The Oxford English Dictionary offers this, slightly drier, definition: "The practice, action, or system of inserting points or other small marks into texts, in order to aid interpretation; division of text into sentences, clauses, etc., by means of such marks.”
Neither of these definitions is correct. Or, at least, neither of them is true. If they were, we would be taught to punctuate only when ‘understanding’ is in jeopardy. The rest of the time, we would write with the propulsive energy and joy of a Jack Kerouac, a William Burroughs or a James Joyce. Our job application letters would nod and wink in the general direction of e e cummings. Or E. E. Cummings. Every proofreader would have a copy of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson on her desk to be used as a vital reference tool. But we don’t write like that. Well, most of us don’t.
No, we use punctuation all the time. We use punctuation whether understanding is in jeopardy or not. We use punctuation because it’s the rules.
The fact of the matter is we should be able to adopt a fairly take-it-or-leave-it approach to punctuation. Take a look at the hyphens in that last sentence. Were they really necessary? And what about the question mark, there? Did it help you understand any better. Did the missing question mark in that last sentence leave you all at sea and discombobulated? I doubt it. The lack of a question mark may well have irritated you or caused you to feel something approaching anxiety but it wasn’t as if a crucial aid to understanding had been cruelly withheld.
So now that you and I are totally in agreement that punctuation is in fact an oppressive bunch of largely unnecessary dots dashes squiggles and whatnots lets get onto what this blog post is really about shall we
(And I promise not to do the no-punctuation thing again because, let’s face it, it makes you uneasy.)
I really just wanted to talk about how much I love the fact that punctuation has escaped the confines of grammatical despotism and upped and flown away.
Not only do I love the fact that most emails and text messages tend, almost intuitively, to eschew the use of punctuation unless entirely necessary, I also love the fact that punctuation is regularly used in emails and text messages to create a whole host of expressions; the fact that you can emote using just a colon and a closing bracket is fantastic. Swap the colon for a semicolon and that little face is giving you a cheeky wink. How great is that? A colon, dash and lower-case ‘o’ gives us a surprised face. Replace the ‘o’ with a capital ‘D’ and you’re laughing your ass off. Easy and powerful.
I don’t believe these little ‘punctuation doodles’ represent a dumbing-down of language. I don’t even think they’re a flash-in-the-pan gimmick, the linguistic equivalent of a Tamagotchi. I think they’re an evolutionary step, a new gizmo in language’s extensive and fascinating toolbox. In the rapid back-and-forth of a telephone text conversation, these gizmos are crucial. If somebody makes a funny remark, it’s actually quite difficult to respond in a way that can’t be misinterpreted as sarcastic. If you text back “Very funny” how does the recipient know the comment isn’t intended ironically? Besides, “Very funny” sounds… well, a bit lame, doesn’t it? But at least it’s not as bad as the half-demented “ha ha ha ha!”. No, a colon, a hyphen and a capital ‘D’ work perfectly.
And then there’s the trend for punctuation tattoos: question marks, exclamation marks, brackets, parentheses, ellipses and the semicolon. The semicolon is particularly interesting. Whilst other punctuation tattoos appear to be employed largely for their typographic and aesthetic value, the semicolon tattoo has a deeper meaning.
The application of a semicolon can be seen as a writer’s decision to continue a sentence that might otherwise have been terminated with a period. And so, the semicolon has come to represent the choice to continue living rather than bringing your life to an end. The meaning has expanded to represent the impulse to keep going in the face of adversity and, as such, has become a symbol of the fight against depression and, more broadly, mental illness. The semicolon is often seen together with phrases like ‘Be Strong’.
Initiatives like Amy Bleuel’s Project Semicolon and Jenn Brown’s and Jeremy Jaramillo’s The Semicolon Tattoo Project, have taken what was something of a trend that had bled out of social media and turned into something very much like a movement.
Punctuation has left home and is developing an exciting new life of its own.
As a proofreader, it’s my job to ensure the rules are followed. I don’t have to like it, though. It would not work out well for any proofreader if they started neatly circling punctuation marks with their trusty red pen and writing in the margin “Do you really need all these crazy little squiggles?”
But before we get back to the world of rules, here’s an extract from James Joyce’s Ulysses, to give you an inkling of just how exhilarating (and discombobulating) a world without punctuation might be:
Yes because he never did a thing like that before as ask to get his breakfast in bed with a couple of eggs since the City Arms hotel when he used to be pretending to be laid up with a sick voice doing his highness to make himself interesting to that old faggot Mrs Riordan that he thought he had a great leg of and she never left us a farthing all for masses for herself and her soul greatest miser ever was actually afraid to lay out 4d for her methylated spirit telling me all her ailments she had too much old chat in her about politics and earthquakes and the end of the world let us have a bit of fun first God help the world if all the women were her sort down on bathing suits and lownecks of course nobody wanted her to wear I suppose she was pious because no man would look at her twice I hope I'll never be like her a wonder she didnt want us to cover our faces but she was a welleducated woman certainly and her gabby talk about Mr Riordan here and Mr Riordan there I suppose he was glad to get shut of her and her dog smelling my fur and always edging to get up under my petticoats…
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