Monday, October 7, 2013

Writers should exploit all punctuation marks: Reflections on misguided campaigns to reduce punctuation types

Omissive punctuation practices on Twitter convince some observers the apostrophe is superfluous, but a recent essay in New Republic news magazine dismissed the rumors of imminent apostrophe extinction. The author, however, wasn’t exactly happy about the apostrophe’s endurance, cautioning only that leaving it out will continue to “look funny” in formal writing. 

Considering the absence of consensus about which to exterminate, the impulse to kill some disliked punctuation is surprisingly strong. George Orwell thought the semicolon unnecessary and resolved to avoid it; some writers demand abolition of the dash; competent legal writers have opposed hyphenation of many compound adjectives, claiming they’re unsightly and often unnecessary; it’s been claimed that the comma was invented or perpetuated because publishers benefit from their supposedly unnecessary consumption of space; and I’ve condemned the virgule.

This false economy of punctuation types isn’t rational, since an abundance of types for marking syntactic distinctions means greater ease for readers. We have few punctuation types not because of the uselessness of marking additional syntactic distinctions but because of the difficulties of socially coordinating on a new punctuation type, which must be commonly understood and highly practiced. Contrived punctuation doesn’t stick: it requires too great an adoption rate before it gathers momentum. Emoticons (like the smiley) may seem an exception, but they prove the rule: they augment lexicon rather than representing syntax. Lexicon accrues more rapidly than punctuation types not only because we need many more semantic distinctions but also because we more readily learn the meaning of new semantic than syntactic signs. (Acquiring words is in the genes, but writing and its punctuation are parts of culture.)

Why do some writers wish for fewer types of punctuation? One reason is that overuse and misuse often turn them against the whole type. I formed a prejudice against the virgule (/) when enduring an employer who expressed any conjoined or disjoined legal claims with a weaseling and/or. Exposure to some bad freestyle blogging incites people against the dash, and the irritating misuse of the apostrophe to create plurals of names could be enough to alienate some writers.

Another source of animus against punctuation variety is that writers often don’t understand how punctuation helps readers. On discovering that they can understand text without a certain punctuation type, they conclude that it’s unnecessary (the main argument against the apostrophe in the New Republic piece), but punctuation serves primarily to enhance cognitive fluency, not to render text intelligible or disambiguate expressions.

Finally, pedagogy’s emphasis on signaling literacy and competence through correct grammar and mechanics leads some writers to view punctuation marks as occasions for error rather than as promoters of cognitive ease. Fewer distinctions mean less embarrassment.

Using all the available punctuation marks is part of exploiting the full expressive power of written language. But keep in mind what does not follow: if variety (in punctuation types) is a spice of life, heaviness (of punctuation tokens) is a drag.