Punctuation-important or a thing of the past?

February 28, 2012

…and if it is no longer important, what does that say about the printed word?

I just finished reading the delightful Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss.  What an interesting and fun book!  The little anecdotes about misuse of punctuation and the history about punctuation’s development are particularly enjoyable if you yourself can be classified as a “stickler”.  I admit that I do find an overwhelming urge to correct Facebook posts and items I see on the TV ticker.  If you find language fascinating, this quick read will give you a chuckle, give you pause (……), and help you to feel a kinship with other sticklers in the world.

Truss easily makes you see how important punctuation is, and why it was developed in the first place.  She gives great examples of misuse, or the consequences of misuse.  Here is an example of punctuation misuse I found online:

Punctuation is more important than you thought, isn’t it?
Truss is unapologetically a fan of the printed over the electronic word.  She devotes some time in her last chapters to discussing how electronic communication has changed punctuation use.  Language and usage is always in flux, but the importance of punctuation shouldn’t be underestimated (if you have ever been confused by a badly written sentence in an email or haven’t gotten the point of an online post, you know what I mean).
Truss then segues into the written word itself, and I think she does an awesome job of  explaining the difference between how we approach printed versus electronic text:
The printed word is presented to us in a linear way, with syntax supreme in conveying the sense of the words in their order.  We read privately, mentally listening to the writer’s voice and translating the writer’s thoughts.  The book remains static and fixed; the reader journeys through it.  Picking up the book in the first place entails an active pursuit of understanding.  Holding the book, we are aware of posterity and continuity.  Knowing that the printed word is always edited, typeset and proof-read before it reaches us, we appreciate its literary authority…
….these conditions are overturned by the new technologies.  Information is presented…in a non-linear way, through an exponential series of lateral associations.  The internet is a public “space” which you visit…we read material…entirely passively because all of the associative thinking has already been done on our behalf.  Electronic media are intrinsically ephemeral, are open to perpetual revision, and work quite strenuously against any sort of historical perception.
 I think this is brilliant, and so true.  We too heavily rely on links as the “connections”, without always exploring our own intellectual connections to the text.  Passivity instead of active pursuit do make a difference in how you approach your learning and how your brain thinks.  Punctuation and correctly formed sentences force you to think as you read and write, and assist you in considering the best way to express yourself in order to make yourself correctly understood by others.
Is language changing so quickly, and is our reliance on the electronic word so pervasive, that print and punctuation will be a thing of the past for those who come after us?  Will we simply send links and un-punctuated, abbreviated words (cu b4 i go to the concert altho im not sure how ill get there) as communication and let others figure things out for themselves, perhaps leading to more serious consequences and misunderstandings?  Although, to be sure, Grandma is probably safe! 

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