As a student of Latin, a former English teacher, and a lifelong language enthusiast in general, I’ve always cared a lot about two topics I find compelling and important: grammar and punctuation. As a young learner, I delighted in books by Richard Lederer, grand master of wordplay, and diagramming sentences brought me great satisfaction in seventh grade. I offered a grammar elective at the school where I used to teach (we had so much fun!), and I’ve made a collection of drawings using only punctuation and diacritical marks. (What amazing names these graphological characters possess! I’ve always wanted to write a story featuring characters named Umlaut, Cedilla, Tilde, Circumflex, Macron…the list can obviously continue.) One year, I dressed up as a compound sentence for Halloween by wearing a banner with the words “independent clause” on each arm and a sign saying “coordinating conjunction” around my neck, instrumentally decorated with a big fat comma in black Sharpie. Some mornings I wake up and scroll through posts and comments in my Facebook grammar group, which is frequently fun, sometimes distressing, but always elucidating. Let me tell you, these people have OPINIONS.
Recently there was yet another debate about the Oxford comma, and some of those arguing in favor cited humorous examples of what happens when it isn’t used, such as “Among those interviewed were Merle Haggard’s two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall” and “This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God” (that one had me rolling). I agree that punctuation matters because using it, and using it correctly, favors specificity within language, which then favors clear communication, and who doesn’t love that? Conversely, punctuation can also be used intentionally with the purpose of ambiguation, often with fascinating outcomes.
However, there is something to be said for what can happen when mistakes are made. For example, how many accidents in the kitchen have produced something new and entirely wonderful? This is supposedly how we ended up with things like potato chips and Worcestershire sauce and ice cream cones, after all, and our world is decidedly a better place for those inventions. Similarly, when punctuation is overlooked or omitted, new turns of phrase can be born that deserve to exist if only for their novelty, similar to how autocorrect has provided so many inside jokes for so many people in the age of text messaging. One of my favorite examples of punctuation falling through the cracks was told to me by my platinum friend, Becca, one day when I arrived at her house. We had both baked that day, unbeknownst to the other, and greeted each other with gifts from our ovens. Hers for me was a packet of foil containing a most sublime confection: Hallelujah Cookies. This is their name now, given to them by Becca, who found the recipe below in a magazine and didn’t notice the colon in the first line.
Rules: we need them. They keep us safe and help us make sense of the world around us. They facilitate our ability to interact constructively with each other and exchange ideas in productive ways. They give us a language of regularity and structure. They often account for predictability, stability, and cooperation. But also! Rules: when we break them, sometimes, just look what beauty is engendered there! Bear witness; therein can exist a kind of revelation. Hallelujah.
P.S. Becca’s kids recommend adding chocolate chips to these. I have to say, as kids brought up on the kind of incredible food their parents produce, they know what’s good.