Grammar, Punctuation and the Danger of Global Changes in Academic Writing

Grammar, Punctuation and the Danger of Global Changes
I was recently reading a novel that uses an unfortunate and incorrect punctuation pattern throughout the entire text. Well, to be honest, it uses far more than one incorrect punctuation pattern, but I want to focus on the one here. The error occurs in the phrase ‘all but,’ and does so regardless of how those two words function in a sentence. Now, ‘all but’ is altogether overused in the book and not always in a manner that implies the author understands the construction, but the clincher in terms of confusion and irritation is that erroneous comma in the middle of every single ‘all but.’ It appears in constructions like ‘all but the kitchen sink,’ ‘all but the last one’ and ‘all but forgotten,’ as well as in situations where ‘but’ is in fact a conjunction and should actually be preceded by a comma.
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Now, since a comma appears before every ‘but’ in the book without consideration for sentence structure and semantic concerns, at least as far as I have had the patience to observe, I am assuming that the ‘editing’ was done through the use of global changes. You may already be familiar with these. Microsoft Word’s ‘Replace All’ function is a perfect example. Simply type in what you want as a replacement for the text you already have, push the button and the deed is done. Many corrections can be made in this way, but special caution is required when using this function. The program will not distinguish, for instance, between uses of a word or piece of punctuation that are correct and ones that are not; between appearances of a textual element in the author’s own prose and their presence in quotations, titles and other parts of a paper that should not be changed; or indeed between ‘but’ as a conjunction in need of a preceding comma and ‘but’ in the phrase ‘all but’ with the unrelated meanings ‘except,’ ‘almost,’ ‘virtually’ and so on. Global changes can therefore introduce as many errors as they correct. In fact, it is often surprising just how many problems can arise because it can be quite difficult to envision all the contexts in which a particular word or piece of punctuation is used, even when you are the author and especially in a long and complex document. Careful thought and meticulous proofreading should therefore always be dedicated to global changes.

The author of the novel I was reading thanked her husband for editing her book, and I have to agree that family and friends can be an enormous help with comments and corrections. I suspect that in the current environment of indie publishing some of these close assistants are all but co-authors. This book, however, was in serious need of expert proofreading and editing – careful, informed, hands-on proofreading that catches and corrects those obvious errors in grammar and punctuation. Such errors slip into the writing of even the most seasoned authors at times, so the novel is certainly a reminder of how important it is to check everything thoroughly before sending a manuscript off for publication or hitting that ‘Publish’ button online. Of course, it is possible that the novelist and her husband simply did not know whether the odd constructions they created were correct or not, but even the most basic free online dictionary would have provided the necessary information. If there was no time for that, a qualified and conscientious proofreader or editor could have saved the author (and her editor) from all those nonsensical ‘all, buts,’ along with a host of other errors that taint the story, which, had it been written and edited with more care, would have been quite good indeed. Or at least, I think so. Unfortunately, though perhaps predictably, I never did finish the novel.

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