“The disappearance of punctuation (including word spacing, capital letters, and so on), indicates an enormous shift in our attitude to the written word, and nobody knows where it will end.”
– Lynne Truss
It’s likely apocryphal, this tale about the shortest telegram ever sent: Victor Hugo, wondering about Les Miserables’ book sales, cabled his publisher a single “?”. The exuberant response arrived: “!”
Nowadays, informs the April Atlantic magazine, “The pair’s conversation would likely employ much less economy of expression. At the very least, the publisher might throw a ‘!!!!’ to the expectant author.” (Although which author received that message is also in question: others attribute the initial telegram to the wit of Oscar Wilde.)
In a brief analysis of today’s “promiscuous punctuation,” readers are warned of the horrors – the horrors! – of the ubiquity of out-of-control typographical symbols. “The Internet offers us nearly infinite space, a structural fact that is manifest in our approaches to punctuation. ‘What??????’ we ask on Facebook, to express our surprise. ‘OK…………’ we write in e mails, to convey our ambivalence….
“[W]hen a single point denotes basic human warmth, more points are needed to convey enthusiasm (!!), even more to convey excitement (!!!), and more still to convey giddiness (Prime Rib Saturday!!!!).”
Nonetheless, all is not lost. Atlantic writer Megan Garber sees a looming end to exclamatory excess. The “!” is no longer required to indicate nuance within the hard-to-interpret written word (think how difficult it can be to tell a joke from an expression of annoyance in an email). We have moved on instead to EXTRA CAPITALIZATION and emoticons. (The recently published Emoji Dick retells Herman Meville’s classic in :-(.)
Are we moving toward an image-based world? Certainly, there will be less !!!!!!!! And for Garber, this lessening of ! use “is good news for human expression, and potentially less-good news for the soon-to-be-humbled exclamation mark. Sorry, little guy.”
And yet, the lowly exclamation mark has often been the subject of antipathy. And! It! Has! Survived!
The book Exclamation Mark, by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld (2013, filed with a blue dot), is an absolutely lovely work (supposedly aimed at children but clearly intended for adults).
Poor little !. “He stood out from the very beginning. He stood out here. He stood out there…. He tried everything to be more like them.” Them, of course, are the periods.
Can an exclamation mark find his place in the world? Yes, thanks, in part, to a random meeting with a question mark. Okay?
In turn, for a thorough talking to about commas, there’s always the delightful Lynne Truss. Eats, Shoots And Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Book About Punctuation (2003, filed in non-fiction at 420) is worth reading more than once, for its wit, charm and grammar refresher.
Truss is able to make fun of herself, and of those insufferable sticklers who drive their friends away with their insufferable lecturing on language. (If all sticklers were as funny as Truss, we’d happily put up with them.)
“Punctuation is no more a class issue than the air we breathe. It is a system of printers’ marks that has aided the clarity of the written word for the past half-millennium, and if its time has come to be replaced, let’s just use this moment to celebrate what an elegant and imaginative job it did while it had the chance,” she writes.
Eats, Shoots And Leaves is full of history (the “.” was popularized by an Italian printer in the 1490s to mark the end of sentences), literature, jokes, and grammatical rules. Admittedly, the comma section is overly long (because the rules for commas are endless and, with apologies to English teachers everywhere, a couple are just stupid, but that’s just my opinion). But keep reading: Truss is funny.
So — grammar; punctuation; writing.
Will we even need personal signatures in the future, once we all live with Facebook profile photos or World Of Warcraft avatars imbedded into our e-glasses?
Until that day, parents will teach their children the joys of slowly, laboriously, writing out their own names, and instilling the growing sense of identity that comes with learning your letters.
In Rosemary Welles’s Yoko Writes Her Name (2008, filed under a blue dot), a little one’s kindergarten class turns into a nightmare.
Every student carefully spells out their name for the teacher, and for each other: Valerie, Doris, Henry. But Yoko’s spelling is incomprehensible to everyone but her: She has written out her name in Japanese.
“Yoko can’t write. She is only scribbling,” whispers one child. “She won’t graduate from kindergarten,” mocks another. Yoko then reads a book out to classmates – from right to left, and is told she’s “only pretending to read.” Poor Yoko is traumatized.
Until one day, she makes a friend. He teaches her to use the Latin alphabet and Arabic numerals. She teaches him Japanese writing and Kanji numerals. Everybody discovers that language – and languages – can be fun.
Yoko could also have gotten a bit of extra help from a book of ABCs. The Z Was Zapped (by Chris Van Allburg, 1987) is one with zip. “The A was in an Avalanche. The B was badly Bitten. The C was Cut to ribbons. The D was nearly Drowned.”
These letters come to a bad end. (Or to a zed, anyway!)
Worried about the destruction of punctuation? Is this the end of history? Not likely. But every era has its panic attacks, and you can go ahead and foretell punctuation’s doom. Who knows? You might be right. This time.
No wait, maybe that should be, You might be right this time. What about, You might be. Right, this time.
— Eleanor Brown, March 27, 2014