Punctuation! Holy schneikies it’s blowing my mind right now. We’re using it in new ways to make our informal writing more closely resemble our informal speaking. If you’ve spent the past year waiting for someone with absolutely no training in linguistics to pontificate on a revolution in question marks and emoticons, then today is your day \o/
What lit the fire under my colon and got me thinking about punctuation is the intriguing new use of the question mark. Consider the following two sentences I received recently, the first in a text and the second in an e-mail: “I might have some free time tomorrow?” and “I thought everyone knew this?” Neither of those sentences is a question, but the authors insert a question mark nonetheless.
The first sentence really ought to read, “I might have some free time tomorrow, what are you up to?” And the second, “I thought everyone knew this, but I guess I could be wrong.” In these informal contexts the question mark is replacing these words that invite further comment or express uncertainty. It’s being used as the “eyes raised, head kind of turned to the side, inviting-a-reply” facial expression that’s common in conversation. But a question mark doesn’t express ambiguity or uncertainty — that’s what words are for.
This befuddles me: why use punctuation, why not just let the words do their job?
I’m not a linguistic historian, but I assume at some point humans invented words to convey thoughts, ideas and actions to each other. When the Al Gore of the ancient world invented writing, he invented punctuation as a way to structure speech and transfer it to a new medium — paper. Punctuation was, and is, a way to visually show the pauses, hesitations, intonations and cadences of speech. Over time, academics and the gentry codified its rules and teachers inculcated us in its proper use.
Back then, all writing was formal — religious texts, royal proclamations, wedding licenses, scientific documents, newspapers, novels. All the writers were professionals who wrote for broad audiences, and all the rules were top-down. In 2011, most writing is informal. Most writers are amateurs who write for specific audiences, and new rules are being created by the masses.
I believe this is the first time in history that we are actively writing to each other in informal contexts and that this writing is displacing in-person conversations. Literacy rates are at a global high, and e-mail and text messages make informal writing to friends and family much more practical and inexpensive than it was 100 years ago. I’ll wager that more is written in e-mails, chat rooms and text messages between friends and colleagues than is published online by professional journalists or writers every year.
We are all writers, each with our audience and our own elements of style to suit our needs. We’re not just using punctuation to structure our sentences; we’re using it independently to convey meaning and to replace words.
My beloved question mark is one example of this trend. There’s no “ambiguous mark” in the English language to connote uncertainty. We’re supposed to use words for that, but in the informal context of a text message, we’re more likely to fall back on the norms of oral communication rather than follow the rules.
The ellipsis (...) is an older example. Its purpose in writing is clear — to suggest that certain information has been omitted. In a newspaper or a magazine, you don’t see it much outside of abbreviated quotations. However, look over your e-mail and GChat history and I bet you’ll find that it’s used everyday. The ellipsis is a glorious punctuation mark, showing a pause, a wait, a tacit knowledge that something is not being said. It makes writing feel more like talking and less like writing.
Emoticons are another example. If a picture is worth a thousand words, and an emoticon is roughly one percent of the quality of a picture, then an emoticon gets you 10 words on a page. Try to describe a smiling face or a frown in ten words. The best authors struggle with that. With an emoticon you don’t have to choose your words carefully. Instead, you can rely on visual images to do the talking for you, just like you would in a real conversation.
Our changing use of punctuation marks is an attempt to make writing feel more like speaking. Using only what’s already on the keyboard, we’ve bent the rules of formal writing to create new norms for informal writing.
This new paradigm is fascinating — and I hate everything about it. I believe that writing should be respected as a medium that is different from conversation or speech. Well-crafted, well-composed writing needs to be maintained as a standard. As writing becomes more informal, perhaps we’ll lose our capacity to pause, think, and compose rational and structured arguments?
I love words. They are specific, direct and meaningful, and how you choose them and with whom you share them says more than any new-age punctuation ever will. Let the pictures be pictures, and let a thousand words rise to the challenge.
Ben Koffel is a grad student in the College of Architecture, Art & Planning. He may be contacted at email@example.com. Come Again? appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.