Monday, July 16, 2007

Giving vandalism a bad name

Early today, Mark Liberman on Language Log did a post on Boston's 'grammar vandal' (see here for one of her blogs), with this quote:
Without punctuation, we have nothing.
All day, it's been running through my head. First, I think, you just gotta figure "that's a joke", then you worry it isn't. Later, I was wondering what variant could push the absurdometer to the red line:
  • Without toe jam, we have nothing!
  • Without the little container of corn starch in the cupboard, we have nothing!
  • Without "you might be a redneck if" jokes, we have nothing!
And no, none of the ones I thought of were much better than these.

Slowly, it's dawning on me that what's so striking about the use of "without X, we have nothing" is how it's traditionally been used: Check around a little and you get love, hope and dreams filling that X. And we have nothing surely triggers a continuation with to fear but fear itself. These are all matters with some metaphysical heft. I'm fairly sure you have never been so high that punctuation made that list. And you don't know anybody who has.

This 'vandal' (never to be confused with real Vandals — take your pick of here or here) is aiming to parlay this trivial little defacement into a moment of Paris Hilton-like infamy, so maybe it's part of the joke. Good luck on that whole career deal there, Kate.

Update, July 18, 10:15 am: Jan Freeman (who works in Boston, after all) has posted a set of blogospheric reactions to this case, here.


Ollock said...

I suppose nobody told her that many languages made it without punctuation ... OR spaces OR capital letters. Many of those still don't have spacing or capital letters.

the missus said...

The first thing *I* thought of when I heard Mr. Verb talk about "without punctuation, we have nothing" was "I wonder if there's a comma in there?" I mean, you could write "without punctuation we have nothing" and it really wouldn't be that bad, now would it? But then... that would mean... well, never mind.

Mr. Verb said...

Hmmmm, an existential crisis for the young blogger?

The original quote (assuming that's what I looked at and I think it was) DID have a comma. Folks like her tend to be punctuation happy, as you'd expect.

Anonymous said...

More existential tail chasing:

if X = nothing, then 'without nothing, we have nothing', or is should it be something? (double neg thing)

What about 'without X, we have punctuation'?? Maybe 'without language, we have punctuation' (like that's all there is, there really isn't anything other than punctuation, really)

Or, how much fun can we have with uber punctuation in the phrase:
a) "Without!" Punctuation, we have nothing. (maybe they talk to the punctuation instead of the hand)
b) Without punctuation we have: Nothing! (with an elliptical 'the' before the p-word?)

Mr. Verb said...

The comments on this blog always crack me up.

Without snowclones, we have only eggcorns!