Punctuation lets not let it stop us

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Read an Ian Parker profile in The New Yorker, on the “public intellectual” Christopher Hitchens, a Brit who lived in the US for many years and died in 2011 of cancer. (He was addicted to both booze and cigarettes, at one time a three-pack-a-day man.)

Hitchens is known for a couple of things primarily: 1) his shift from socialist to right-wing hawk (he became an advocate for Bush II’s Iraq war) and 2) the blazing speed with which he wrote his columns.

As for his celerity, Parker puts it this way:

He writes a single draft, at a speed that caused his New Statesman colleagues to place bets on how long it would take him to finish an editorial. What emerges is ready for publication, except for one weakness: he’s not an expert punctuator, which reinforces the notion that he is in the business of transcribing a lecture he can hear himself giving.

We can all envy the man’s speed, and sureness — even his obliviousness to punctuation.

It occurs to me — I taught English writing and grammar for many years and became a pretty expert “punctuator” — that there might be bliss in this kind of forgetting. Rather than worrying the bone of punctuation, and punctilio, Hitchens blazed through his essays and reviews with the sureness of conviction and the rightness of genius. Why let the niceties of punctuation, for gods’ sake, slow us down? Why interrupt the phosphorescent flash of thinking and so risk missing a deadline?

Roman copy of a Greek sculpture of Hermes. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen.
Roman copy of a Greek sculpture of Hermes, in the Vatican museum. Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen.

Hermes must have been Hitchens’ patron, the god of speed, desire, and, yes, trickiness. Like lightning, Hermes flew between the gods and men, carrying messages. Like a fox, he tricked whoever would be tricked. And isn’t it some kind of trick to spurn the civilized niceties of punctuation — and all that it implies about structure and behavior — to let our thoughts fly, like arrows from a bow, or notes from a lyre (Hermes invented the instrument)?

To let our thoughts, like a brand, press, hissing, on the cattle of mere pecuniary considerations, as Hermes branded the cattle he stole from his brother Apollo, the rationalist, the calculator.

Hermes was here! the singed brand says, hissing still. He beat you to it, slave of reason, beast of proper form!

For any of us suffering from writer’s block, or insufferable slowness, I can recommend, on the example of Christopher Hitchens, R.I.P., a certain ignorance or disdain of punctuation. Damn, it slows the quick thinker! (Isn’t there always time later, sober and repentant, to crawl back and proofread our blazing sheets?)

 

2 thoughts on “Punctuation lets not let it stop us

    1. Thanks, Jon. Yes, you would be the perfect target for this kind of arrow, having proofread or copy-read so many years. What kind of blowback would you get from reporters? Were they, at times, impatient, or indifferent, or even contemptuous of the finer points of punctuation?

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