You Can’t Do This?!

It seems to me that there is little that stirs us more to resist than a barrier –a can’t. I don’t know what it is about prohibitions that stir the passions but I’m coming to realize that it doesn’t settle much with age. Well, I suppose that’s a bit general –I rarely feel the urge to speed in my bottom-of-the-line Yaris with its wind-up windows, and I’m equally unlikely to want to climb a fence and trespass across a field of mud just for the heck of it. That said, however, I do object to the arbitrary imposition of capricious rules.

Maybe age itself engenders a frivolous sense of entitlement – a feeling that a lot of what is decreed is simply a fashion -like the requirement that men wear a tie to a meeting, or women wear high heels to dress up. Only when viewed over time, does the apparent reasonableness of the issue dissolve into the Gestalt; only when the dictum is seen as a societal version of a Rorschach inkblot does the arbitrariness of the interpretation become obvious.

And nothing irks me more than the attempt to impose restrictions on language rules! Language is emergent –an epiphenomenon of words, really. It is organic and evolves with time and changes with need. The attempts by the l’Académie Française –France’s guardians of the French language- to keep the language ‘pure’, or for that matter, the efforts by the various governments of Quebec to keep Quebecois from devolving into regrettable Franglaistic creations such as ‘le computer’, or even ‘la girlfriend’ have largely been scarves flapping in the wind, indicating at best, the direction of change. And social media has only stirred the mélange. Tasted the pudding. Language has a current, and to attempt arbitrary containment is to build a dike of sand.

I have always had a fascination with the raw power of punctuation and how mere tittles can take over a sentence. Take, for example, the sensual shape of a question mark. Although its history is somewhat obscure it became, nonetheless, my favourite thing to draw. I loved its provocatively feminine shape and always used to giggle at the embarrassing little dropping underneath -as if it had, well, spilled something. And in the olden days, before the practice became de rigueur with teenage girls, it had the uncanny ability of being able to turn the last word of a sentence upward like a hitchhiking thumb. You could actually predict what it was going to do beforehand. It had influenceand I have to admit to a little frisson of anticipation whenever I used it.

The  same, of course, with the colon. I mean, quite apart from the naughty association with its anatomical homonym, it always seemed to me to be magical: that two pencilled-in perpendicular dots could signify that an elaboration was about to follow -a summation- was preternatural. And that I, a little boy, could actually summon it to happen was almost adult.

But best of all that I, that same helpless child, could mandate that something that I had arbitrarily chosen could be a command simply by adding an exclamation mark at the end was pure Disneyland. The world -okay, the page at least- was at my feet!

So it was with some amusement that I read about the edict from the United Kingdom’s Department of Education restricting the use of the exclamation mark by elementary students in the odd belief that it would improve their ability to communicate effectively -oh yes, and also to pass a national curriculum test. Bear in mind that these are seven year olds. We’re not talking Oxford or Cambridge applicants here. A brief note in the Sunday Times outlines a bit of the issue:

So, did the Department do it on the advice of some new and compelling data, or merely to change things for the sake of change? Was there a contest that awarded a new Persian carpet for the office of the administrator who came up with the cheapest idea for novelty? Or was it simply the ingratiating naïveté of some new and eager acolyte, freshly hired and determined to launder the Queen’s English?

I’m sorry, but that decision was just plain foolish and ill advised! It was the dying gasp of a department that had run out of useful ideas! It is a picayune decree that serves no useful purpose! And yes, I broke their exclamation mark rules! And why? Well, because I chose to… That’s what exclamation marks are for: to indicate excitement, determination… Intention!

So, go ahead, and arrest me at the border; scan my blogs for exclamation marks if you wish… (I’m more of an ellipsis fan anyway…) Gonna challenge me on that, too? Forget it! Now that I’m retired, I think I’m entitled to live with an exclamation mark on my lips! Or maybe a question mark…? I’ve always tried to shy away from unreasonable commands.




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