In the tsunami of incipient writers inspired by the digital explosion of the number of books being published, many claim it is okay to not worry about the rules of punctuation and grammar. The reasons advanced for that position include 1) artists should not have to worry about such rules, 2) editors will fix it, 3) rules don’t matter if readers understand, 4) etc. There is some smidgen of truth in all the reasons advanced, but mostly they are simple excuses for not wanting to put in the work necessary to learn the craft.
A recent example of the importance of knowing the rules is making the rounds in a snarky story presented as satisfying irony. The reasons for the snark are not true, but like all things generated by our sad cultural desire to tear down those we build up, there is an underlying lesson.
Misplaced Tabloid Induced Celebrity Ridicule
Lori Loughlins’s daughter Olivia Jade is suffering because of her parents ill-fated decision to commit fraud and bribery to get her and her sister into USC. And we, those the tabloids make money off by feeding our cruel desire to take pleasure in the embarrassment of celebrities and cultural icons, are taking a certain amount of delight in trashing her for things that otherwise would have been innocuous events in her life. She’s paid the price for being on a USC official’s yacht in the Bahamas when news of the scandal broke. We ridicule her statements about being more interested in partying and doing her blogs and YouTube vlogs instead of actually attending school. Recently she had trademark applications rejected because of ambiguity of language and punctuation errors. Now we can laugh that her trademark applications were rejected for the very things one should learn in school. Never mind that every thing we are laughing about are things said or done before the scandal started. Without the scandal we wouldn’t be dogpiling on her.
Not only would we not have noticed, the trademark applications were not her fault. Just like being on the yacht when the scandal broke, the news of the application rejection is a coincidence. She is not responsible for the errors in the application. Perry Viscounty, the attorney representing her parents regarding the scandal, is the attorney of record on the trademark applications. According to Mr. Viscounty’s profile on LinkedIn, he is a litigation and trial partner in the law firm Latham & Watkins. His information notes he is a nationally recognized trial attorney handling high-stakes case. His list of expertise includes intellectual property right areas including trademarks.
Mr. Viscounty signed off on Olivia Jade’s trademark application. He is responsible for its content including any ambiguities or punctuation errors. That’s what Olivia Jade hired him to do. If there is embarrassment to attach because of the irony of the application’s rejection, it is his. Unfortunately, it is Olivia Jade that gets to bear the focus of the celebrity spotlight. Viscounty is responsible even if he relied on information provided by her. A copy and paste of a client’s material is not how an attorney is supposed to fill out something as detailed and technical as a trademark application.
In rejecting Olivia Jade’s application the Trademark Office stated: “Proper punctuation in identification is necessary to delineate explicitly each product or service within a list and to avoid ambiguity. Commas, semicolons and apostrophes are the only punctuation that should be used.”
Trademark applications are notorious for requiring exactness. An attorney with expertise in the areas knows that. The content of an application is often subject to much back and forth between the United States Patent and Trademark Office and the filer, whether that is the individual claiming the trademark or an attorney representing the individual.
Olivia Jade’s trademark applications were originally filed on May 3rd, well before the scandal broke. The errors were corrected and resubmitted on April 1 and approved on April 2. In the normal course of things, we would have never heard of the rejection. But now? I just did a search on Google for “Olivia Jade Trademark Application.” Google found about 6, 630,000 references.
Mr. Viscounty did not do his job.
(An aside: The news this morning reported that Lori Laughlin and her husband were offered a plea bargain that included two years incarceration. The prosecutors said those who do not reach a plea bargain will face additional charges. As I wrote on this blog entry, the news announced that Lori Laughlin and her husband have been indicted on another felony, money laundering. A conviction on money laundry carries a longer possible prison sentence. I hope Mr. Viscounty is not messing up his representation of the family again.)
(Another aside: For an example of a Trademark controversy in the writing world that never should have happened, go do a search for “Faleena cocky trademark” and check out the resulting internet eruption known as #cockygate.)
The Takeaway For Writers
Here’s the point for writers of any kind.
Learning the craft means learning and using the rules except in rare circumstances whether you are technical non-fiction or you are creating stories.
Yes, much of grammar and punctuation use can be a matter of personal style. There are also conventions that fall in and out of fashion. But fundamentally the rules are there for assuring the ideas and meanings imparted by written material are easily understood or, if very complicated, can be understood with careful consideration of the rules. Punctuation errors have consequences. That’s true whether the errors are in the telling of a story in fiction or in the most formal of writing. In fiction the consequence is a simple failure of the writer to convey his story clearly. Failure in more formal writing illuminates the importance of knowing and using the rules because the error often ends up with a cost in very real money.
Olivia Jade’s trademark application got rejected for sloppy writing. It cost her a bit more of her reputation. It let us make fun of her a bit more. It probably cost her some attorney’s fees. It delayed her trademark protection. It might have caused more problems if the Patent and Trademark Office had ignored or not noticed the error. A trademark might have been issued that didn’t protect her as expected. A missing comma in a trademark application might mean the issued trademark covers one unintended thing instead of covering two separate things as desired. That could cost the owner of the trademark money.
A missing Oxford comma can cost millions. Oakhurst Dairy found that out the hard way when a 2017 appellate court decision ruled that a statute without an Oxford comma meant that the dairy owed overtime to truck drivers.
The statute listed certain activities that did not qualify for overtime. The law listed activities exempt from earning overtime pay, as follows:
The canning, processing, preserving,
freezing, drying, marketing, storing,
packing for shipment or distribution of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.
Note there is no comma between “shipment” and “or.” The truck drivers claimed the law exempted from overtime the activity of packing for shipment or distribution, but not the singular activity of distribution of the products. The truck drivers sought overtime for time spent distributing the goods, not for packing the goods for distribution. The appellate court took the side of the drivers in a decision that cost the dairy millions. After the ruling Oakhurst settled with the drivers for five million dollars.
You can read about the comma problem here.
In writing fiction the goal is to tell a story. The way we convey ideas and meaning in writing has evolved overtime. Some rules are there to assure the reader and the writer communicate. The trendy, extreme example of today is the title of Lynne Truss’s book Eats, Shoots and Leaves. Does a panda actually pull out a gun, fire off a couple of shots, and then depart after he eats? It is an absurd example. But a writer should not rely on absurdities to make his ideas known.
I’m not going to get into the subtleties of other punctuation rules such as the reasons to use a semicolon instead of a period or why you should avoid a comma splice. I’ve been writing this blog entry in time I could be using to work on the first draft of Peak Performance. Talking about how to impart a story is meaningless if the story never gets written. So I’ll save some stuff for other moments of procrastination.
I depart imploring writers to learn and use the craft the best you can. Sure, it is extremely easy to publish a book these days without worrying about the rules. Millions of books are out there full of such errors. No court will find you owe monetary damages for not conveying your story clearly. But if you do that because you don’t know the craft, you sacrifice your art for expediency. You are not telling the best possible story. Not only that, you contribute to the erosion of the ability of writing to impart ideas. In 2011 the Oxford Dictionary, in a surrender to common usage, added a meaning to the word “literally.” The definition expanded to include the use of literally to being a word used for emphasis while not being literally true. We literally lost a word. Don’t be a part of such a travesty.