The Case for Relaxing Just a Little — The Long Version
But we’d argue that taking the long view of the language also places us in the perfect position to make intelligent decisions about language, since really, in English especially, nothing is straight forward. Nothing is set in stone and the only thing we can be sure of is that the language will change. And frequently.
“The doctrine of punctuation must needs be very imperfect: few precise rules can be given, which will hold without exception in all cases; but much must be left to the judgement and taste of the writer” (A Short Introduction to English Grammar, 1762).
This was said by the father of English grammar, as it were, Bishop Lowth. About one hundred years later, the spelling and punctuation police stepped it up a bit and created a series of dictionaries and our recent history of pedantry and stickling began in earnest.
Fast Forward to the 21st Century
Considering that the idea of an English dictionary is a mere 150 (ish) years old, is there any way that we could have foreseen the birth and nurturing of so many people who feel that taking it upon themselves to correct other people’s punctuation and spelling is their vocation?
A good example of how far we’ve come in terms of things up orifices goes occurs in the United States constitution. There, in article 1 section 10, it states:
“No state shall, without the consent of the Congress, lay any imposts or duties on imports or exports, except what may be absolutely necessary for executing it’s inspection laws”
Catch that one? Most Punctuation Sticklers will be horrified by it. But there it is, for eternity.
And What of That Recent Horror of Horrors — The Double Space?
I’m sure you’ve been caught up in the recent maelstrom that is the debate (read: shaming) of people who don’t know to put a single space after a period in manuscripts. They are correct, of course. Recent fashion dictates that we put only one space after a period. But that’s it. A recent fashion. Nothing else. Nothing higher than that. These are not things handed down from the gods, these are (often) passing fancy that we turn into dogma.
Should We Throw Out the Baby & the Bathwater?
No. As usual, figure out who you are communicating with (with whom you are communicating) and write for them. If those you are communicating with need you to adhere to certain standards, learn them and adhere to them. But turning punctuation and spelling into a chance to shame people you find inferior, well, we would hope to see that stop. And soon.
For some excellent further commentary on this, and, we’d like to add, the impetus for this article, please check out University of Illinois article on “Where should the comma go?“