Bad Signage and Other Linguistic Lapses

The New York Times has always irritated me with its insistence on using what are called “courtesy titles” (such as Dr., Mr., Ms., or Mrs.) to the point of producing fussy schoolmarm English. Here’s a ridiculous recent instance:

There’s no need to speculate about whether Mr. DeSantis is the “next” Reagan or Obama. Not even Mr. Obama and Mr. Reagan were clearly Obama or Reagan at this stage. And Mr. Reagan and Mr. Obama differ from Mr. DeSantis in the very same way that he’s purportedly similar to Mr. Walker, as both Mr. Obama and Mr. Reagan rose to prominence by commanding the national stage in famous speeches during their party’s campaigns in 1964 and 2004.

For years The Times has had its own Manual of Style and Usage, which also states that “since about 2015, courtesy titles have not been used in sports pages, pop culture, and fine arts.” This is snobbish usage, is it not? Politicians get status, and sports or arts figures do not? Think about that for a minute.

Punctuation and style can convey not only an editorial attitude but inadvertent humor. The internet offers lots of examples.

With the advent of online communication and its predominance, casual writers often get sloppy with their punctuation. There’s a lot of advice on the net about how to punctuate properly. But this is something that most people learn by reading and observing how good writers write. It’s (not “Its”) how we learn basic language skills.

The other day, a friend wrote me this in an email: “The new takeout place on Porfirio sounds convenient and inviting, too. Would Strunk & White say I still need that comma?” Good question, so I responded this way:

Re the comma before “too”: Strunk and White (I looked it up) has nothing on this but my personal choice would be never to use a comma there though I’ve read that this is preferred, at least in more formal English. So I Googled the problem and found this:

“When should I put a comma before too? When using the word too, you only need to use a comma before it for emphasis. According to The Chicago Manual of Style, a comma before too should be used only to note an abrupt shift in thought.”

The Manual of Style is my bible in such matters of editorial style, and so be it. Commas and their usage have always been feisty things.

And yet, you’ve got to be totally unconscious to write something like “Let’s eat Grandma!” or “Students get first hand job experience.” The written word reflects our informal speech, now more than ever. Punctuation now guides meaning, more than ever.