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National Punctuation Day: a great day to celebrate commas and apostrophes

Feeling uneasy about mystery quotation marks?

We have "fresh" sandwiches.

Badgered by errant apostrophes?

Our employee's are at you're service.

Confused by AWOL commas?

Smoking pets and bicycles prohibited.

Stop worrying about whether your dog smokes and start worrying about punctuation. Friday would be a good day to start: It's National Punctuation Day.

Many of us are worried already. As a former English teacher and copy editor, I despair for humanity when I open an e-mail that bristles with so many exclamation points I can hardly make out the words in between them. And those are just the press releases about library events.

Just last week, Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten declared the English language dead, the coup de grace delivered by an unnecessary apostrophe.

But don't bury English yet. People are fighting to revive its proper use. National Punctuation Day was the brainchild of Jeff Rubin, a California newsletter writer who founded it in 2004 as "a celebration of the lowly comma, correctly used quotation marks, and other proper uses of periods, semicolons, and the ever-mysterious ellipsis."

Rubin and his wife, Norma, maintain a website, national punctuationday.com. Last year they sponsored a punctuation baking contest. (Question mark meat loaf, anyone?) This year they're posting punctuation-themed haikus:

Exclamation points

And question marks together?

Only in comics.

Then there is Jeff Deck's mission to bring America back to perfect punctuation, at least in public. "It's a question of people building their apostrophic confidence," says Deck, co-author of The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World One Correction at a Time.

Deck, 30, an editor who lives in New Hampshire, has a hands-on approach to raising awareness of poor punctuation. A couple of years ago he and his friend Benjamin Herson, a bookseller, set off on a 2½-month road trip in search of errors in spelling, punctuation and grammar in public signs.

Armed with their own heroic typo correction kit (Sharpies, chalk, Wite-Out and more), they found 437 errors and corrected 236. (They were charged with vandalism only once.)

The most common punctuation error? "The poor apostrophe is the most misused and put-upon. People are always throwing it into words where it's not needed, especially plurals," Deck says, citing signs directing people to "Restroom's" and offering "Apple's for sale."

"Almost as common is the apostrophe being left out where it's needed. In Cleveland we saw a big banner that said, 'Lets go Cavaliers.'" And don't get him started on "its" and "it's."

Deck doesn't blame vanishing punctuation skills on e-mail and texting, saying those modes of communication "get a bad rap. It's very easy to blame them."

Mary Alice Lopez isn't so sure. Lopez, 45, teaches sixth-grade language arts to about 60 students at the Academy of the Holy Names in Tampa.

Parochial schools and their formidable nuns were once a bastion of proper punctuation: Learn it or regret it. Nuns are scarce these days, but Lopez says grammar is still emphasized — though harder to teach. Students "all have cell phones, and that means punctuation and capitalization are out the window with texting. It's had a very negative impact."

Teaching punctuation begins in kindergarten. Her sixth-graders struggle most with commas: "They either omit them completely or put way too many in."

One teaching method the kids enjoy is a version of Deck's quest. She assigns them to find errors in signs and printed texts. "It's fun for them, but it also stresses how meanings can change if you make an error."

Roy Peter Clark loves punctuation so much that the cover of his new book, The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English, features a giant golden semicolon. The senior scholar at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg (which owns the St. Petersburg Times) devotes several chapters to punctuation, emphasizing what a valuable tool it can be.

In "Reclaim the exclamation point," he lays out the parameters of opinion on that exuberant but controversial mark. On the one hand, master thriller author Elmore Leonard tells him, "You are allowed only three in every 100,000 words of prose." On the other, a friend sends Clark an e-mail with a six-word sentence followed by 11 exclamation points.

I'm on Team Leonard, but Clark is somewhere between the two extremes, calling the exclamation point "the thinking writer's emoticon." Clearly it's a mark of punctuation he favors: "My next book is called Help! for Writers."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.

Meet the authors

Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson will discuss and sign The Great Typo Hunt: Two Friends Changing the World One Correction at a Time at 2 p.m. Oct. 9 at Inkwood Books, 216 S Armenia Ave., Tampa.

Roy Peter Clark will discuss and sign The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English at 7 p.m. Oct. 14 at Inkwood. He will also be a featured author at the St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading on Oct. 23 at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

National Punctuation Day: a great day to celebrate commas and apostrophes 09/22/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 22, 2010 9:56pm]

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