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What's the Future of Punctuation?

posted: 6.19.14 by Andrea Lunsford

Is punctuation disappearing in an age of ever more succinct and rushed communication?  Or is it proliferating, some say at a dazzling pace?  Megan Garber favors the view that we live in a time of “punctuation inflation.”  Citing the famous example of Victor Hugo’s one-character message (“?”) to the publisher of Les Miserables and the publisher’s equally succinct reply (“!”), indicating that sales were going very well indeed, she argues that today, given the infinite space on the Net, Hugo would likely have sent a bevy of question marks (“??????????”).  Garber also points to the blog Excessive Exclamation!!, which documents example after example of the tendency to over-exclaim (“Prime Rib Saturday!!!!”).

But Garber thinks we may have hit a punctuation peak and are now slowly moving in the opposite direction, to minimal use of punctuation or to the use of image-based punctuation (think emoji), a shift noted by Georgetown linguist Deborah Tannen, who says “I do think there’s an evolution for young people to use images more and words less.”

Garber also points readers to Emoji Dick, an all-“emojicon” telling of Melville’s classic tale.  Such experiments seem to argue against Garber’s hopeful meditation on minimalism, though I don’t think the emoji telling of stories is really going to catch on—and in any case this work is about images far more than punctuation.

Still, we are clearly living in a time of flux as far as punctuation goes, and that’s exciting to me.  I love teaching Jonathan Safran Foer’s “A Primer for the Punctuation of Heart Disease,” in which he introduces punctuation marks unique to his family (including a snowflake and a spider web).  Students have a grand time inventing special punctuation marks that seem appropriate to the kind of communication they have with family members or friends, and doing so gets them thinking about those little marks they use in their academic writing, often with very little thought.

To feed my curiosity, I just ordered Keith Houston’s Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks and look forward to learning more about these fascinating characters.

Any good tips out there for books or articles about punctuation and its future???

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