On October 22, 2011, Henry Hitchings, author of the upcoming book, The Language Wars: A History of Proper English, wrote a column in The Wall Street Journal titled “Is This the Future of Punctuation?”. In it, he proposes that English is rapidly becoming more oriented toward the spoken language than toward the conventions of written punctuation. He notes that “People fuss about punctuation not only because it clarifies meaning but also because its neglect appears to reflect wider social decline. And while the big social battles seem intractable, smaller battles over the use of the apostrophe feel like they can be won.”
After tracing the history of punctuation marks — hundreds of years ago there were no punctuation marks at all, but commas and periods had their heyday in the 17th and 18th centuries, when dashes, semicolons and apostrophes also made their marks. He also introduces a number of punctuation-mark wannabes such as the pilcrow, interrobang, hadera, and the snark.
Contemporary punctuation tends to be leaner than in formal documents of the past. Writers and editors use commas less frequently. As more people claim to have been absent from school the day the semicolon was explained, use of this handy little mark has dwindled.
Hitchings maintains that the trend toward less punctuation indicates a movement toward the reproduction of patterns of spoken language rather than the rules of writing. He notes that the dash reproduces the choppy pattern of speech and is thus more frequently employed by people trying to give a sense of breathless presence to their writing. I for one am opposed to the use of the dash in business writing. It is indeed a reproduction of speaking and thus does not belong in a carefully crafted piece of writing. In my book, Get to the Point!, I point out that the dash is like the quick kiss on the cheek or the air kiss, meant to briefly connect and then flit on to bigger and better things.
Hitchings also comments on the “eclipse of the hyphen.” He notes that in compound words the trend is now against hyphenation, so we have email, crybaby, and other compound words rendered as single words. This practice follows a long tradition of gradually easing out hyphens. The game of basketball used to be known as basket ball. It was then called basket-ball. Finally, sports writers got tired of the hyphen and the term graduated to one-word status: basketball.
Regarding the apostrophe, Hitchings points out that “The apostrophe is mainly a device for the eye, not the ear.” This is true, but if I see one more sign that says “Restroom’s” or “Please wear shoe’s in the pool area.” I don’t know what I will do.
The trend may be toward less punctuation, but the fact remains that punctuation sets the pace of your writing and clarifies which words belong together in semantic harmony. So watch out for the dashes and don’t give up on apostrophes and hyphens. People judge you by your writing, and punctuation remains a key element of good composition.
See the whole WSJ article at http://tinyurl.com/3csv7jb.