Punctuation evolves, full stop.

23 May 2010 0

I feel compelled to comment on a discussion about punctuation on Friday’s Today programme.

Tim Harford of Radio 4’s More or Less (which btw is awesome) was up against John Richards of the Apostrophe Protection Society (which, in its own way, is also kind of awesome, I suppose).

It wasn’t the most illuminating discussion I’ve ever heard, but it’s a convenient hook for me to hang some thoughts on.

Harford explained how the use of the @ and # signs on Twitter are new, useful forms of punctuation, with meanings specific to the Twitter context.

Richards said that “as a pedant” (his words), he didn’t approve of messing about with things when it wasn’t necessary, and that he couldn’t see any reason to use @ or # when you could just say “In reply to…” or “On the subject of…”.

All this tells us is that Richards doesn’t understand Twitter, otherwise he’d know that you want to use as few characters as possible, and you want to make your tweets searchable. There wasn’t time in the interview to point these things out to him, but I doubt whether it would have swayed his view, as I suspect he sees Twitter itself as an unnecessary innovation anyway.

Harford accepted that the use of hashtags to offer witty comment on your own tweets can be “tiresome”. But then, just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean it isn’t valid.

“I’m a little bit puzzled by John’s reluctance to consider this,” he said. “The Apostrophe Protection Society should love punctuation. I love punctuation. It’s very useful. The question is: Does it add something or not? We now communicate in writing far more than we did 20 years ago, 30 years ago because of the internet, and we need, I think, additional forms of punctuation that indicate certain subtleties.”

Justin Webb asked Richards whether the fact that “it works and people want to do it” wasn’t good enough reason to justify changes in punctuation habits.

“I’m afraid that it isn’t,” Richards replied. “Once you abandon certain rules, or if you do certain things pointlessly, it’s sliding downhill. This is where, as a pedant, I try and check this slide.”

I think he’s wrong. Or at least, he’s not right. It all depends on whether the rules are useful or not. He says apostrophes are useful, and I agree, but they’re not that useful. They’re not necessarily more useful than being able to type quickly and easily, or saving yourself a valuable character when you’ve only got 140 to play with. The rules that govern apostrophes (and the rest of punctuation and grammar for that matter) were not handed down by God and are not as clear and logical as Richards likes to believe.

It is, of course, a bit of a waste of time to be arguing with someone whose view is so entrenched, and not even very well informed. I like that he’s a stickler for accuracy, but he’s doing it for the wrong reasons. To see change only as decline, is, I think, to misunderstand language.

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