The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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De inventione punctus

All signs suggest punctuation is in flux. In particular, our signs that mark grammatical (and sometimes semantic) distinctions are waning, while those denoting tone and voice are waxing. Furthermore, signs with a slim graphical profile (the apostrophe and comma, especially) are having a rough go of it. Compared to the smiley face or even the question mark, they’re too visually quiet for most casual writers to notice or remember, even (or especially) on our high-def screens.

But we’re also working within the finite possibilities and inherited structures of our keyboards. It’s the age of secondary literacy: writing and reading transformed by electronic communication, from television to the telephone.

See 1. Jan Swafford’s unfortunately titled “Why e-books will never replace real books,” which takes seriously Marshall McLuhan’s argument that print (and computers, too) change the ways we think and see:

I’ve taught college writing classes for a long time, and after computers came in, I began to see peculiar stuff on papers that I hadn’t seen before: obvious missing commas and apostrophes, when I was sure most of those students knew better. It dawned on me that they were doing all their work on-screen, where it’s hard to see punctuation. I began to lecture them about proofing on paper, although, at first, I didn’t make much headway. They were unused to dealing with paper until the final draft, and they’d been taught never to make hand corrections on the printout. They edited on-screen and handed in the hard copy without a glance.

Handwriting is OK! I proclaimed. I love to see hand corrections! Then I noticed glitches in student writing that also resulted from editing on-screen: glaring word and phrase redundancies, forgetting to delete revised phrases, strangely awkward passages. I commenced an ongoing sermon: You see differently and in some ways better on paper than on computer. Your best editing is on paper. Try it and see if I’m right. You’ll get a better grade. The last got their attention. The students were puzzled and skeptical at first, but the ones who tried it often ended up agreeing with me.

And especially, see 2. Anne Trubek’s “The Very Long History of Emoticons“:

A punctuation purist would claim that emoticons are debased ways to signal tone and voice, something a good writer should be able to indicate with words. But the contrary is true: The history of punctuation is precisely the history of using symbols to denote tone and voice. Seen in this way, emoticons are simply the latest comma or quotation mark… The earliest marks indicated how a speaker’s voice should adjust to reflect the tone of the words. Punctus interrogativus is a precursor to today’s question mark, and it indicates that the reader should raise his voice to indicate inquisitiveness. Tone and voice were literal in those days: Punctuation told the speaker how to express the words he was reading out loud to his audience, or to himself. A question mark, a comma, a space between two words: These are symbols that denote written tone and voice for a primarily literate—as opposed to oral—culture. There is no significant difference between them and a modern emoticon.

I <3 @atrubek. And I’m feeling all zen about this observation of hers, too: “A space is a punctuation mark.” There’s a whole philosophy in that idea, I know it.

I’m also feeling all zen about this idea that computer screens (keyboards, too) are sites of multiple, overlapping, and conflicting cultures, and that it’s up to us (in part) to help decide what the assumptions of those cultures are. —–>
<----- --->Here, see 1. The Slow Media Manifesto, and 2. Nick Carr’s much-debated (whaaa? Nick Carr in a debate?) post about “delinkification“, which is actually a pretty solid meditation on the rhetoric of the hyperlink (you could say, the way we punctuate them). In short, if you think the superimposed montage of words and link of in-text hyperlinks pose some cognition/decision problems, which might not be appropriate to all kinds of reading, then it might make sense to try using a different strategy (like footnoting), instead. And being the relatively sophisticated mammals we are, in different contexts, we can sort these strategies out (even if we don’t fully understand that or how we’re doing it).

June 29, 2010 / Uncategorized


Tim Carmody says…

Two notes:

1. The weird arrows (—->) are my attempt to get a little freaky-deaky with punctuation for the web. They roughly translate to, “hey, think about that for a little minute, go follow that link (—>), then come back here(<---), 'cause I've got more links you can read (--->).”

2. The post title is probably super-confusing, and if it’s any consolation, it might be even more confusing if you know any Latin, ’cause it could actually mean a dozen different things. No idea if my grammar is right. At all. Or even if I want it to be.

Anne Trubek says…

let’s give Walter Ong some props for that point ascribed to McLuhan. I <3 Walter Ong. And @tcarmody.

🙂 post.

Totally. Petrus Ramus, baby — one of the most inspired/inspiring reads ever. (And with Ramus’s Attack on Cicero, and me lifting “De Inventione” from Captain Chickpea himself, we’ve come full circle.)

Also: “secondary literacy,” that’s all Father Ong. I really, really want to help that phrase catch on. Especially because it’s true.

Captain Chickpea! *laughs, snorts milk*

Tim Carmody says…

I got you, Sloan. I got you. 🙂

My favorite little bit of punctuation is importing ~ from math to writing to indicate a statement or sentiment or description that is only approximate or uncertainly held; short hand for anything from sorta to around. “~true.” “He writes about ~San Francisco.”

Tim Carmody says…

Math and science punctuation is a whole other thing, especially since mathematicians (in particular) are not at all shy from just flat out inventing or repurposing signs to mean different things. Like, I could say {y := ~x | x-d0}, or I could say ~x := NOT x, which is what it sometimes means in formal logic. No problem, so long as I define my terms or make clear which convention I’m using.

(Not coincidentally, my favorite mathematical punctuation symbol is =>, for “implies.”)

I’d say, too, that punctuation’s use in programming and markup languages is a MAJOR part of this story, one which I haven’t really addressed here. Again, established punctuation plays all sorts of roles here, fundamentally different ones from those they play in natural written language. Think about what ., “, @, $, #, %, *, /, ! all mean in markup.

So one part of this story is about changes in the conditions in which human beings are reading ordinary languages on screens. And another is about the changes in the way computers and computer programs are processing these symbols — which in turn, like musical notation, are sight-reading intelligible to an increasingly large portion of the population.

This is all by way of a preview to a sequel post that I’m writing now, which is mostly about Twitter hashtags.

Nicely done, dude.

It’s been interesting to watch how people are experimenting with punctuation, particularly to mimic the emphasis or tone of certain phrases. If you’ll excuse me, my favourite example is “What. The Fuck.” as it’s pretty spot on in terms of capturing the way the pause emphasises incredulity (I think). It deliberately breaks rules of syntax and does so brilliantly. Same thing for the “Best. Post on Punctuation. Ever.” formulation.

Also, in previous posts, we’ve talked about writing as performative. Given @atrubek’s point about punctuation occupying the distance between the static printed page and ‘dynamic’ speech, I wonder if the function of punctuation shifts or changes when the medium of visual language (um, I didn’t know how to say ‘printed word’) is dynamic – or, maybe more importantly, has the capacity to exist in time or be temporal or something. Sorry, that’s not super clear – I mean to inject that linear temporality into language like Spreed Reader or something. Clearer? Erm… you get what I’m saying right? Punctuation is trying to (re)produce the flow of time – and screens can ‘put language in time’. Or something.

Tim Carmody says…

Yeah, I’m pretty sure I get what you’re saying. There’s a performative engagement with the reader of a text that’s foregrounded in electronic writing. Less of a sense that the text is timeless, a greater appreciation that there’s a temporal attentional frame that actually gives the writer some room to play.

It’s not quite real-time. It’s time-shifted; sometimes I call it “my time,” the time of the DVR, the IM chat, the blog comment, the RSS feed. It’s there when you want it — when you, as a reader, are ready to activate it.

For instance, check out this older post I wrote about this, called “From space to time.” It’s pretty good, I think. I hadn’t thought about it in a while.

Go ahead, read it now. I’ll be here when you get back.


Got it? Right. Thanks.

So: The possibilities for working with this, especially given some sophisticated interactive software, are pretty cool. But, as Anne points out, the original technology that shows a reader how to interact with a text, to make it speak, is punctuation. And that’s how we (still) use it.

@Nav: I love your point about the mid-sentence periods. It’s funny how it is 100% not “correct” usage and yet so obviously 100% correct (in terms of communicating what you want to communicate). Awesome.

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