Archive: October 10th, 2007

Punctuation Can Save the World?

Save the worldI talked last time about the importance of style and substance working together to make you look as good as you really are–to back up your knowledge with an assured, confident style in order to be convincing. I’ve also talked rather grandiosely–if not absurdly–about punctuation and punctuality as the basis for civilization itself.

That is an absurd concept, I admit it. Or at least, it sounds like an absurd concept.

Is it, though?

Humans are the only species known to communicate with a series of ordered sounds that define actual language. Other species have their own forms of communication–barks, howls, whimpers, not to mention body language–and I would never imply that they do not share information with each other. No pack of hunting wolves is going to target the exact
same sheep without some form of communication about “that one over there,” but I wouldn’t call it a language in the classic sense. (“Communication of thoughts and feelings through a system of arbitrary signals, such as voice sounds, gestures, or written symbols.”)

Then, even if wolves, dolphins, apes, elephants, and parrots truly are speaking, I’ve never seen any evidence of them ever writing anything down. No shopping lists. (“Get some more bananas while you’re out, would you dear?”) No history. No pictograms on cave walls. The written language is solely human. There are signs of “proto-writing” as early as the 4th millenium B.C., and the concept of the alphabet goes back as far as the 8th century B.C. Twenty-eight hundred years of shopping lists and business inventory. Millenia of love letters, philosophy, educational texts.

Punctuation came later, an aid to reading aloud. (“Inhale here.”) Spelling standards have been in place for centuries. These have themselves evolved into a firm structure of rules and standards which make it possible for us humans to communicate across both miles and years. Which, when you think about it, is a breath-taking accomplishment, the most astounding time-travel trick in our entire history.

So, clearly, the concept of a system of language and writing has been evolving for quite some time. Yet, of late, how many cryptic, poorly-punctuated notes have you gotten? “C U L8er,” for example. The more or less constant misuse of the word “it’s” as the possessive form. The apparent impossibility of anyone to remember which form of “there” should be used at any given moment.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this means civilization is collapsing. That would be silly. But doesn’t it seem equally silly arbitrarily to toss away standards that have been millennia in the making?

Will correct punctuation save the world? Well, no, of course not. Neither will everyone showing up on time to their appointments. But it certainly couldn’t hurt.