Is This the Future of Punctuation!?
How might punctuation now evolve? The dystopian view is that it will vanish. I find this conceivable, though not likely. But we can see harbingers of such change: editorial austerity with commas, the newsroom preference for the period over all other marks, and the taste for visual crispness.
Though it is not unusual to hear calls for new punctuation, the marks proposed tend to cannibalize existing ones. In this vein, you may have encountered the interrobang, which signals excited disbelief.
Such marks are symptoms of an increasing tendency to punctuate for rhetorical rather than grammatical effect. Instead of presenting syntactical and logical relationships, punctuation reproduces the patterns of speech.
One manifestation of this is the advance of the dash. It imitates the jagged urgency of conversation, in which we change direction sharply and with punch. Dashes became common only in the 18th century. Their appeal is visual, their shape dramatic. That’s what a modern, talky style of writing seems to demand.
By contrast, use of the semicolon is dwindling. Although colons were common as early as the 14th century, the semicolon was rare in English books before the 17th century. It has always been regarded as a useful hybrid – a separator that’s also a connector – but it’s a trinket beloved of people who want to show that they went to the right school.
More surprising is the eclipse of the hyphen. Traditionally, it has been used to link two halves of a compound noun and has suggested that a new coinage is on probation. But now the noun is split (fig leaf, hobby horse) or rendered without a hyphen (crybaby, bumblebee). It may be that the hyphen’s last outpost will be in emoticons, where it plays a leading role.
Graphic designers, who favor an uncluttered aesthetic, dislike hyphens. They are also partly responsible for the disappearance of the apostrophe. This little squiggle first appeared in an English text in 1559. Its use has never been completely stable, and today confusion leads to the overcompensation that we see in those handwritten signs. The alternative is not to use apostrophes at all – an act of pragmatism easily mistaken for ignorance.
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