Punctuate This

I just finished reading Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss. These two quotes might well sum up the thought and feeling of the book:

 “Proper punctuation is both the sign and the cause of clear thinking.”                                     

“The big final rule for the comma is one that you won’t find in any books by grammarians. It is quite easy to remember, however. The rule is: don’t use commas like a stupid person. I mean it.”

Its a fun read—that is if you appreciate writing, punctuation, and punctuation humor. Since I do, and there may be more of you out there, I thought I would offer a brief look at our process in writing exhibit labels. Writing labels is a team effort, and while it usually sparks a few punctuation squabbles from time to time, it is mostly the art of squeezing the most important and interesting information into the fewest words possible. Below is a draft of the introduction to our current exhibit, “Through a Different Lens: Three Connecticut Women Photographers.”

CHS_script1The excerpt above comes from draft 2 of the “exhibit script,” which contains all of the interpretive text and object identification text found in the exhibit. Depending on the exhibit topic, one or more (usually more) staff members will research and write the script, and then we’ll use MS Word’s Track Changes to edit, comment on, and politely butcher each other’s writing until something relatively short and comprehensible emerges from the rubble. The text above started out at 179 words, including the “blah, blah?” someone helpfully inserted. I’ll spare you drafts 3 through 7 and jump to the final version:

CHS_script2We managed to pare this down to 114 words. Since there is a terrifying theory out there that no one reads museum labels, one hundred words would have been even better, but sometimes you gotta call it a day. Just for fun, let’s use my red mark-ups to talk about punctuation, grammar, and what kind of intense thinking went behind the label you are pretending to read when you visit this exhibit.

  1. You can’t start a sentence with a conjunction! Hell yes you can, if it sounds awesome.
  2. This is one of my favorite punctuation issues: Oxford comma or no Oxford comma? To quote Lynne Truss:  “There are people who embrace the Oxford comma and those who don’t, and I’ll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken.” I’m a big fan of the Oxford, and since I’m writing this post, I will claim that there is unanimous agreement with me at the CHS.
  3. Here’s a nice gray area. Should it say “are records” rather than “are each a record?” Both would be correct, but look at how describing the photographs as individual records sets up the contrasting and more powerful statement about how they work “Together” to reveal historical truths. See, see?
  4. We could have written “the late 19th and 20th centuries” instead. Personally, I prefer the 1800s and 1900s. Even now, well out of elementary school, I still think, “OK, 19th century, that’s actually the 1800s, not the 1900s, right? Don’t embarrass yourself.” Thank goodness here at the Connecticut Historical Society we don’t have to deal with that B.C.E. crap. Subtract a century AND count backwards? Come on.

And here is the final panel, installed in all its glory. If there is a typo, I don’t want to know about it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA *Bonus points for you if you caught my improper use of the possessive “its” in the fourth paragraph of this post. Gotcha!  But seriously, I apologize for putting you through that agony. Believe me: it hurt me more than it hurt you. And holster your fingers; I know you were dying to type a nasty comment about it. Rest assured. You’ll appreciate this last quote from Lynne Truss’s book:

“The rule is: the word ‘it’s’ (with apostrophe) stands for ‘it is’ or ‘it has’. If the word does not stand for ‘it is’ or ‘it has’ then what you require is ‘its’. This is extremely easy to grasp. Getting your itses mixed up is the greatest solecism in the world of punctuation. No matter that you have a PhD and have read all of Henry James twice. If you still persist in writing, ‘Good food at it’s best’, you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.”

Ben Gammell is the Coordinator of Interpretive Projects at the Connecticut Historical Society

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