On September 24, National Punctuation Day is going to be celebrated (sort of) in America once again, which should matter if you care about language. While it’s not going to be a holiday filled with people drinking festive beverages or kissing under exclamation points hanging over the door, it is a reminder to everyone that punctuation exists for a reason.
Punctuation Day is a relatively recent day, having been conceived back in 2004 by Jeff Rubin, and it is a day that both celebrates the correct usage of punctuation in written language, and lets people that care (sometimes not so affectionately referred to as “Grammar Nazis”) freely point out and highlight punctuation errors. To many it might not seem like an especially noteworthy subject to devote an entire day to, but the punctuation is critically important to written communication and can have a huge effect on the interpretation of a sentence. For example, there’s a world of difference between “He is dead” with a period or a question mark at the end.
It’s one of the great ironies of the 21st century that despite the fact that communication devices are more prevalent than ever before, and written communication in particular is at an all-time high in human history, punctuation is often ignored or incorrectly used. The usual argument goes that now that people are using mobile devices and are on the go, they are in a hurry to get their point across. When it comes to sending a text message or only having a precious 140 character limit on Twitter, using a period, apostrophe or comma is considered wasteful, especially with the prominence of emojis.
Of course, this was all happening even before the emergence of smartphones and tablets became more important as writing devices than speaking devices. This was already happening thanks to early users of messaging systems like ICQ, as well as the 140 character limits that early text messages were confined to. For many years now, people have used speed—or poor typing skills—as the excuse to forgo punctuation because the feeling was that sentences would be able to stand on their own without all those “extras.”
A sentence, or an entire paragraph that used no punctuation whatsoever would be difficult to understand.
This, of course, is untrue. Punctuation is about precision in language, and the more it is used, the easier it is to be understood. A sentence, or an entire paragraph that used no punctuation whatsoever would be difficult to understand, and if the question mark disappeared, it would extremely difficult for people using written communication to get questions and answers out.
On the other hand, English is still a “live” language, and thus still evolving. Many years ago, the hyphen was in much more common use than it is now, and words like “today” were actually written as “to-day,” something that is now considered grammatically incorrect. There could very well come a day when powerful communication devices have a standard stock of emojis or emoticons and these are used in conjunction with written language to convey specific emotions.
While it’s not impossible to imagine a day like that just a few decades away, at the same time it will be sad to see classics of literature updated for modern language, with timeless lines like “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo” tagged with smiling hearts at the end of the sentence.