Letter: Response to ‘The punctuation police’


Letter writer Colin Payton responds to column “The punctuation police.”

Colin Payton

Learning correct punctuation is a lifelong journey. As a doctoral student studying English composition, a composition instructor and a veteran WMC consultant, I should know my stuff, but I learn new things each week. And, I mean weekly; here’s an example from last week: while telling the reader about a wrongheaded thesis I chose not to pursue, I wrote this sentence: “The ‘so what?’ though, is not that the past was ignorant.”
The phrase “so what?” stands in for an English teacher’s cliche — the “so what?” of an essay is the thesis. What I didn’t know is where my commas should have gone. Normally, if I have “though” serving as a contrastive adverb, I nestle it in commas. This instance, though, (see?) I had to fight with a quotation mark, question mark and comma rules — triple punctuation trouble. So, last week, I scoured a lot of complicated advice, from handbooks to professional editor blogs, and I didn’t find a great solution. My use of “so what?” is odd. Most of the time, one should omit the comma, but certain exceptions — like appositives and question marks in titles — open doors to slipperier, stranger exceptions. 
Why is learning correct punctuation a lifelong journey? Because the more complex we think, the more complex our grammar needs to become to express our thoughts. Welcome to college, a place where thinking comes to be complicated; it should be no surprise that students who are asked to stretch their thinking are simultaneously stretching their grammar rules, too. Stretched out as we are on these twinned limbs of content and form, mistakes are bound to happen. 
On the one hand, I agree with the thrust of Hamel’s argument to get things right: correct punctuation clarifies complex thinking, making our thoughts — with a greater degree of precision — more accessible to readers. (This is why I stand by the Oxford comma.) Dear reader, suppose you believe that you haven’t made a grammar mistake in a while. In that case, I suggest plopping your essay into your free Premium Grammarly account and checking if your work is as pristine as you think (only look at the red errors): try to match your grammar, style and genre growth to your major’s knowledge.
On the other hand, I prefer grace over imperfect people punishing the imperfections in others.
Hamel, you have a few grammar and usage errors in your essay. 
(And I swear if [anyone] says to “Defund the punctuation police,” I’m going to lose my mind.)
I think we should introduce punctuation police into society [for] my sanity. 
Please[,] put either a period or a semicolon. 
Am I the one [who’s] wrong?
And, no one really cares about those. We, in general, understand what you are trying to say. However, you now have an ethos problem undermining your solution: no one wants under-trained police over-eagerly doling out judgment.  
I’m going to borrow Gandalf’s rebuke for a moment:
Frodo: “It’s a pity Bilbo didn’t kill Gollum when he had the chance.”
Gandalf: “Pity? It’s a pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends.”
We can strive for perfection. Heck, I believe we should encourage others to strive for perfection, as well. I’m not afraid of the word ‘should’; we should remain curious about English’s beautiful complexities. But, since we are at different places in our grammatical journeys, I propose correction over punishment. And, when the law broken is basic and unambiguous, the punishment should be lax. Rarely is a comma a capital crime. Hall monitors should enforce such rules, not punctuation police. 
Colin Payton is pursuing a doctoral degree in English composition.