Beside the point? Punctuation is dead, long live punctuation | Aeon Essays


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Florence Hazrat

is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the School of English at the University of Sheffield, working on parentheses in Renaissance romance. Her first book ‘Refrains in Early Modern Literature’ is forthcoming, and she is currently writing a book called ‘Standing on Points: The History and Culture of Punctuation’.Listen here

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Punctuation is dead – or is it? If you’ve ever texted ‘im here’ or ‘its in the car’, you’re in good company. Most of us have, at some point since the dawn of texting, transgressed the boundaries of good grammar, and swallowed one apostrophe or another in the name of speed or convenience. Studies have shown that such textisms as deliberate spelling mistakes, abbreviations and omission of apostrophes don’t deteriorate language skills, but boost them – provided such texting goes hand in hand with ‘proper’ grammar education.

Suppressing the little typographical hook that is the apostrophe might, however, pose graver issues when it occurs in public, such as in ads or pub signs, or even street names. Is it different if the state flaunts language rules? Enter the international Apostrophe Protection Society, with its attempts to call out misuse and spread good practice. But November 2019 saw the announcement of the society’s demise, and owing not only to the highly respectable age of its founder John Richards (96): it would close, the society said, because of the ‘ignorance and laziness present in modern times’. The announcement made global news, sky-rocketing the traffic on the charmingly old-school website some 600 times, which led to its temporary disappearance from the web, and an outcry against the society’s closure. Punctuation habits might be changing, but we still care.

Are prescribed grammar rules necessary, though, or a relic of some fussy conservatism and elitist era? Do we really need apostrophes (or any other mark of punctuation for that matter) or could we get rid of them for the sake of brevity? Is Princes Street rather than Prince’s or even the formidable Princes’ Street really a sign of our careless inattention to detail today? If punctuation can fall away and the words still make sense, why did we need it in the first place? Punctuation, like any other cultural production, has a tumultuous history full of public good and personal interest.