Lessons learned from unresolved punctuation Print
Youth Column
Written by Erick Rommel, Catholic News Service   
Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013 -- 12:00 AM

There are people out there known as the grammar police. Their skin crawls every time they see a misused semicolon or a dangling participle. They hate participles that dangle.

While I think minor errors should be overlooked, the grammar police occasionally have a point. There is a world of difference between "Let's eat, Grandma," and "Let's eat Grandma." The first statement guarantees you grandma's delicious comfort food. The second makes her the main course.

Because I have high standards, I always try to express myself clearly when I write. That's why I was shocked to realize I had unresolved punctuation issues in my life. It revolves around my motto.

 

It's a phrase I created at some point, I don't remember when. It sets the standard that I always try to follow. What's the phrase? "Do the impossible perfectly." Or, is it, "Do the impossible. Perfectly."

 

When spoken, the question of one statement or two is irrelevant. Both sound the same. Written, however, that small dot of punctuation makes a world of difference.

If it's one statement, the phrase is an ideal. It's a goal to do the best you can, whenever you can. As two statements, my motto is command-like. It's not enough to do the impossible. It must be done perfectly as well. If that's what I mean, then I truly am one tough taskmaster.

In the end, I decided I was approaching the question the wrong way. My concern wasn't about grammar, or which choice was grammatically correct. I wasn't questioning the words but rather whether I was living the spirit behind them.

Words matter. But sometimes what is said is more important than how it's said.

Many years ago, a member of the British government complained about Winston Churchill ending sentences with prepositions. Churchill responded with a statement that not only put the questioner in his place, but also proved Churchill's style to be an acceptable alternative to grammatical correctness. "This is the kind of tedious nonsense up with which I will not put," he replied, uttering an often-quoted grammatically correct phrase that sounds awkward but illustrates the point.

In the English language, there are more than a dozen types of punctuation. Some we use daily, others are relegated to help us craft cute smiley faces in emails and on Facebook.

I consider the proper use of each of those items in the same way that I consider my motto: It's more important to use the intended spirit of the punctuation than it is to use the punctuation itself. That's a bit of a paradox because to understand the intended spirit, you must first understand how to use each punctuation mark properly.

That paradox is probably one of the few constants I know. It applies to musicians and teachers and astronauts as well. To be the type of person who sets his own path, you must first be able to find the trail.

You can't play a piano like Liberace until you understand the musical scales necessary to turn notes into songs. You can't inspire generations with your lessons until you deeply understand the facts that you're teaching. And, you can't soar among the stars until you've mastered the never-changing rules of science.

Sadly, perfection will always be out of our grasp. We are not perfect people. To try to be perfect is impossible. To try, despite that, is what makes some people great.

 


Erick Rommel is head staff writer for The Catholic Spirit in the Diocese of Metuchen, N.J. His column is syndicated through Catholic News Service.

 

 
 

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