English punctuation has always been a thorny subject and one that keeps our editors busy here in the office.
Luckily I was educated in a Grammar School (pun intended) so do my best to keep the pendants happy but when I recently went to a talk by the great punctuation pundit, David Crystal, I realised that, like language, the rules are ever changing.
New symbols are coming into play as new media of language use evolves. The need for more expressive symbol in social media and online communication have seen the marks used from the times when monks copied sacred texts evolve almost into a form of expression all of its own.
The use of : ) to indicate a smile or : ( to mean a frown are becoming quite popular among the young. I like > : ( as a frown or ; ) as a wink.
We have a limited number of symbols in English to break up and emphasise text and these have come in use mainly to give meaning to the written words. The finest example of this is in Lynne Truss’s book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves which made many of us realise the importance of the comma.
Punctuation marks were first given importance in the advent of printing and even to this day, typesetters have a strict code of symbols. The main ones in use by us everyday folk are the comma, full stop, semi-colon, colon and full stop.
These are used in a similar way to musical notes and one such formula given by the Erudite David Crystal is one full stop = two colons = four commas. This gives a good guide to how to read prose out loud and when to pause. Also used for emphasis are exclamation marks, question marks, brackets, dashes and inverted commas or speech marks. But you know all this and this is not meant to be a lesson in grammar merely an exploration of how we use and develop written information.
But the biggest question of all is when to use the apostrophe. This is where an interabang would come in useful. This is a relatively new sign which combines a question mark and exclamation mark which is not found on a standard keyboard.
So back to the apostrophe. The most erroneously used mark this has caused many arguments and in USA brought about the prosecution of a pair of crusading punctuation-eers who altered an error on a Government sign in the Grand Canyon. They were fined, put on probation and banned from all National parks.
Nothing so drastic has happen here in the UK but many are tempted to change signs that they come across – the famous greengrocer’s apostrophe is crying out to be corrected.
Is it so important these days to get the punctuation right? As long as we are understood probably not but it is often the strategically placed mark that gives meaning to a phrase or sentence, such as in the famous eats, shoots and leaves.
Are you a punctuation pedant? Do you use these little symbols to illustrate, emphasise or elucidate your writing? Do you feel we are using them enough or too much? The latest directives from the Government Education Department has laid down some strict guidelines for teachers to test their pupils but some feel this is stifling creativity.
David Crystal’s latest book, Making a Point, is available from Profile Books Ltd in hardback £12.99