Most of Don Marquis’ Archy pieces were written in lowercase. The literate cockroach, we learned, would stand on the typewriter and dive, head first, onto the keys. But this way, he couldn’t use the shift key to get capital letters or punctuation (he did get capital letters, once, when Marquis left the shift-lock on the machine one night; Archy wrote about it in a 1933 piece called ‘CAPITALS AT LAST‘).
But I’ve always felt one of the best pieces to come from the mind of Marquis was Archy’s commentary on criticisms about his grammar and punctuation from readers, in a 1933 piece titled, “archy protests’ which I have copied from the Donmarquis.com site, but which I came across again this weekend while reading The Best of Archy and Mehitabel (and while enjoying a glass of my homemade wine in the warm spring evening):
say comma boss comma capital
i apostrophe m getting tired of
being joshed about my
punctuation period capital t followed by
he idea seems to be
that capital i apostrophe m
ignorant where punctuation
is concerned period capital n followed by
o such thing semi
colon the fact is that
the mechanical exigencies of
the case prevent my use of
all the characters on the
typewriter keyboard period
capital i apostrophe m
doing the best capital
i can under difficulties semi colon
and capital i apostrophe m
grieved at the unkindness
of the criticism period please
consider that my name
is signed in small
What goes through your mind when you see words in a paragraph or a sentence surrounded by quotation marks? Like that sign in the image on your left? That they are words excerpted from conversations or written content? Or that they are special; peculiar words, or perhaps used ironically, sarcastically or in jest?
It makes you wonder, doesn’t it? What is in the pie that isn’t “chicken” but we’ll pretend it is? Try reading them aloud and putting air quotes around those words. Ah, now you get it. “Slowly” means open the door really quickly, right?
Words in quotation marks tell the reader not to take them seriously or literally. They’re telling you that what’s between the quotation marks isn’t what’s in the pie. That you really need to pull the button not push it as was sarcastically suggested. They usually mean the opposite of the word within the quote marks.
As Distractify notes, quotation marks around words make people suspicious. That sign that says Professional “Massage” makes people go nudge-nudge, wink-wink. One that just reads Professional Massage doesn’t raise an eyebrow. I’ll eat fresh sushi, but stay far away when it’s advertised as “fresh” sushi.
So what about the sign that offers “Beer” for sale? Is that “beer” just coloured water? Pop? Or a vodka cooler? And you have to ask how used that “new” underwear really is before you buy it. Those quote marks just beg you to ask questions.
Mis-using quotation marks for emphasis is a fairly common form of grammatical abuse. The irony deepens when abusers don’t realize others treat the words in quotation marks as sarcastic or ironic. But the readers will see it thus and treat the content rather differently than intended. As in meaning something opposite to what is implied by the words themselves. Like that professional “massage” – nudge, nudge…
Buzzfeed offers more examples of quotation mark abuse. You may laugh at most – except the one selling guns as tools of “freedom” which is a bit scary, given the crazy gun culture in the USA. And that “sushi” – you have to ask yourself what it really is. Would you eat it?
Similarly, the Huffpost gives this example of abused quotation marks. “Quality” installations suggests the opposite and hard-boiled “eggs” – Nudge-nudge, wink-wink – are really potatoes….
And as you might expect, there’s even a Facebook page where you can list your latest examples of “unnecessary” quotation marks. Like this one…
These are not the confidential files you are looking for…. nyuck, nycuk, nyuck…
There’s a chip wagon in town that offers “fresh cut fries.” When I see that sign, I always wonder what “cut fries” are, and how they compare with uncut fries. Does this chipster offer stale cut fries as well as fresh ones?
The former library is becoming an old building. The sign in front tells us a “senior facility” is coming soon. Sad to see a relatively new building forced to age.
A sign in a local department store advises me “video’s” are on sale. A grocery store offers “mango’s” and “avocado’s”. These common ‘apostrophe catastrophes‘ can be seen daily on signs and in official documents pretty much everywhere English is misspoken.
I was warned to “drive safe” when I left a store on a blustery winter’s day. I responded that the safe didn’t have an engine, so I could not possible drive it. When told to “dress warm” I asked “dress a warm what?”
A local restaurant calls itself the Olde’ Towne Terrace. Aside from the inappropriate apostrophe dangling at the end of the word, olde was a correct spelling in earlier forms of English, but not today. As this sites notes, it’s just an affectation today: “Other ways of pretending to be ancient are the addition of unnecessary ‘e’ at the end of words, ‘olde’, ‘shoppe’, again a holdover from Middle English where the ‘e’ was pronounced… fake English spelling affects all parts of the English-speaking world.”
I suppose I’m urinating against the wind here. There are hundreds of sites and blogs dedicated to documenting and correcting the tsunami of improper spelling, punctuation and grammar all around us. My protest is a mere ripple in comparison. Some writers offer constructive correction (like Melissa Donovan in Writing Forward), but people don’t check before they make signs. It strikes me the job of creating those messages is always assigned to the least literate employee.
Canada’s favourite coffee shop annoys me daily with its incorrect punctuation: Tim Hortons (sic). According to Wikipedia, this error was actually a conscious decision: “The chain’s first store opened in 1964 in Hamilton, Ontario, under the name “Tim Horton Donuts”; the name was later abbreviated to “Tim Horton’s” and then changed to “Tim Hortons” without the possessive apostrophe. The business was founded by Tim Horton, who played in the National Hockey League from 1949 until his death in a car accident in 1974.”
Why, you ask, would any company deliberately dumb-down its signs and open itself to ridicule? To appease the anglophobes in Quebec: “Some older locations retain signage with the company’s name including a possessive apostrophe, despite the fact that the official styling of the company’s name has been Tim Hortons, without an apostrophe, for at least a decade. The company had removed the apostrophe after signs using the apostrophe were considered to be breaking the language sign laws of the Province of Quebec in 1993. The removal of the apostrophe allowed the company to have one common sign image across Canada.” I can only feel for the franchise owners who stubbornly refuse to give in to corporate silliness. The company will offend millions of English language speakers by making an egregious error in punctuation, but not anyone in Quebec. Nice message to send the rest of us, eh? Seems the missing apostrophe has even spawned boycotts of the place and petitions to have it restored.
Fortunately, Collingwood Council has not gone the way of Birmingham, England, and declared apostrophes outdated on its signs. I treat this declaration with the same reverence I treat my dog barking at a squirrel that eludes it: pointless and annoying. Birmingham has become the “city where apostrophes arent welcome” and ridiculed for the decision in the media.
If you don’t think punctuation matters, read this story about a comma that cost Rogers $2.13 million!
Does all this matter any more? Is the number of people who care about language usage, about punctuation, grammar and spelling dwindling, fighting a losing battle against tweets and text messages? I fervently hope not. Even some Chinese cities have undertaken campaigns to correct English on their signs. If they care that much about English, surely we, its native speakers, should do so, too.