We have had interesting discussions in the past on this blog about the use of language. This New Yorker article by Adrienne Raphel titled A History of Punctuation for the Internet Age discusses the evolution of punctuation over time and the strong feelings that it generates between purists and those who are more tolerant of contemporary modifications.
“There are two extreme views about punctuation,” [linguist David Crystal] writes, “the first is that you dont actually need it because its perfectly possible to write down what you want to say without any punctuation marks or capital letters and people can still read it youdontevenneedspacesbetweenwordsreally.” The second view is that punctuation is essential, not only to avoid ambiguity but also because it “shows our identity as educated people.” Crystal walks the reader through the history of punctuation, from scriptura continua—that is, words written without spaces between them—to the more punctuated present. In Old English manuscripts, punctuation is idiosyncratic; to denote word divisions, writers tried a variety of strategies: dots, spaces, “camel case” (that is, using capital letters rather than spaces ToMarkTheBeginningsOfNewWords). Then the rise of printing created the demand for a standardized system.
Crystal says that people who view with alarm developments like the abbreviations used in texting should calm down, because language is always being reinvented and we do not need to have a single system because often people adopt two or more conventions to use in different contexts.
“The big thing about language is that it always changes,” Crystal told me. “Since the Internet came along, it has never moved so fast.” This has helped to make finger-wagging very popular. Lynne Truss’s 2004 best-seller “Eats, Shoots and Leaves,” for instance, cried that “everywhere one looks, there are signs of ignorance and indifference.” In 2008, Crystal published “Txtng: The Gr8 Db8,” a response to what he describes as the “moral panic” that had been spreading in the United Kingdom and the United States since around 2000, when texting became an everyday experience. A 2007 Daily Mail article titled “I h8 txt msgs” had declared that “SMS vandals” were “pillaging our punctuation; savaging our sentences; raping our vocabulary. And they must be stopped.” Crystal rebuffed these drastic claims: the supposed “innovations” of texting, he notes—abbreviations, omitted letters, ideograms, nonstandard spellings—have been features of the language for centuries.
He advises what he refers to “pragmatic tolerance” to the rules of punctuation that are currently in existence: “Know them, so that you can break them, when they should be broken.”