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Should We Bite The Bullet Point And Kill Off Punctuation

11/03/2016 9:58 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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I'm a fan of punctuation. The comely comma. The handsome hyphen. When I proposed to my wife I paid the skywriter extra to include the question mark.

It's reassuring to know I'm not alone. Every September in the USA, sorry, the U.S.A., they celebrate National Punctuation Day. Its official website bills the pedants' party (assuming there is more than one pedant) as "a chance to remind America that a semicolon is not a surgical procedure". This is both ironic and timely given that these days punctuation is a pain in the arse.

group around computer

"The apostrophe should be before the 's'"

"No, its should go after the 's'"

"Before."

"After."

"Before!"

As time passes and language evolves it seems that punctuation is becoming less important, more a chance for Gen X to find fault with Gens Y and Z. And while there are clear signs of decline it is short-sighted to view poor literacy as the preserve of younger folk, even if social media lends itself to abbreviation and rule-breaking.

I saw a Twitter lament that read: "I spend two minutes putting together a grammatically sound tweet, only to spend the next 20 minutes working out which crimes against language I must commit to reduce it to 140 characters".

A purist would argue that you can still adhere to the principles of grammar in the search for concision. (Please note that the 'search for concision' is neither a Star Trek film nor a surgical procedure performed on infant boys.) I know people my parents' age whose proficiency in written and spoken English is poor, just as I know people younger than me who are highly skilled with our difficult tongue.

And it is a difficult tongue. I taught it for years and counselled students who thought it a mountain they would never climb. One Spanish student in London tried to buy a tube ticket to Mind The Gap. A Japanese man said he was late because his house was buggered (burgled), and a South Korean woman said there were six people in her arsehole (household).

The best way to dry their tears was to tell them that even native speakers struggle with the intricacies of English. Take, for example, the sign near my work which spruiks a breakfast special of bacon, eggs, toast and tomato's. To my arguably sad mind, which finds the English language thrilling, the author of this sign might as well have scratched their fingernails down a blackboard.

But I'm a firm believer in 'everyone makes mistakes' (I've probably made some in this blog) and so I refrain from doing what some of my former teaching colleagues might have done: storm into the shop to make the owners aware of their error, or, worse still, pull an indelible marker from my pocket and correct the sign like some spelling superhero paid by the council to safeguard the grammatical virtue of the community. Captain Question Mark perhaps?

question mark sky

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it a question mark?

Does it really matter that the apostrophe in 'tomato's' shouldn't be there? It's a regular old plural rather than the possessive. (Well, I'm assuming it's plural. The breakfast special is only $8.50, so perhaps it's singular.) That's not the point, however. The meaning of the sign is clear regardless of the fact that the only thing a tomato can possess is seeds and a little green umbilical cord that attaches it to the vine.

Context almost always makes the meaning clear, at least in regard to apostrophes, whether it's the most common you're/your lapse or its/it's, which, let's face it, when we're firing off emails or text messages at the speed of sound we can all be guilty of from time to time.

The tomato sign reminds me of the debate in the UK about declining grammar standards. A woman called Lynne Truss, who would have a coronary if she spied an emoticon, wrote a now-famous book called Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. The book, which one critic argued had a punctuation error in the dedication, laments standards of grammar in the UK and devotes entire chapters to commas, colons, hyphens and full-stops.

Sounds like a blast, I hear you say.

Somewhat ironically, the foreword to the book was written by Frank McCourt, Irish author of the bestselling book Angela's Ashes. McCourt didn't use speech marks to indicate dialogue in his book and it didn't make the slightest difference, so it strikes me as strange that such a renegade would be the advocate for a book calling for strict adherence to the rules.

One man who certainly wasn't an advocate for the toffee-nosed tome was dyslexic British comedian Marcus Brigstocke, who complained that Truss had started a trend of 'grammar bullies' in the UK who were such sticklers for the Queen's English that they were capable of going around to grocers across the nation and arrogantly correcting signs such as 'Tomato's 50p', explaining that the tomato doesn't possess the 50p and giving an impromptu grammar lesson.

Buy your fruit and f**k off, said Brigstocke. (See, no speech marks necessary. Asterisks, on the other hand...)

So, should punctuation exist or would it make life easier for all concerned if we simply did away with it? Answers on a postcard; paying particular attention to punctuation, naturally.

group around computer

"Before!"

"After!"

"Before!"

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