Thursday, September 24, 2009

Celebrating National Punctuation Day

Thursday, September 24 is National Punctuation Day. In honor of that revered holiday, I submit the following:

It seems no one does punctuation properly. Whole industries have grown up around the appropriate use of punctuation, yet despite all the helpful hints and quick and dirty tips we never seem to get it right. Even the experts argue among themselves about the correct application of punctuation. So why not ditch the whole system?

Let’s say we eliminate only those symbols that end sentences. We could save a whole lot of aggravation, not to mention ink. America and Britain could finally stop fighting about whether periods go inside or outside the quotation marks.

On the other hand, we would not know whether a writer is shouting, speaking in a normal tone of voice, or asking a question. Of course, shouting could be easily conveyed by the relatively recent and unfortunate trend of using all capital letters. Perhaps for questions we could make use of another annoying development: that of alternating uppercase and lowercase letters. Leaving a sentence with the standard mix of capital and lowercase letters could indicate a normal tone of voice.

Having solved that problem, how would we then know when to shut up? Without terminal punctuation, sentences would run into each other and soon pile up in a big lexicographical chain-reaction crash. The never-ending babble of words would devolve into nonsense. “I went running. Down the drainpipe . . .” would become “I went running down the drainpipe . . .”

Next, we should consider what would happen if we got rid of those pesky in-sentence indicators of pauses, compound modifiers, and possessives. On the positive side, we would no longer have to agonize over whether to use an em-dash or an en-dash. Disagreements about the serial comma would lose their venom and arguments over apostrophe placement would be a thing of the past.

But without that kind of punctuation, we would no longer know what belonged to whom. Anarchy would reign! We wouldn’t know where to pause, landing ourselves in a suffocating world where breathing is relegated to the status of a rarely-practiced luxury. Worse, we wouldn’t know if a green-legged aardvark had green legs and perhaps a purple body, or if said green legged aardvark were green all over and we were simply commenting on the state of its physical support system. It would be utter chaos.

Of course, there’s the nuclear option: We all stop writing and rely solely on spoken communication. There would be no more misunderstandings over misread tones of voice. Faulty interpretation due to syntactical errors and misplaced modifiers would no longer occur. A golden age of communication would be born and we could all bask in the glow of being perfectly understood at all times.

Then the real world would intrude. Green legged aardvarks everywhere might demand a more exact method of describing themselves, not to mention the poor people who don’t particularly care to run down drainpipes. Maybe our current system of punctuation, even with all its faults and imperfections, is not so bad after all. Whole industries can breathe sighs of relief and purveyors of helpful hints and quick and dirty tips can go right on hinting and tipping.

Perhaps the true utopia lies not in a new age of verbal communication, but in that ideal state where the unlettered masses realize that punctuation enthusiasts are not being annoying twerps after all. Instead, they are holding the fabric of our society together. Let us hope that National Punctuation Day brings us one step closer to that goal.