Kicking Fish out of Mud Puddles

The semi-colons flopped about the page like fish in a mud puddle: startling, out of place and just wrong.  The hand-out offered wise advice to workshop participants, but my eyes stumbled over the punctuation, causing them to lurch back and forth to gather meaning.

I like informational writing to glide along; words and pauses should lubricate my understanding.  Spoon feed me what you want me to know.

And so, I worried about the unconventional punctuation in the hand-out: the distracting use of semi-colons in place of commas, and commas in place of periods.

Yes, I fully understood the hand-out.  It’s practice tips were sound and its call to action compelling. But I wanted the messenger to embrace convention even while she urged us to defy it.  I wanted her impact to come from her ideas, not a buckshot of misplaced semi-colons. And I wanted her to have the full authority of her knowledge and calling undiminished by conspicuous, avoidable punctuation errors.

Emboldened by my alliance with her cause, passionate that no rough spots snag a reader’s attention, eager to help the author show herself in the best possible light, I approached her.  And I gave her a mark-up.

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Siem Reap, Cambodia

I did.  I gave her a mark-up. Commas replaced semi-colons.  Periods replaced commas.  And I even inserted a semi-colon somewhere.

Energized and exhausted by her successful workshop, she accepted my praise and thanks. And then she gaped when I started talking about semi-colons.  I edit copy, I said.  I wanted you to know that the unconventional punctuation in the hand-out distracted me and perhaps others.  Your message is difficult and important, I said, so the messaging should be easy.  I’m a writer, she replied.  Certainly, I back-pedaled. Do with these suggestions what you wish.

I thanked her again for inspiring me to do good work, and I left.

My intentions were honorable.  (Beware, beware those words.). But they proceeded from my own vanilla-flavored view of the world: that a person’s credibility is affected at least in some degree by her manner of expression.  The more that manner departs from the norm, the more reasons some people have to doubt the message.  And so, I reasoned, to keep eye, mind and heart on the message, polish the manner.

But in kicking the fish out of their mud puddles, I had exhibited exactly the kind of dominant power-based behavior the workshop was about.  We were asked, “Have you ever worried about economic security because of your race?” “Have you ever had to change your appearance because of your race?” “Have you ever considered race in deciding where to live?”  Many people answered no.  Some people answered yes.

She might as well also have asked: “Has anyone ever corrected the way you speak or write because of your race?”

Because that’s exactly what I appeared to have done.  I, a middle-aged white woman had corrected the writing of a younger black woman — a woman who was a leader and a writer.  And I did it following a workshop focusing on race and power.

I had deliberated, before approaching her, whether to mention the semi-colons or just let it go.  I weighed the power imbalance: white versus black, old versus young.  I considered how condescending and patronizing my “help” would appear to her — and utterly gratuitous.

But then I thought I easily would have taken that risk if the person had been like me: white and middle-aged. I would have claimed our common cause and, in those superficial ways, our common identities.  Here, however, I paused. Did I impute fragility to her? Or worry that she would impute racism to me?

She easily could see me as exercising the power of my age and race, insisting on an unimportant grammatical norm — created by white people, for crying out loud.  She could see me as denigrating her message simply because of those norm-defying punctuation choices.  And she could decide — starting now — to add another question to her “have you ever” list.

Or, instead, did I impute to her a desire to produce her best possible work and to reach the greatest number of (white) people.  Yes, I thought, I impute that to her. And I plowed ahead.  I told myself that I respected her and her message too much to allow a reason like punctuation distract the reader or, worse, stimulate stereotypes that she reminded us were the building blocks of prejudice and discrimination.

Would I do it again? I’m not sure. If I did, I would have been more humble in offering the mark-up. And I would have worked harder to demonstrate my allegiance to the cause.  But I hated that look on her face and what I imagine was coursing through her brain: another white person bringing me down.

Were the semi-colons worth that? In our society, in our way of seeing and believing each other,  the answer now, to me, is no.

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