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Is Punctuation Dead?

February 16, 2015

For it is important that awake people be awake,

or a breaking line may discourage them back to

sleep;

the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe-

should be clear: the darkness around us is deep. 

William Stafford

 

It is an irony of the digital age we live in, or that is living us, or perhaps consuming us is more to the point, that as the exactness of zero and one dominates our collective world at dizzying speeds, our language is becoming less and less precise. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the ubiquitous world of texting. What an unlikely villain.

The spread of a disregard for the rules of punctuation have led some to rise up, aghast, to form groups of protestors dedicated to such noble causes as, Saving the Apostrophe! R u serious? Truly. It is now apparent that Marshall Mcluhan’s classic aphorism. “The media is the message,” has become antiquated and replaced by its technological successor, “The transaction is everything.”

In a transaction you can eliminate punctuation, letters and just about anything that impedes the speed of the process. My favorite, the question mark, has been taken to the dump along with the colon, its little brother, the far from hip semi-colon and the once ubiquitous comma. All gone. Unnecessary weight.

Right about now I could start sounding like my father, “What is the world coming to?” It is ever so tempting to be judgmental and pronounce the decline of western civilization as immanent. But I’d rather wonder, where are we going? What’s up? As I speculated a few weeks ago in The Evolution of Thumbs, there may be a lot more to the current streamlining of the written word than meets the eye.

Besides, I can’t pretend to be a grammar purist. I slept through seventh grade English when we were taught how to diagram a sentence. I still scratch my head when trying to think through the right choice as to whether a colon or the semi should be used. And really, come on all you writers, be honest, how many of you have studied The Elements of Style cover to cover? I thought so. And The Chicago Manuel of Style? Forget it.

So let’s not be too righteous just yet. What are our youngsters up to with those daring abbreviations and acrobatic leaps? What can we surmise of the nature of communication and the evolution of the written word? Is order breaking down, or a new economy of letters emerging? Perhaps both? Neither? Who can say?

This is not the first time in recent history that the rules governing composition have been upended. Faulkner wrote sentences that boggled the mind, Gertrude Stein wrote sentences that leapfrogged the mind and go back and read some poems by the great e e Cummings if you want to see punctuation turned upside down.

From time to time the rules need to be shaken off in order to free the spirit to fly into uncharted skies. Punctuation may come to serve evasion rather than truth, the persona rather than the real self. Rules can help organize and they can enslave. I say we really don’t know where we are going so let’s ride it out and see!

And yet….I have to confess a distrust in the abilities of our species to communicate effectively. I work with way too many couples that just don’t get each other. It can be staggering how off the receptors can be. Much of my job I function like a United Nations translator, trying to help the warring parties understand each other. Believe me, it can get real crazy.

But my worries about the forecasted death of punctuation go deeper than this. Skirmishes between nations, family members and intimates have and will go on for as long as humans are dependent on written and spoken language to communicate their subjective worlds. What else is at stake here? How do we benefit from the uses of punctuation?

Let’s go back to the William Stafford poem at the opening of this post. Interesting that Stafford entitled his poem, A Ritual To Read To Each Other. This is a poem about our mutual dependency and the vulnerability and fragility of both the human community and the individual self. What we say matters. How we say it matters.

And few have said it any better than William Stafford. This final line in his masterful poem is, itself, a beautiful lesson in the enrichment that punctuation brings to verse. See how he keeps us awake with a well placed comma, a break in the line allowing one lonely word and a neighboring semi-colon to help us survive the fall into sleep and awaken to the heart of a statement elaborated by dashes, another comma, more dashes and a colon that holds the tension just so, allowing that haunting warning, the darkness around us is deep, to go on ringing like a bell — all the more because it is punctuated by the finality of an atomic period.

This from a guy who really didn’t care for rules. Who understood how they could be used to oppress the people. Who discouraged students from attending writing conferences for fear that, “following the wrong god home we may miss our star.”

And we may miss more than our star. My worry is that our lives are losing a sense of punctuation and the consequence is a loss of rhythm, and spacing. We seem to be moving so fast, proving to ourselves and the world how busy, or should I say, how worthy we are, that we rarely insert a comma and pause; yes a sacred pause, to take in the good of this world, of this moment: free of charge.

Too many of the people I see find their lives punctuated by anxiety and dread. Their inner lives are all but crowded out by ambition, fear or resentment. I ache for them and try to offer up at least a semi-colon, something to make room for spaciousness. Something to allow room so that an element of ease may develop. Sadly, this is not as simple as it sounds. The darkness around us is deep, and the turmoil within is constant.

Maybe the texters are on to something. Maybe they know we are one interconnected web of communication, one indivisible matrix of relatedness and, dare we say it, love. Does it matter if the apostrophe is sent packing, or the semi-colon given a pink slip? Never much cared for that semi-colon anyway. Their one-letter words are approaching the speed of light – they are zinging here and there like quarks and neutrinos.

Who knows where we are headed? Doom or zoom? I can do without most punctuation, as long as we are able to provide our own. We need those spaces and breaks in the line of our daily tasks, we need them so we may stop and listen, listen and receive.

Oh yeah, and as long as no one does away with the blessed question mark. We’d be lost, if not for that one! For instance, how do we find our own star?

Take good care, and don’t forget to pause now and then.

Stay attuned to Philz Blog for the March posting: Living to be 101

Namaste,

Phil

 

 

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4 Responses

  1. Greg says:

    Phil, I go to a class my yoga instructor leads, she calls it, Pause. We sit together and do stretches in our chairs for about 1/2 hour, then we meditate for 20 minutes and then talk together for the rest of the hour. It’s another reminder to me to pause, just so happens that I pause a lot, it’s in the stillness and quiet I find clarity, wisdom, direction, be still and know. I appreciate you taking the time to pause and put your thoughts down on paper. Cell phones and texting I’m afraid have become another addiction, people walking around with their heads down texting or talking on the phone, while life around them passes by, we seem to be missing something important, the here and now. I know, you know what I mean, just saying, there’s a fine line between use and abuse. Thanks again for your thoughts, this is the kind of sharing I like, keep it coming.

    • Phil Kenney says:

      Hi Greg, always wonderful to hear your take on things. I know we share that appreciation for what the pausing gives. So full. You say it so well. Many thanks, Greg and I hope to hear from you again soon. Phil

  2. I agree with you and Greg, the pause is key.

    Most stress is not so much about what we are doing as it is not pausing in between (or during) the different things we do.

    I keep returning to some sense of optimism that says the universal need
    to nourish our souls, (and that which cannot be seen or proven)–
    the desire to be close to the mystery of night, stars, galaxies, dreams, death and creation–

    recurs in spite of circumstance,
    and brings us back to what matters.

    (Love the William Stafford poem,
    the ritual of reading aloud to each other is a lovely big pause
    in the stream of activity).

    • Phil Kenney says:

      Hi Laurie, and thanks so much for responding to the blog. When I think of someone who knows how to pause, I think of you. It shows up so beautifully in your painting. Next time I pause to look at the stars and the night sky I hope to see you reflected back. Thanks again

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