Here are a couple of quotes that I find disturbing:
• “You could drive yourself insane trying to decode the hidden messages in other people’s punctuation.”
• “Digital punctuation can carry more weight than traditional writing because it ends up conveying tone, rhythm and attitude rather than grammatical structure.”
I present them as warnings to the literate that illiterates still lurk about plotting to subvert the better-trained and over-worked grammar loyalists. I suspect they have a poster of Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, pinned to the wall in their secret clubhouse and throw darts at it made from left over exclamation points.
The quotes are from, of all places, a recent article in The New York Times by Jessica Bennett in which she thoroughly confuses the distinctions among the printed word, the spoken word, and the digital word.
Ms. Bennett opens her piece with a vignette about a friend who impressed her by sending her an e-mail in which he employed the proper em dash rather than lazily connecting two hyphens. She then complained: “I am a writer; it’s natural I’d have a thing for grammar. But these days it’s as if our punctuation is on steroids.”
Huh? Grammar and punctuation are not the same thing. Punctuation marks are the traffic signals of writing and bring to it the consistency that helps make for clarity of communication. Grammar deals with the rules of construction of sentences and paragraphs, i.e., content. Punctuation assures that the content can be deciphered. It wouldn’t do much good to have developed the technology of the telegraph had the inventor not also created the Morse code so the dots and dashes could be read.
But Morse code had limitations. There are no dots or dashes to indicate a period or exclamation point or question mark. Words serve as the punctuation marks, and because words cost money most sentences merely ended the word “Stop.” Any expression of excitement about arriving on the 3:10 from Yuma had to wait until you arrived from Yuma on the 3:10. As a result, old telegrams—even the ones announcing momentous happenings—arrived factual and dry.
Fast-forward a century. E-mail removed the telegraph operator at both ends of the line and democratized the messaging process. And, you could employ punctuation marks—including the exclamation point—at no extra charge. But if you were that excited to see Mary Jane after such a long absence, you still needed to say so, with words. Six exclamation points is not only a feeble but lazy attempt to magnify the intention of whatever emotion you hope to express. Extra exclamations points are not like the notches on the radio knob for volume control.
Punctuation was not developed to pass on emotion, but notes of construction. The marks serve the same purpose as mortar and rebar in a building—to hold the bricks (sentences) and walls (paragraphs) together. Punctuation can tell the reader if the sentence was intended to be translated as declaratory, interrogatory, or exclamatory, but could not—without additional words—express the level of intensity of emotion of a sentence.
It’s important not to confuse punctuation with content. But apparently I didn’t get the memo “that an exclamation point or colon carries more weight in our 140-character world. Or even that our punctuation suddenly feels like hyperbole (right?!?!?!?!?!) because we’ve lost all audible tone.” That, according to Ms. Bennett.
Just where was this volume control that we’ve lost? Was there a search party of grammarians formed to find it and return it to its rightful home? And where is its rightful home?
It was then I realized that Ms. Bennett hadn’t really grasped the distinction between WRITING language and SPEAKING language or that written words don’t behave the same way as spoken ones do. “The origins of punctuation lie in ancient oration,” she writes, “when marks were used in handwritten speeches to advise when and how long a speaker should pause.” Well, since putting words on paper came long after oral language in our early paperless world, history actually supports the concept that punctuation marks were constructs to help transfer the clarity of the spoken word to the written word.
“But there are no pauses or inflections in digital communication,” continues Ms. Bennett. “We aren’t speaking the words aloud. Which means that even with the tiniest spaces, punctuation fills in the tonal holes,” she notes, using an incomplete sentence!? Zounds!! Where are those nitpicking Times’ editors!? (Note: Arguably the previous sentence is a perfect example of a sentence that could use an “interrobang”—a combination of the exclamation point and question mark. It never quite caught on, however, when first introduced back in the ‘70s, probably because there was no room for it on our typewriter keyboards. Remember when typing an exclamation point was a two-part process: hit the apostrophe then back up and hit the period. Try to create an interrobang in a three-step process. Doesn’t work! Anyway, aren’t words represented by pixels on a screen sort of like words printed/typed on paper?
We do speak printed words aloud, to ourselves, when we read. Our eyes capture the words and our brain restates them. Speed-reading is all about learning how to avoid that conversion process and to try and collect words in bunches as your eye skims across the lines of type and put them directly into your brain. Good luck with that.
“Digital punctuation can carry more weight than traditional writing because it ends up conveying tone, rhythm and attitude rather than grammatical structure,” according to the executive editor of vocabulary.com, who Ms. Bennett quotes to add veracity to her own position. “Even a lowly period becomes freighted with special significance,” according to him.
Whether on paper or a computer screen, punctuation does the same thing—enhance the efficiency in interpreting and understanding the intention of the written words. All the periods, commas, dashes, and semicolons in the world will not indicate how to effectively speak. How you pause, how long you pause, and the tonality of your voice are just a few of the myriad of elements speakers employ to orally deliver the written word. You can have an incredibly dramatic moment in the courtroom, but once the court reporter hands you a transcript of the event, the flat-surfaced dimension of the words on paper lack the electricity of the original event. Therein lies the difference between reading the script and performing the play.
We weren’t over the consistency in spelling hump when punctuation came along. And, like spelling, punctuation evolved through trial and error and acceptance through usage. Samuel Johnson’s efforts to codify the spelling and the definition of words dates only from 1755. The Lords of Merry Old England didn’t sit around the Round Table and hash out the rules of punctuation either. They evolved. The period was used for marking the ends of sentences and to indicate brief pauses at one point in time, before it become the “full stop” it is now.
Ms. Bennett’s essay is full of anecdotal examples of how people have invented little techniques to apparently add a little diversity and intensity to their writing. She quotes a friend who takes the position that unless you want to be viewed as “geriatric,” you should avoid the comma at all costs. And the reason is? Perhaps as another person she quotes has the answer: “I don’t use commas . . . it’s such a contradiction that you’re supposed to drop the comma after ‘hi’ and then keep the ‘?’ after ‘what time.’ And then you insert 16 different emoji?!”
These people should feel conflicted. They have obviously lost the map that would have kept them from becoming lost in the State of Confusion. Many years ago, the invented language called Esperanto promised to be the common diplomatic language for human kind. You won’t find Esperanto listed in any college curricula right after English 101 or it being used to deliver speeches at the United Nations. But if you study language, you will find attempts to bring clarity to the accepted written word. Spanish writers employed a clever idea—insert an upside-down question mark or exclamation point at the beginning of a sentence to give the readers advance notice of the intention of the sentence to be something other than simply declaratory. That never caught on in English grammar. You have to go to the end of the sentence to find out its intentions. Might seem inconsistent with the concept of clarity, but that’s where lovers of emoji put them, too. Emoji have nothing to do with punctuation but instead are an attempt to indicate and/or interject the intended emotional tone of a sentence—add that missing volume. But shouldn’t they make their announcement at the beginning of the sentence?
Our language is great at objectively communicating facts, but has always struggled with how to communicate emotion. Try writing a description of Monet’s painting of Renoir painting in his garden, or draft a eulogy for a deceased friend of loved one. You quickly bump into the inadequacy of words. Words can only describe emotion; they are not the emotion. Nor are punctuation marks.
It takes great effort to use words in a way that brings the reader to tears . . . or laughter. I call it making movies of the mind. It’s the ability to use words to connect emotionally with the reader; to paint an image they can see and thus feel. That’s the challenge and limitation of the written word. Don’t accuse punctuation of having limitations, when the problem resides with the writing.
Punctuation marks remain the traffic signs to the reader; they aren’t the traffic, the words are. The reader delivers them in accordance not just with punctuation but rules of expression. If you want a real challenge, in 500 hundred words or less, describe the distinction between “digital” punctuation—you know, the kind on your computer screen that you can print out and read—and “regular” punctuation—you know, the kind you can type on your computer screen then print out and read. And while you’re at it, explain how, in a world without commas, you would make certain that a reader could differentiate between “Let’s eat Grandma” and “Let’s eat, Grandma.”
And that brings me to a “full stop.”
Send along your response to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll post it.