typewriter, all fonts were fixed-pitch. A font consists of a typeface (Arial, Times Roman, Courier) and a pitch (size; typical number of characters per inch of printed text). Courier 12 is a font, as is Arial 8 or Times Roman 24. A typeface is proportional or fixed-pitch as one of its basic properties; most are proportional, because proportional was what we always wanted but could not do on a typewriter. Professional typesetting used proportional fonts because it could, and because it was more readable. To see what every one of my college history papers looked like, pull up a document in your word processor and change a paragraph to Courier 12, which is a fixed-pitch font. Our typewriters could not handle proportional fonts, like this blog’s. Because they could not, Courier was harder to read, and we learned to use two spaces after certain punctuation marks. This is no longer Mrs. Overley’s freshman typing class. In modern documents, an extra space is just pointless air. Let it go. Even Mrs. Overley probably has.
Underlines and caps. Gather round, children, for a tale of the days when we were one step above writing with flint knives, burins, mastodon grease, harvested ochre, and dried stretched deerskin. We could not make text bold on a typewriter. We could not italicize it. Only on later typewriters could we change fonts at all. Even then, we could not change their size as issued. If we wanted emphasis, and we were too lazy or illiterate to make our word choices convey the emphasis–or, in fairness, we were writing dialogue and needed the occasional emphasis–we had underlines, and we had all caps. This led a generation of kids, mine as it happens, to use these methods even into their middle age–when italics were available and didn’t cost a nickel. Stop it. There are very few reasons to use underlines. Debate goes on about book titles, but I think the underline is a holdover from when we would backspace and hold down the underbar key. There are even fewer reasons to use all caps, unless one wants to scream in text. When I see underlines and caps, I don’t see a good writer. I don’t give a damn what your IBM Selectric let you do; start doing it right, won’t you?
2 thoughts on “I know that’s what they taught you in school; I don’t care”
Hi. Interesting article. The comma got my attention, and I was initially skeptical – for fuck’s sake, who’s going to associate … and then I realised. Of course. Companies exist like Small and Whitfield, so if you don’t use that comma, then the reader thinks the last two names are like Bang and Olufsen. To me, the comma still does seem superfluous, and perhaps for names or terms we could use the ampersand instead… No. I can’t see that catching on. Commas it is. Thanks!
(yes, over 50. Amazed that some folk still use the other techniques, however…)
Thanks for stopping by, Robert. The classic example of the havoc wrought by misplaced or omitted commas is seen in Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss. My complaint is not so much that people omit it, nor that people insist on it, but that people do not consider the meaning conveyed. There are times when an association between those final two items is desirable, and times when it is not. The ampersand would be a lost cause because, as you mention, it belongs mainly in titles.