Here’s two things I have never been very good at: academic referencing and punctuation. It might seem odd that a teacher at a superb university is going public on this, but the time seems right to have a discussion about these things because both skills are under pressure in the current knowledge revolution.
I have my own theory as to why I am not great at these things. Basically it is because they fall somewhere grey and kind-of-but-not-exactly fuzzy, between an exact science and a free art. I’m pretty good at exact sciences and at logic and maths – I can be like a dog with a bone in search of absolute clarity, rigour and consistency. And I’m pretty good at the other end of the spectrum in the creative stuff of music or some kinds of essay writing, and even in some of the more speculative science. In these areas you are pretty much completely free: so long as what you do is good and the results bring some surprise, some unexpected value, then it doesn’t matter what rules you follow.
But both referencing and punctuation send out mixed messages. On the one hand, certainly, rules are involved and if you get those rules wrong some people will tut and think less of you. On the other hand, the rules are not particularly consistent across the whole of both fields – there is some feeling of arbitrariness. There is also an element of art involved but not really enough art to allow one to be completely free in either area.
In referencing there are of course many different systems, and, I suppose, each system is pretty much susceptible to being algorithmatized so it must have its own consistent logic; but across systems the rules are subtly different and it is a dreadful pain to try to remember which is which, to italicize the right bit of names or journal, get the colons and the semi-colons right etc. It is not the sort of logic born of pure thought or an understanding of logical relations. But you cannot (or at least you could not hitherto) just busk it, either. You can’t just refer to things in the way that you would like, trying to ensure that someone will be able to find the source of your text, image etc. That would really look ‘unprofessional’ and ‘unacademic’.
In punctuation, too, there are certainly rules! But those rules change or are not universally agreed upon. How many kids are told never to start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’? But this is nonsense. And should we put a capital letter after a colon on some occasions…or not? Punctuation seems to me to be more of an art than referencing and thus I am slightly ashamed that I have not mastered that art; but in playing with commas, semi-colons, colons, dashes, capital letters for some nouns but not others etc I find myself often caught in a crippling internal dialogue: ‘is there a rule for this or should I just do what feels right?’ It would be so much easier if it were a free-for-all, or one could refer to the definitive manual (yes, I know there are respected versions of such things but how could one really work like that?)
But now maybe we are entering a time when these worries may no longer be worries. For, really, the point of referencing is to enable the reader/viewer/listener to find your source. And increasingly that source can be found by clicking on a link. Now, I like this! No more faffing around with different fonts, bits of punctuation, publishers and dates. Just give the link and your sources have their references.
And as for punctuation, well the explosion in writing is leading to completely new ground: hashtags, ampersands, @ symbols, WordsStrungTogether, neologisms, all sorts. We are returning to the chaos and rich, fertile ground of Elizabethan English – vocabulary, punctuation and all. So is it time to forget about any rule book? Is it time to put the punctuating symbols in simply where you feel they do the job best? Of course I get as cross and as ground down as the next teacher by the endless stream of apostrophes in the wrong place, weird uses of commas etc, but is there some happier place we can reach where we can get clarity while still getting fluidity and allowing artistic license? I sometimes think the dreadful abuse of apostrophes would calm down if people didn’t worry about the rules so much. For every scrawled message: ‘extra helpings’ free’ or ‘this house is our’s’ I can hear one of those internal dialogues: ‘Now what is the rule here?’, before the final fateful inscription casts the apostrophe adrift.
In any event, I think there is a case now for looking at more flexible punctuation. Of course there is always the issue of appropriate register and style – and that is something our friends in EAP are constantly working on and looking at afresh. But I find it refreshing that we may be moving away from a time where students can be cramped by failing to master the more arbitrary rules. It is a refreshing thought that both referencing and punctuation may once more become more of an art, that practise and individuality will start to play a part in mastery of these skills.
Cue any serious worries from those concerned about a breakdown in standards – or from those with aesthetic concerns?
Photo attributed to Iain Farrell under a CC license