I generally consider myself a capable writer, at least in the technical sense. In particular, I think I have a pretty good understanding of how to punctuate properly in written English.

But there are some areas where the language’s “standards” are in continual dispute, some areas where I think the standards are just plain logically wrong, and some where a few minor technical modifications to the rules might be helpful.

In fact, those of us who work in the computer industry might be able to exert some subtle positive influence on English grammar to make it clearer and more logical. You see, I suspect that many people who program computers have a unique grasp of grammatical logic. Not just HTML/CSS developers who are intimately familiar with structuring text in semantically-logical ways, but computer programmers of all types who work with logical structures whose meaning must be airtight.

[Note that I’m not saying that we need to “clean up” English a la some kind of Orwellian newspeak. I’m just offering some minor shifts of thinking to reflect our current technological competencies.]

Computer versus Human Grammar

Programming languages have grammar, but unlike English and other “normal” human languages the grammar of a computer programming language is unforgiving of logical inconsistency. Where English idioms and traditions — and human common sense — generally permit us to interpret ambiguous English grammar correctly, the rules of programming languages are strict, and will crash and burn at the slightest logical flaw.

The use of punctuation with respect to quotations is a great example of the difference between the world of human grammar and computer logic. Take a look at this properly-punctuated English sentence:

Jill laughed when Jack mumbled, “Hello, it is great to meet you!”

Let’s focus on the exclamation point. Who “said” the exclamation point? Was Jack’s greeting so enthusiastic that it deserved an exclamation point? Or was the fact that Jill laughed so suprising that it was worthy of some added grammatical punch?

Well, from the meaning of the words, it seems preposterous to imagine that someone could mumble anything with an exclaimation point. So one would assume that the exclaimation is Jill’s.

To a computer programmer, I think, the answer would be the opposite: The exclamation belongs to Jack because it is contained within the quotes that explicitly delineate the beginning and end of Jack’s quotation. A programmer writing software trying to communicate this concept might think of it this way:

00 jacksquote = “Hello, it is great to meet you.”;
01 punctuation = “!”;
02 sentence = “Jill laughed when Jack mumbled, ” + “/”” + jacksquote + “/”” + punctuation

Which would produce this:

Jill laughed when Jack mumbled, “Hello it is great to meet you.”!

I’ll admit, it’s not pretty but it makes a little more sense.

How could this be made clearer? I think it’s a bit of a compromise. First, we should scrap the English rule that says that the punctuation for a sentence ending with a quotation always goes within the quotation. Instead, the punctuation of the quoted phrase should go within the quotes. And in order to prevent aesthetic travesties like the final example above, we can simply make an exception for periods where the period be safely omitted (and thus implied).

So the two possible meanings will each have a distinct punctuation method:

Jill laughed when Jack mumbled, “Hello it is great to meet you!” (Jack’s enthusiasm)

Jill laughed when Jack mumbled, “Hello it is great to meet you”! (Jill’s enthusiam)

These examples are both semantically clear and aesthetically uncluttered, but only one of them (the first) is technically correct according to the current rules of English grammar. I think they both should be acceptable.

You may ask “But what if both of them are enthusiastic and both deserve exclamation points?” I’m stumped there. I guess I would go with the first example because at least it is ambiguous in a more traditional way.

Also: I detest the comma inserted before each opening quotation mark. I used it in the above examples in order to keep them focused, but in general I leave it out everywhere — it has no semantic function whatsoever.

Unordered Lists and New York Times Style

When we list things in sentences, we separate them with commas. Where those commas go makes a big difference in a sentence’s meaning, and yet the “rules” on how to delineate lists are still in dispute. This is a particular peeve of mine, but I think the “correct” answer should make the most sense to computer-savvy people.

A recent example is the title of the popular book “Eats Shoots and Leaves“. The title is inspired by a description of the natural habits of the panda, as in “The panda eats shoots and leaves”. The placement of commas in this short sentence makes a world of difference between one meaning and another:

“The panda eats shoots and leaves” means that (bamboo) shoots and leaves comprise the panda’s diet. But “The panda eats, shoots, and leaves” means that the panda eats lunch, shoots a gun, and then departs. Commas are criticlly important in communicating meaning!

And yet there is a great schism in the English language between two ideas of how to use commas when making a list of items in a sentence. One school of thought says that one should spearate all list items with commas, including after the second-to-last item and before the final “and” in the list. The other says that the comma should be omitted before the final “and” in the list, the logic being that the “and” behaves like a comma anyway. This latter school of thought is often called “New York Times Style“, as it is the house style of the Gray Lady and is emulated by editorial offices and individual writers everywhere. The first style, however, is called for by the enormously influential Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style and by the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS), which are the closest things American writers have to standarized writing rulebooks. Thus, calling this disagreement a “schism” is, I think, pretty accurate.

Wikipedia has a great summary of this schism, too, in which they use the following sentence as a model of Times style ambiguity:

“The author would like to thank her parents, Sinéad O’Connor and President Bush.”

I’l try to come up with my own example, however. Look at this sentence:

Table seven ordered rum, 7-up, Jack Daniels, gin and tonic, and scotch and club soda.

It’s pretty clear that a “gin and tonic” was ordered, but did table 7 order a “scotch and club soda” or did they order (1) a scotch and (2) a club soda? According to New York Times style, the scotch and the club soda will arrive separately. But to a CMOS writer, a single mixed drink will arrive.

(Note also that I beleive that writers should be permitted to put “and”s wherever they please in a list, not just before the last pair of items in a list, since they can be useful for dramatic effects.)

A computer programmer would clearly favor the CMOS/Strunk & White style, as it most closely resembles traditional “delimeters”. The final delimeter in CMOS/Strunk & White style is not just the comma, but the and as well. Advocates of Times style would say that the final “and” is the final delimiter. But in Times style, the “and” cannot be considered a reliable final delimiter because it is too likely that one of the final items in the list may, in fact, be multiple items like a gin and tonic or a bow and arrow. The Times style permits ambiguity, the CMOS/Strunk & White style does not. Why use the Times style then?

I suspect that the use of the New York Times style is influenced by two factors. The first is purely aesthetic: that that final comma is unsightly. I can certainly appreciate that, but to me gross illogic is even more unsightly so ultimately I don’t buy it. The other factor is, I think, an response to the very old stylistic admonition against using too many commas. It’s true that commas are used as crutches by many writers. They are used to indicate informal pauses in speech where either a period or nothing at all would be more appropriate. Again, I don’t buy this argument — it’s an overreaction to the point of being incorrect. (Check this out for more great examples of where English “rules” have been taken to incorrect extremes by over-zealous grammaticians)

So because I think like a programmer, I choose to use the CMOS/Strunk & White style. The English language has, over the centuries, gotten more and more clear through what can only be called “technological” innovations in the language. For centuries there were no quotation marks at all, and one would need to simply infer from the context which words beloned to whom. The Times style for list delineation is, to me, an obsolete legacy technology like COBOL or the font tag. Time to upgrade!


8 responses to “Where Writers Can Learn from Programmers”

  1. Nice article, Chris. I want to point out, though, that the Jack and Jill example would benefit more from being completely rewritten than punctuating as you suggest. It’s a confusing sentence no matter how you punctuate it. Maybe it could be something like this (and mind you, this is just a quick stab at it):

    When Jack mumbled, “Hello, it is nice to meet you,” Jill actually laughed!

  2. Rob, you are quite right. I see this, however, as evidence of the weakness of my example sentence. I still think that we need a wee bit more flexibility and logic in the rules, however.

    In a bigger sense, however, writers have to bend over backwards all the time to accommodate grammar and spelling idiosyncracies. How many times have you avoided beginning a sentence with a brand name that begins with a lower case letter just to avoid having to decide between writing “Itunes is…” versus “iTunes is…”? Rethinking one’s composition is an everyday part of writing within the constraints of a language, and I think these constraints are part of what makes languages interesting and beautiful.

  3. I agree that the challenge of working within the constraints of the language helps make beautiful writing. Regarding your specific example, though, I have to side with Robert Bringhurst’s caution against reverence for logograms:

    An increasing number of persons and institutions, from e.e. cummings to WordPerfect, now come to the typographer in search of special treatment […] But type is visible speech, in which gods and men, saints and sinners, poets and business executives are treated fundamentally alike. And the typographer, by virtue of his trade, honors the stewardship of texts and implicitly opposes the private ownership of words.

  4. strudel Avatar

    hmmm. not sure i agree with the above quote. i believe that if a person, their artwork or their nom de plume (i’m not speaking for advertisers because i think their reasons are probably more transparent) chooses to use unconventional grammar (i.e. no capital letters, as i’m doing), then there is an aesthetic reason which should be honoured by typographers. i am a firm believer in the architecture of language and the way that words are used spatially (both on the page and poetically).

  5. Jan Kordylewski Avatar
    Jan Kordylewski

    I love this post. I have often been frustrated by the illogicity of the terminal punctuation within a quote. I am glad to hear that someone else finds this irksome, though I never attributed this to having a programmers mind, which I do. Unfortunately I also have an artists mind and so I approach people’s personal writing style in the same way I approach art. If they are conscious of what they are doing, i.e. consciously avoiding capital letters, or making a conscious decision to make the end punctuation more logical, then the author should be free to do so. I feel it is ok to break the rules as long as you know what they are and have a good reason for doing so. I feel it is important to challenge traditions, but I also feel it is important to respect tradition. I for one like to make up words and often choose punctuation based on visual balance instead of any sort of grammatical rules. In fact the grammatical rules often irk me because they cause visual and, as you pointed out, logical imbalances.

  6. strudel/Rob: I also think that a typographer should be responsive to the writer’s needs. If a writer is conscious of typography, more power to ’em. I would venture to guess that writers who care about layout probably are better writers, in that they are concerned with more than just one aspect of communication.

    Jan: Sometimes I think that aesthetic decisions are manifestations of a deeper logical thinking going on behind the scenes. When

    Another way that I write like a programmer is that I like to use nested parentheses. Strunk & White would probably have a heart attack (actually, a pair of heart attacks), but computer professionals appreciate it.

  7. In my experience, the hyphen is taking over from the comma as the grammatical crutch of choice. It’s overzealous! 🙂

  8. Adam: Do you mean the em dash ( — ), perhaps? I use it a lot instead of parentheses or the colon, not so much in place of the comma.