As a journalist and magazine editor, you’d expect me to be a stickler for grammar and punctuation – and in many ways, I am. I recall with some fondness the banners that lined my primary classroom walls, describing a noun as “the name of a person or a thing”, and a verb as “a doing word”. I read a lot, and like to think that’s where I picked up a natural grasp for how sentences should be structured. A well-turned phrase is a beautiful thing to behold.
But even I have my limits. Perhaps it was the brief foray into linguistics at university that taught me how language is an evolving creature, and that many of the rules and regs that we abide by now were created by so-called experts in centuries past, based on what they thought was correct usage (usually guided by a slavish admiration of the upper classes). It was this kind of diktat that signalled eternal condemnation for the “double negative”.
So I was amused to hear on the Today Programme today a light-hearted discussion regarding the increasing use of new punctuation marks, including the “smiley” and the “sark mark”. These have long been popular on social networking sites such as Facebook, while the @ symbol and the hash key are well established on Twitter. But they are starting to infiltrate other media, in particular e-mail, and two interviewees were arguing whether this was the natural course of events, or “a Bad Thing”.
It came as no surprise to hear the representative of the Apostrophe Protection Association (does such a thing really exist?) dismiss such marks as unnecessary. The summary of his case: “You should only introduce new punctuation marks if they are really needed – and these aren’t.” But his argument didn’t extend beyond this, and if I’m honest, he sounded like just the kind of traditional old fuddy-duddy who resists anything new.
In contrast, the younger man campaigning in favour put forward a lively and persuasive case as to why the marks were useful. “In an e-conversation, if I use @Justin, it means that remark is only relevant if you are following the conversation between Justin and myself,” he explained. “So why don’t you just say so?” asked the older man? “Well, why do we use ‘apostrophe s’ to denote belonging?” came the quick reply? Answer: because it cuts out a lot of waffle. (And it’s called a Saxon genitive, by the way – it goes back a very long way).
I could think of a few more reasons why such marks are to be commended. Barely seconds ago, I responded to a colleague’s e-mail with a sad face :(. That “emoticon” took all of three clicks, and spoke volumes. A smiley face can liven up an e-mail which might otherwise appear to be dry or abrupt, as is all too often the case.
Ah, you might say. This is all very well in e-mails. And that’s where I would agree with you. I wouldn’t expect to find such casual marks in print, and only find them acceptable in certain e-mails, come to that. I only use them if I feel I know the correspondent well enough, and I especially hate receiving work experience enquiries using sloppy text speak. Note to youngsters: if you can’t be bothered to write proper English at this stage, why should I be convinced that you’ll do it in the office?
Some rules can be broken, with skill, to dramatic effect. My mother has been known to reprimand me for beginning sentences with “And” or “But” (as I’ve done several times in the course of this blog). Others never should be – yesterday, I subconsciously used a superfluous apostrophe in a plural, and felt I should sit in a corner wearing a dunce’s cap as penance.
And if you want to have fun, discuss grammar and punctuation with your friends. One such status update on Facebook prompted the largest number of comments I’d ever received as various friends competed for the title of arch-pedants, while others insisted we should “get a life”. Mind you, most of them – on both sides – were journalists.