Comma Crusader Brings Good Grammar to Traffic Court and Wins

ISTOCK
ISTOCK

Grammar nerds are a committed league who often fight the good fight in the hope of seeing their victories spelled out on the page. But every once in a while, the consequences of proper punctuation leap from 2-D print into 3-D courtroom drama. (Insert Law & Order sound effects.)

In 2014, Andrea Cammelleri was ticketed for a pretty run-of-the-mill offense: leaving her pickup truck parked on a street for too long. Specifically, the village ordinance in West Jefferson, Ohio said it was against the law to park “any motor vehicle camper, trailer, farm implement and/or non-motorized vehicle” longer than 24 hours.

That language is pretty cut and dry, but upon closer reading, you might notice something fishy. Cammelleri did. At her trial, the defendant argued “the ordinance did not apply because the language prohibits a motor vehicle camper from being parked on the street for an extended period of time.”

Cammelleri doesn’t have a “motor vehicle camper” because, well, what the heck is a motor vehicle camper? The ordinance should have read “motor vehicle, camper…”

The court argued that anyone reading the ordinance would know that it was a typo and simply missing a comma. Cammelleri was convicted, but she wasn’t done with her punctuation crusade. She filed an appeal.

This time, the scales of justice went the way the grammar gods would want. In his ruling, 12th District Court of Appeals Judge Robert A. Hendrickson wrote, “By utilizing rules of grammar and employing the common meaning of terms, 'motor vehicle camper' has a clear definition that does not produce an absurd result. If the village desires a different reading, it should amend the ordinance and insert a comma between the phrase ‘motor vehicle’ and the word ‘camper.’”

Whether it was a clever trick to get out of a pesky parking citation, or an earnest quest to right this world’s comma crimes, Cammelleri illustrated why proper punctuation shouldn’t be just a matter of style—it should be the law of the land.

Presidents Day vs. President's Day vs. Presidents' Day: Which One Is It?

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iStock

Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" implies that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

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Can You Tell an Author’s Identity By Looking at Punctuation Alone? A Study Just Found Out.

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iStock.com/RyersonClark

In 2016, neuroscientist Adam J Calhoun wondered what his favorite books would look like if he removed the words and left nothing but the punctuation. The result was a stunning—and surprisingly beautiful—visual stream of commas, question marks, semicolons, em-dashes, and periods.

Recently, Calhoun’s inquiry piqued the interest of researchers in the United Kingdom, who wondered if it was possible to identify an author from his or her punctuation alone.

For decades, linguists have been able to use the quirks of written texts to pinpoint the author. The process, called stylometric analysis or stylometry, has dozens of legal and academic applications, helping researchers authenticate anonymous works of literature and even nab criminals like the Unabomber. But it usually focuses on an author's word choices and grammar or the length of his or her sentences. Until now, punctuation has been largely ignored.

But according to a recent paper led by Alexandra N. M. Darmon of the Oxford Centre for Industrial and Applied Mathematics, an author’s use of punctuation can be extremely revealing. Darmon’s team assembled nearly 15,000 documents from 651 different authors and “de-worded” each text. “Is it possible to distinguish literary genres based on their punctuation sequences?” the researchers asked. “Do the punctuation styles of authors evolve over time?”

Apparently, yes. The researchers crafted mathematical formulas that could identify individual authors with 72 percent accuracy. Their ability to detect a specific genre—from horror to philosophy to detective fiction—was accurate more than half the time, clocking in at a 65 percent success rate.

The results, published on the preprint server SocArXiv, also revealed how punctuation style has evolved. The researchers found that “the use of quotation marks and periods has increased over time (at least in our [sample]) but that the use of commas has decreased over time. Less noticeably, the use of semicolons has also decreased over time.”

You probably don’t need to develop a powerful algorithm to figure that last bit out—you just have to crack open something by Dickens.

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