A Word, Please: Why punctuation, grammar are important

Some people worry that high-tech communications are bringing down language standards.

In a Twitter-centric world where people write “some1” in place of “someone,” these fears seem valid. But linguists beg to differ. Language, their work has demonstrated again and again, polices itself according a simple law: the need to be understood.

But another way of looking at these issues hit me recently while I was reading a real estate-related website: In an age when everyone’s a “published writer,” spelling, punctuation and grammar may be more important than ever.

Consider these sentences from the website: “It's no secret the foreclosure market is at an all time high.” “The foreclosure process contains 3 stages.” “Bank owned properties commonly called REO or real estate owned is one of the most common foreclosure investment practices today.”

This website was trying hard to impress readers with its expertise and professionalism. And overall, the site wasn’t badly written. It was well-organized, with some solid information. Yet these passages, like others on the site, contained subtle clues that the company wasn’t as polished as they’d have readers believe.

Take, for example, the sentence reporting that the market “is at an all time high.” Most people don’t pay much attention to hyphenation rules, but I bet that many would sense something a little off here.

If you read enough, you develop a sort of sixth sense that tells you that most pros would have put a hyphen in “all-time.” That’s because punctuation rules say to use a hyphen to join two words that together modify a third word any time it can aid comprehension and readability.

That’s a tiny matter, of course. But little things add up.

Here’s another: “The foreclosure process contains 3 stages.” This sentence is technically fine. But it deviates from professionally edited copy in one way: the numeral 3.

Professional publishing follows certain guidelines for writing numbers. The guidelines are somewhat arbitrary, and different rules apply to book publishing and for news media. Still, almost no professionally edited copy uses numerals for numbers less than 10, unless it’s for an age or a measurement.

In news style, it’s most common to write out numbers one through nine and use numerals thereafter until you get to some real biggies, like 2.5 million, in which it’s customary to use numerals for the first part and the word “million” or “billion” for the second.

Book and magazine publishing tend to write out all numbers except for the really awkward ones. So in a book you’d write three thousand but use numerals for 3,812.

I notice these things because it’s my job to do so. And I could be wrong in my suspicion that well-read people would sense something amiss here. But our last sample sentence goes beyond minor style issues.

“Bank owned properties commonly called REO or real estate owned is one of the most common foreclosure investment practices today” contains an outright grammar mistake, one you almost never see in professional writing.

The subject of the sentence is long a noun phrase that starts with “bank” and ends with “owned.” But the head noun — the real subject — is “properties” and it’s paired with the verb “is.” This is a classic example of a subject-verb agreement problem.

Singular subjects take singular verbs: “The cat is sleeping.” Plural subjects take plural verbs. “The cats are sleeping.” So the heart of our sentence, “properties is,” constitutes a bona fide error. Add that to the other little infelicities in this sentence — the missing hyphen in “bank owned” and the poor choice to not use commas to set off the “commonly called” phrase — and you have a company I’m not likely to give my money to.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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