Is the period on its way out? (Also, apostrophes?)

Here is another article about the disappearing period, this one from the New York Times. The article cleverly makes its point by omitting all periods:

“We are at a momentous moment in the history of the full stop,” Professor Crystal, an honorary professor of linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor, said in an interview after he expounded on his view recently at the Hay Festival in Wales

“In an instant message, it is pretty obvious a sentence has come to an end, and none will have a full stop,” he added “So why use it?”

I’ll just point out that generally the author achieves his non-periodness by writing one-sentence paragraphs.  Periods are less important at the end of a paragraph than they are in the middle of a paragraph.  So maybe this indicates we’re on our way to changing the way we view paragraphs.  Wouldn’t surprise me.

But I also wanted to point out the decline of the use of the apostrophe in tweets and text messages. Here is Marco Rubio during a tweetstorm back in May:

If you can live with a Clinton presidency for 4 years thats your right. I cant and will do what I can to prevent it.

In Florida only 2 legitimate candidates on ballot in Nov. I wont vote for Clinton & I after years of asking people to vote I wont abstain.

On a  smart phone, adding the apostrophe requires you to do an annoying switch of keyboards.  Why bother?  The fact is, losing the apostrophe doesn’t make the tweets much more difficult to understand. Once you leave the apostrophes out of your tweets and text messages, it’s harder to add them to your emails.  Next thing you know, Donald Trump is president, and civilization has ended.

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High standards in publishing

Here’s a passage from Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano (1952), which imagines a world in which managers and engineers run the world.  A woman is explaining why she has become a prostitute.  Turns out her husband is an unsuccessful novelist.  In this world, all novels are reviewed by the National Council of Arts and Letters.

“Anyway,” said the girl, “my husband’s book was rejected by the Council.”

“Badly written,”  said Halyard primly.  “The standards are high.”

“Beautifully written,” she said patiently.  “But it was 27 pages longer than the maximum length, its readability quotient was 26.3, and–”

“No club will touch anything with an R.Q. above 17,” explained Halyard.

“And,” the girl continued, “it had an antimachine theme.”

Halyard’s eyebrows arched high.  “Well!  I should hope they wouldn’t print it!  What on earth does he think he’s doing?  Good lord, he’s lucky if he isn’t behind bars, inciting to advocate the commission of sabotage like that…”

The writer is ordered to go into public relations rather than fiction-writing, and he refuses.

“This husband of yours, he’d rather have his wife a– Rather, have her–” Halyard cleared his throat “–than go into public relations?”

“I’m proud to say,” said the girl, “that he’s one of the few men on earth with a little self-respect left.”

This comes to mind when reading this story, about Amazon removing a novel from sale because it had too many hyphens:

“When they ran an automated spell check against the manuscript they found that over 100 words in the 90,000-word novel contained that dreaded little line,” he says. “This, apparently ‘significantly impacts the readability of your book’ and, as a result, ‘We have suppressed the book because of the combined impact to customers.’”

Reynolds complained, pointing out “that the use of a hyphen to join two words together was perfectly valid in the English language”, and says he was told by Amazon: “As quality issues with your book negatively affect the reading experience, we have removed your title from sale until these issues are corrected … Once you correct hyphenated words, please republish your book and make it available for sale.”

This article treats the issue humorously, but it does play into the doomsday predictions of writers like Ursula K. LeGuin that Amazon is aiming to control who and what we can read. After all, if they can control the number of hyphens in a novel, can’t they control its readability quotient?

Well, sure. But the difference between our world and Vonnegut’s is that Amazon has competition (at least, so far) and will respond to a public outcry (again, so far).  I can imagine a world where this would be different, but that dystopian future is not here yet.

(By the way, I found Player Piano much less compelling than it was when I first read it.  Vonnegut hadn’t quite found his voice yet.)

Are missing apostrophes more important than dying teenagers?

We report, you decide.

A bizarre battle is raging in towns across Britain between lovers of the English language and local councils that are culling the humble apostrophe from street signs.

The historic university city of Cambridge was the latest in a series of places this year that have made the change, which transforms names such as King’s Road into Kings Road.

Cambridge was forced to backtrack after anonymous punctuation protectors mounted a guerrilla campaign, going out in the dead of night and using black marker pens to fill in the missing apostrophes.

Apparently an apostrophe error earlier this year caused an ambulance to go to a wrong address, resulting in a teenager dying of an asthma attack.

“National guidelines recommended not allocating new street names that required any punctuation, as, we gather, this was not well coped with by some emergency services’ software,” Tim Ward of Cambridge City Council told AFP.

Although I’m not one of those who think the language is going to hell in a handbasket, I have some sympathy for the protesters who say the solution to the problem is not to make punctuation worse, but to make the software that emergency services use better.

On a vaguely related topic: At some point when I wasn’t paying attention, the Catholic Church seems to have removed the possessive from church and school names — at least in my neck of the woods.  When I was a lad,we lived in Saint Columbkille’s parish; this is now Saint Columbkille parish.  The parochial school down the street from me is Saint Paul School.  And so on.  A brief Google search indicates that if the school uses the possessive, “Saint Paul’s,” it’s Episcopalian.

The possessive doesn’t make a lot of sense in this context, I suppose.  Public schools don’t use it; there aren’t any Martin Luther King’s High Schools.  But the possessive usage for saints is so ingrained in my neurons that I’m always stopped short when I encounter the new style.

Next thing you know I’ll be demanding that the Mass return to Latin, which, after all, is the language that God speaks.

Will texting change the meaning of the period?

Here’s an interesting article about a development I’ve noticed since I’ve started texting a lot with my kids.  Because I’m a writer and I’m fond of punctuation (and I don’t send hundreds of texts a day), I typically end my texts with a period, even though it’s a bit of a pain on an iPhone: you have to switch to a different “keyboard” first, so it takes two finger movements instead of one.  My kids typically don’t bother.  The article argues that including the period may convey something to the recipient that I certainly didn’t intend:

In most written language, the period is a neutral way to mark a pause or complete a thought; but digital communications are turning it into something more aggressive. “Not long ago, my 17-year-old son noted that many of my texts to him seemed excessively assertive or even harsh, because I routinely used a period at the end,” Mark Liberman, a professor of linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, told me by email. How and why did the period get so pissed off?

Since the default in texting is to not include the final punctuation, people will want to figure out what message you’re sending when you do it.  And maybe they’ll assume you’re being harsh and parental, instead of just being an old fuddy-dud.  The writer points out:

[T]hese newfangled, emotional uses of terminal punctuation haven’t crossed over into more traditional, thoughtful writing. (I have used the period throughout this story, and I’m in a perfectly pleasant mood.) Perhaps one day it will, though, and our descendants will wonder why everyone used to be so angry.

It’s a good thing we won’t be around to find out.

Punctuation marks as words slash sounds slash gestures

Young people nowadays?  They end their sentences with a rising intonation?  So that every sentence sounds sort of like a question?

So, I was listening to a woman on a podcast, and she was describing her mixed feelings about a movie:

“I liked it — question mark?”

She felt the need to verbalize the punctuation mark, because her typical speech pattern couldn’t convey her doubt about whether she actually liked the movie — because every sentence she spoke seemed to convey a bit of doubt anyway.

Another punctuation mark that gets verbalized is the slash used as a conjunction, as in “I walked/ran all the way home.”  But I hadn’t realized how far this had gone until my son sent me this post from the Chronicle of Higher Education. Slash has become a word used in everyday writing as well as speech — a new conjunction or conjunctive adverb.  The following usage is straightforward: the word is just substituting for the punctuation mark:

Does anyone care if my cousin comes and visits slash stays with us Friday night?

But the following usage, as the author points out, is more interesting:

I really love that hot dog place on Liberty Street. Slash can we go there tomorrow?

Or even:

JUST SAW ALEX! Slash I just chubbed on oatmeal raisin cookies at north quad and i miss you

Here slash has wandered far from the standard use of the equivalent punctuation mark.  It is introducing an afterthought or topic shift, without much in the way of a relationship to the previous sentence.  That’s super-cool and awesome!  (The word chubbed is also super-cool and awesome, by the way.)

The writer concludes:

The emergence of a new conjunction/conjunctive adverb (let alone one stemming from a punctuation mark) is like a rare-bird sighting in the world of linguistics: an innovation in the slang of young people embedding itself as a function word in the language. This use of slash is so commonplace for students in my class that they almost forgot to mention it as a new slang word this term. That young people have integrated innovative slash into their language while barely noticing its presence is all the more reason that conjunctive slash might have staying power.

All of this reminded me of Victor Borge’s famous phonetic pronunciation routine, which YouTube kindly provides:

Life would be much more interesting if we all talked like that.

Know what Dan Brown needs?! The interrobang!!!!

The interrobang is almost a real thing, and Dan Brown is successful enough to demand that his publisher give him a font that includes one, like so:

His breathless, italics-laden style is what the interrobang was designed for.  Here are some random examples from Inferno:

What the hell do they think I did? Why is my own government hunting me?!

Here he needs interrobangs in consecutive sentences:

Has the speech been canceled?! The city is in near shutdown due to the weather . . . has it kept Zobrist from coming tonight?!

This example is in Italian, although the translation apparently doesn’t require one:

“Lei è Robert Langdon, vero?!” You’re Robert Langdon, aren’t you?”

Here Brown reverses the order of the punctuation marks, for some reason that is too subtle for me to make out.  Perhaps we need a banginterro for this usage:

He turned to the woman. “How do we get up there!?”

Somewhere I learned the rule that a writer should avoid exclamation points: your prose should convey the excitement, not your punctuation. But Dan Brown doesn’t need such lessons; he needs the interrobang.

By the way, let’s not confuse the punctuation mark with this local band that I’ve actually heard play (and some of whose members have hung out at my house).  Or this other band with almost the same name.  With so many great names for bands floating around the universe, why is this happening?