Punctuation in the past, present and future

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First aired on Babel (06/08/12)


Punctuation can help clarify what we mean and even emphasize certain points. But with the proliferation of smart phones, tablets and Twitter, many of us are tapping out shorter messages faster, often tossing punctuation aside. Or, to make sure our message is noticed, we use punctuation excessively, using five exclamation points instead of one!!!!!

Digital technology is rapidly changing the way we use punctuation. But this isn't the first time it's happened. It also occurred in the 15th century, with the invention of the printing press. Henry Hitchings is the author of several books about the English language, and he has followed the evolution of punctuation for several years. His latest book is The Language Wars: A History of Proper English, and he stopped by Babel to discuss punctuation usage in the past -- and what we can expect heading into the future.

Punctuation is a relatively new English tool. "There was a time when there was no punctuation in English," Hitchings told Babel host Mariel Borelli. "One had to rely on a sense of context and past experience to decipher what was there on the page." Punctuation didn't enter common use until the 11th and 12th centuries and even then, the periods and commas were designed to aid public speakers, not standardize the text itself. "Texts were meant to be performed out loud and the punctuation was there as a kind of aid to that," he said. "It is like sort of a musical score."


That all changed in the 15th century, with the advent of the printing press. At the time, English had 30 or so occasionally used pieces of punctuation. The printing press trimmed that down to approximately 15. This was done "in the interests of practicality and economy," Hitchings said. Punctuation also developed two standard purposes, the first being to "to clarify syntax, to clarify meaning" and the second being to pose rhetorical points.

These practices are largely still in use today, but increasingly digital communication is changing everything. "We live in an age which is obsessed with the speed of communication, the immediacy of communication," Hitchings said. We're communicating so much that punctuation has become less important. It's the emotion or intent behind the communication that matters. "There's been a move towards punctuating a bit less and a bit more in step with the rhythms of speech. I think there's an increased feeling that punctuation is largely superfluous."

One piece of punctuation to suffer in the digital age is the apostrophe. "It's always been quite an unstable punctuation mark," Hitchings said, adding that it's never been as popular or as standardized as we might think. The apostrophe has been around for only 400 years. But it's not popular with brands or in graphic design and many people don't think twice about using "your" for "you're" when texting or emailing. "One sees apostrophes being abused more and more, to the extent where I think I see incorrectly used apostrophes more than I see correctly used apostrophes," Hitchings said, and that's why he believes it's at risk.

Other pieces of punctuation are experiencing a revival because of the digital age, such at the @ symbol. It was "quite an arcane piece of punctuation" until email was invented. It gained popularity and is being used as a communication tool on Facebook and Twitter and "it's become absolutely central" to contemporary communication. Hitching thinks the @ symbol isn't alone in having a comeback. We just need to see where technology takes us, and be open to new tools to help us communicate.

"We're going to see certain punctuation marks disappearing from use and we're going to see other punctuation marks coming in because they seem like funky new innovations."

Photo by mag3737. Licensed via Creative Commons.

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