Thursday, December 8, 2011

Language as a Reflection of Cultural Shifts, Part 2

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

In my previous piece for “Teacher Talk,” I focused on English grammar and usage in the spoken language as reflections of cultural shifts.  What I’d like to focus on now has to do with a cultural as well as an educational shift over the past several years. I’m talking about certain aspects of punctuation with people not taking care anymore to punctuate according to tradition. This trend may also be happening because of the sloppy way people write when they send e-mails and text messages. Let’s look at some items that seem to be casualties of the ever-increasing loss or downgrading of language arts programs at least in American schools and the influence of electronic toys used for written communication.

First off, there’s the hyphen. Punctuation marks were created to aid readers, to make phrasing clearer and more easily recognizable for readers. Here’s a case in point. If I write here Man Eating Crocodile, which picture below reflects what I’ve written?












In actuality, it’s the picture on the left that depicts what I’ve written, but a show entitled Dangerous Encounters on the cable television network NatGeoWild (National Geographic Wild) used that title for one of its episodes. Of course they should have written Man-Eating Crocodile. That hyphen shows readers that man and eating are being used together as a single adjective to describe a ferocious crocodile. The hyphen helps readers to understand that and phrase it properly in their minds. In fact, the rules of prosody in English dictate a change in how these words should even be spoken if the hyphen is present or absent. I’m going to use capital letters and bold face to show which words or parts of words receive more or less equal primary stress in the flow of speech. Say both phrases out loud a few times and you’ll see what I mean:

man eating crocodile = MAN EATing CROCodile

man-eating crocodile = MAN eating CROCodile

Another example that I love is the following title of a show which appeared in the TV listings for the Science Channel: China’s Man Made Marvels. Does that refer to a famous Chinese man who made marvels, or does it mean marvels made in China by human beings rather than by nature? Going strictly by what you see here in print rather than what your logic tells you, you figure it out! By the way, did it come to mind that if we insert a hyphen in the correct place, we’ve got another one of those phrases that aren’t considered “politically correct” anymore? Yep! China’s Man-Made Marvels! Should it be China’s Human-Made Marvels or perhaps China’s People-Made Marvels? Food for thought.

Not that I want to belabor the issue, but a brand-new series just started on yet another cable television network that I couldn’t pass up mentioning here. This one has a bit of a different twist. The punctuation used in the title is correct, but the voiceover announcer who’s talking about the new series in the network’s promotional spots totally disregards the punctuation and screws up the prosody! The series is called Monster In-Laws. He should say MON-ster IN-laws, but instead he says MONtser in laws. Tsk. Tsk.

And here are yet two more examples I’d like to offer to make my point. One was actually written in a newsletter on archaeology by a person with a master’s degree: “There was no don’t ask don’t tell policy to be repealed for the body of potential Roman soldiers, but …” This one’s got problems on many levels, including capitalization as well as missing hyphens and quotation marks! In my style of writing it would be There was no “Don’t Ask-Don’t Tell” policy …, although I imagine there may be other ways to help readers clearly discern the content. The other was written by a medical doctor in a letter to his patients, telling them he was planning to close his practice temporarily: “Because of a once in a lifetime opportunity, I …” Since the phrase in question is so well known, readers will more than likely not have a problem discerning that those four words (once in a lifetime) actually form one adjective describing the opportunity, but traditionally this would be written Because of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I …

Another casualty of the lack of care in teaching punctuation in our schools or in using punctuation in electronic communications is the apostrophe. First let’s discuss how it’s not being used traditionally to add the –s genitive to a noun. Here are some recent examples I’ve seen: in our minds eye; Brides Maids (the title of a movie); Kids Room, (a Website on AOL Games), and the title of another movie, Two Weeks Notice. Traditionally, these would be punctuated in our mind’s eye; Brides’ Maids; Kids’ Room; Two Weeks’ Notice. And last but not least, in an article on contagious diseases that I was reading, I found “Tufts University is now offering a masters program …” Of course it should be master’s.

Another situation in which the apostrophe is being dropped is when writing decades or numbers. It used to be that when something that normally doesn’t have a plural form is pluralized, ’s would be tagged onto it, so we’d write 1,000’s of people or the 1960’s. Nowadays you’ll see these written as 1,000s and the 1960s. This has become so commonplace that now both ways of writing such plural forms are acceptable.

But let’s not forget the comma. Here’s why the comma can be so important. A picture on a Website showed this:












And this was in the banner on that Website:



Wow! You can get cockeyed before you figure out what the number is. Had they just inserted that little comma, 200,000, it would have been much easier to decipher that cipher!

One last casualty I’ll mention is the lack of quotation marks in some newspaper and magazine headlines. If readers aren’t familiar with what’s being referred to in the following example, they’ll probably be at a loss to interpret what this says:


Even though I was familiar with the reference here, I still had trouble figuring it out for a couple of moments. “It Gets Better” is the name of a Website. Had the writer simply used quotation marks or even italics in this headline, everything would have been much clearer. Even if I weren’t familiar with that Website, I would at least know it’s the title of something:




The point is, the reader shouldn’t have to stop reading to figure this out. And isn’t it interesting that the person who wrote this headline at least had the presence of mind to hyphenate the head noun properly (14-year-old), but failed to use quotation marks or italics for the title of that Website?

With the ever-increasing use of text messaging and the ongoing use of e-mail, I think the future doesn’t look too bright for the continued traditional use of punctuation. That may just be a losing battle for traditionalists like me. I wonder if your outlook is a gloomy as mine. What do you say?

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