Sunday, August 16, 2015

It’s time to change this punctuation rule (or am I being too dotty?)

Languages are constantly and continually changing, as are the rules for punctuation. I’ve been interested in languages since early High School days (where I was introduced to Latin and French, my first exposure to foreign tongues).

Being used to mathematics and computer coding, there’s one particular punctuation rule that I’d like to see changed for the better

In mathematics and computer programming languages, there are statement construction rules such as the requirement to balance parentheses. In spoken languages, there are sentence construction rules that we are expected to follow.

For example, in “good English” there are rules for the placement of punctuation marks such as the full stop (the dot, or period). Taking as one example Jef Raskin’s essay Effectiveness of Mathematics and consider the final two sentences:

It is because we have evolved so as to have brains that work the way the world does, that part of what has evolved are the logical (to us) processes of deduction. As we build mathematics we build it in conformity with the physical world because the foundations of logic, the very nature of what makes sense to us, was dictated by the physical world. The inherent abilities of our brains were established, and those abilities reinforced, by natural selection. If we have been schooled by the physical world, should we be surprised that our works reflect its teachings? From this point of view, we should be surprised only if mathematics, built on a logic derived from the way the world behaves, was not able to describe the world. We do not need to resort to Penrose’s mystical explanation, which is based on a "belief in the profound mathematical harmony of Nature" as he proclaimed in his book, The Emperor’s New Mind. In an appropriately skeptical book, The Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan came close to my position, saying that, "our notions, both hereditary and learned, of how Nature works were forged in the millions of years our ancestors were hunters and gatherers. I think the roots of logic are perhaps deeper than our sentient ancestors." I move from "perhaps" to "must have been".

In the first of these two sentences we see the conventional punctuation rule for concluding a sentence containing a quoted phrase. This rule states that you should precede the closing quotation mark with the full stop. …    “must have been”.    rather than  “must have been.”

In the second sentence, and probably inadvertently, Jef placed the full stop after the closing quotation mark.

I prefer he second usage, and reckon that the rule should be changed to be like this. It makes more sense to me, and is more “balanced” in the way that mathematical expressions and computer programming statements would require.

Let’s start a movement to get this punctuation rule changed. I hope you agree with me that it’s a “better way”.  Or am I just being an unpleasant, unrepentant pedant?

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