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Wilf Popoff

Wasted Words: Recasting Punctuation

Wasted Words-Recasting PunctuationI recall Victor Borge’s celebrated skit where he reads a story aloud while sputtering rude noises as punctuation. Borge reasoned that if such detail was vital for a reader’s grasp it was likewise for a listener’s.

The Great Dane died before Cyberia’s scribbling and texting mania laid siege to orthodox punctuation, so today his skit would bewilder many.

Of course Borge was being facetious: punctuation was invented to denote pauses and intonation that clarify speech. But now segregating speech from writing might be disputed.

With nine trillion text messages each year, a total projected to multiply, punctuation’s role is shifting.

Clever people are fretting that texters no longer talk to each other. Nonsense, say others. Texting is the new conversation. Thumbs have annihilated tongues. The text-is-talk view is upheld in numerous articles. Some research suggests that messages ending with periods are viewed as rude, insincere or passive aggressive.

Exclamation marks and emojis trump the offensive stop and are more reader-friendly because they imitate speech. This helps explain why the apostrophe is on life support; we don’t voice it when speaking.

I haven’t noticed changes in the texts I receive, but I’m an outlier. I do get annoying emails adorned with exclamation marks and emojis; they’re also teeming with multiple periods.

But after three decades we’ve yet to settle email protocol, as Frances Peck demonstrated in this space two weeks ago when she tackled salutation punctuation, triggering a volley of comments.

Where are we heading? For decades writers were urged to use conversational style but within the bounds of convention. Texting has gone beyond that and is creating new conventions.

In my early newspaper days, punctuation could be oppressive. Out-of-town reports usually came by telegraph, which lacked punctuation. A dispatch would read: THE PREMIER COMMA SPEAKING TO A CROWD OF FIFTY FARMERS COMMA SAID OPEN QUOTES WE WILL FIGHT FOR BETTER GRAIN PRICES STOP CLOSE QUOTES

Copy editors made necessary revisions before this went to the typesetters.

Publishers paid for these reports by the word so every comma and stop counted. Now they’re free and nobody wants them.


Previous “Wasted Words” post: Quarrelling With Pronouns.

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About the author

Wilf Popoff

When Wilf Popoff started editing, John Diefenbaker was prime minister, editors used pencils, and IBM mainframe computers were moving from vacuum tubes to transistors. Wilf is a former editor of Active Voice.

3 Comments on “Wasted Words: Recasting Punctuation”

  • Anita Jenkins


    LOVE this article!! [Insert various emojis.]

  • Marnie Schaetti


    I’m afraid I’m a long way from letting go of periods. I may be abashed to admit it, but I’ve been known to use semi-colons in text messages.

    • Melanie Norman


      LoL; me, too!

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