More snippets from Steven Pinker's The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Chapter 6: Telling right from wrong. How to make sense of the rules of correct grammar, word choice, and punctuation.
p284: Punctuation restores some of the prosody (melody, pausing and stress) that is missing from print.The problem is that ... (it) indicates prosody in some places, syntax in others, and neither of them consistently anywhere.
... even today, the rules differ on the two sides of the Atlantic and from one publication to another.
The rules, moreover, are subject to changes in fashion, including an ongoing trend to reduce all punctuation to the bare minimum.
p285: ... even the sticklers can't agree on how to stickle.
Still, a few common errors are so uncontroversial ... that they have become tantamount to a confession "I am illiterate", and no writer should be caught making them.
p286: Strings of modifiers without commas progressively narrow down the referent of a noun ... (whereas) strings of modifiers with commas just keep adding interesting facts about it.
[For more on this, see OSASCOMP: Applied analysis.]
p287: a syntctic break (marking a phrase that is not integrated into a larger phrase) ... (a) semantic break (marking a meaning that is not essential to the meaning of the sentence) ... a prosodic break ...
p289: ... today, because commas are regulated less by prosody and more by syntax.
p 291: ... the comma splice, comma error, comma fault, and comma blunder.
... comma splices ... I won't tolerate them in my student's writing, not even in email.
p292: ... dashes can enliven writing, as long as they are used sparingly.
[SD: I was frustrated for a while because I couldn't work out how to produce an em dash using the Blogger interface. But now I know. If I press the Alt key then type '0151', I get this: —.]
p293: ... the serial comma or Oxford comma.
On the one side we have most British publishers (other than Oxford University Press), most American newspapers, and the rock group that calls itself Crosby, Stills and Nash.
p294: I say that unless a house style forbids it, you should use the serial comma.
[SD: As indeed SP does throughout his book and as I have attempted to reproduce snippets thereof in this blog.]
p297: ... or, with a same sex couple, He is his mothers' son.
p298: ... the ordering of a quotation mark with respect to a comma or period. The rule in American publications (the British are more sensible about this) is that when quoted material appears at the end of a phrase or sentence, the closing quotation mark goes outside the comma or period.
The practice is patently illogical ...
But long ago some American printer decided that the page looks prettier ...
The American punctuation rule sticks in the craw of every computer scientist, logician, and linguist because any ordering of typographical delimiters that fails to reflect the logical nesting of the content makes a shambles of their work.
[SD: Note that in the book, this sentence had a comma between 'linguist' and 'because'. I think the sentence works better without it.]
[SD: My bold. How pleasing it is to read this from an eminently logical and competent writer! Note that in transcribing snippets from SP's book for this blog, I have often reverted to my preferred ordering fro precisely the reason SP himself gives.]
[SD: It is also interesting to note that SP's publisher, Allen Lane, part of the Penguin group, composed the author's passages on this typographically challenging topic precisely as required since otherwise SP would have been unable to make his point in composed text.]
p299: Many logic-conscious and computer savvy writers have taken advantage of the freedom from copy editors they enjoy on the Web and have explicitly disavowed the American system, most notably on Wikipedia, which has endorsed the alternative called Logical Punctuation.
p300: Anyone who reviews the history of prescriptive grammar can't help but be struck by the misplaced emotion the topic evokes.
p302: And for all the vitriol brought out by matters of correct usage, they are the smallest part of good writing. They pale in importance behind coherence, classic style, and overcoming the curse of knowledge, to say nothing of standards of intellectual conscientiousness.
First, looking things up. Humans are cursed with the deadly combination of a highly fallible memory and an overconfidence in how much they know.
Actually he [Mark Twin] didn't say it ["The trouble with the world is not that people know too little, but that they know so many things that aren't so."]—I looked it up.
Second, be sure that your arguments are sound.
Third, don't confuse an anecdote or a personal experience with the state of the world.
Fourth, beware of false dichotomies.
Finally, arguments should be based on reasons, not people.
Keep in mind a bit of wisdom from the linguist Ann Farmer: "It isn't about being right. It's about getting it right."
There is no dichotomy between describing how people use language and prescribing how they might use it more effectively.