I confess: It isn’t always easy writing a column.
Oh, the story is always there, and the way to tell the story is not too difficult. The strategy, language to use and pictures to paint are reasonably simple. The catchy phrases and unique points of view are typically easy to come by. But gluing everything together with the sticky compounds of grammar and punctuation isn’t always as straightforward.
Now I should point out that most of the time, it’s just me. The grammarians of the bunch don’t have a problem. With years of training and even more years of application, these folks can spot a dangling participle, a split infinitive or a run-on sentence a mile away. Punctuation has well-defined uses, and to liberally sprinkle a piece with all manner of commas, colons and hyphens is simply not done.
To date, the fact that English was always my best subject in school has served me well. From Grammar 101, we all learned that a sentence begins with a capital letter and ends with a particular punctuation, depending on the nature of the sentence. I know that subjects and verbs must agree, or they will most assuredly have a veritable “knock-down, drag-out” right here on the written page. Finally, I remember that a story must have a theme, and paragraphs should have topic sentences.
But is all that really important? Isn’t it more likely that our English teachers were simply being picky?
Not really. As we read or listen, we don’t realize how much easier it is to comprehend a message that’s grammatically correct. We’ll listen to this speaker or read that writer and instantly understand. Then, the next writer or speaker leaves us scratching our heads, asking, “Now what was that all about?”
The difference is often grammar. Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), who wrote extensively on logic and language, put it this way, “Like everything metaphysical, the harmony between thought and reality is to be found in the grammar of the language.”
And, I always ask another question: How will the article look on the printed page? Using a word that literally takes up a column width might be acceptable in some circumstances; do it repeatedly, though, and the story is destined for the “round file.” Create long paragraphs with no end in sight, and the reader takes a visual clue that the story is just too complicated. So, if I use the grammar and syntax ice pick to break it up a little, everyone’s happy.
It’s true that I don’t always have those rules down to a science. I often write as if the piece were to be read aloud – hence my liberal use of commas and other miscellaneous punctuation. I’m what longtime Washington Post columnist George Will might call a “commaphiliac.”
Of course, I could always heed the words of William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody himself. Evidently, his sister Helen found his correspondence to be full of misspelled words with little or no punctuation. Cody replied, “Life is too short to make big letters when small ones will do; and as for punctuation, if my readers don’t know enough to take their breath without those little marks, they’ll have to lose it, that’s all.”