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).