In which I offer a series of exciting thoughts on punctuation in the 21st century

Just finished a delightful little book on punctuation. No, really I did. The central theme of the book — hey, you should care about punctuation because, if you don’t, what you mean to say can run off the rails — is made through a variety of humorous reflections on individual punctuation marks. (The author, Lynne Truss, would have a real problem with my use of the dashes above, for instance. And probably my love affair with the parenthesis for that matter.)

The final chapter deals with the effects of computer-mediated communication and the Internet on punctuation usage. As you’d guess, she’s not impressed.

Anyone interested in punctuation has a dual reason to feel aggrieved about smileys, because not only are they a paltry substitute for expressing oneself properly; they are also designed by people who evidently thought the punctuation marks on the standard keyboard cried out for an ornamental function. What’s this dot-on-top-of-a-dot thing for? What earthly good is it? Well, if you look at it sideways, it could be a pair of eyes.

Clearly the emoticon is less like punctuation and more a crude surrogate for emotive language. But I think there is one aspect of computer-based writing that does deserve consideration as a new kind of punctuation: the hyperlink. By those who love the link it is usually treated as a technical feature or a design aspect. To those decrying the end of the book (and thus the end of critical thinking and thus the end of civilization) it is seen as a roadblock to sustained argument and reason. But people get too hung up on the fact that the link leads somewhere. In fact, the hyperlink really does act like punctuation, regardless of where the link takes you.

Consider how many links you encounter in prose that you do not click. Hundreds if not thousands daily. Clearly they change the structure of the sentence, whether you click on them or not. So what is the effect, from a punctuation perspective, of the unclicked link? Well, it isn’t a pause or a full stop so that means it isn’t like a comma, semi-colon, or period. (Stay with me people, this is interesting.) Assuming it is visually different from normal text, the unclicked link is more akin to a colon whose job it is to introduce some thought clearly related to what precedes it. Truss describes it so:

… [the colon] rather theatrically annoucnes what is to come. Like a well-trained magician’s assistant, it pauses slightly to give you time to get a bit worried, and then efficiently whisks away the cloth and reveals the trick complete.

The link is a multi-dimensional colon. Oh, it announces what’s to come alright, but what’s to come doesn’t exist on the same plane as what you were just reading.

The link also performs a role similar to parentheses, brackets, em-dashes, and even quotation marks. The unclicked link, in short, suggests structured meaning in prose without actually conveying an idea the way words do — which of course is exactly what punctuation does. You might say, well the link is just a fancy kind of footnote. But that too focuses too much on the function of the footnote after you’ve followed it where it leads and not on how it operates semantically in the context of the sentence. The footnote superscript is punctuative (whoa, Googlewhack candidate alert) in that it says “hey, this is important enough to require commentary.” Even if you don’t travel down the page or to the endnotes this extra bit of meaning has been conveyed by the superscript. Same with the link. It is a call-out, evidence however slight that there’s elaboration, example, or extra material nearby.

In his book Interface Culture, Steven Johnson noted the unique use of links by the now-defunct Suck site. I’d argue that the best linking on the web today has mostly caught up with the style pioneered by Suck.

The rest of the Web saw hypertext as an electrified table of contents, or a supply of steroid-addled footnotes. The Sucksters saw it as a way of phrasing a thought. They stitched links into the fabric of their sentence, like an adjective vamping up a noun, or a parenthetical clause that conveys a sense of unease with the main premise of the sentence. They didn’t bother with the usual conventions of “further reading”; they weren’t linking to the interactive discussions among their readers; and they certainly weren’t building hypertext “environments”. … Instead, they used links like modifiers, like punctuation – something hardwired into the sentence itself.

What it comes down to is only this: I am getting to the point where I don’t trust online writing that does not contain links. Just like you’re wary of the grocer who sells “apple’s” or the the writer whose sentences run on for miles without a period, I’m increasingly uncomfortable with writing that’s link-free. I may never click the links I encounter, but their presence indicates a structuring of thought that subtly affects how I approach what I am reading. Just like punctuation.

2 Responses to “In which I offer a series of exciting thoughts on punctuation in the 21st century”

  1. Anonymous says :

    “The link is a multi-dimensional colon.”
    I could not agree more!

  2. Rob O'Daniel says :

    I may be off on a tangent here, but I believe that the growing dearth of grammatical usage can be, in many ways, linked to the Internet and its affect on the way people communicate.
    The computer has, to be sure, enabled communication in ways that we probably could never have imagined. But at the same time, the advent of online chatting, instant messaging, and cell phone SMS seems to be bringing about a rapid abandonment of so many basic (should we call them ‘analog?’) language proficiencies.
    I recently ranted about a disturbing trend among U.S. schools to discontinue cursive writing as a mandatory part of the curriculum for elementary-level students. While it may not be directly related, this is certainly symptomatic of the computer’s role in the breakdown of basic communication skills.
    What’s next; will we begin accepting SMS-style butchered spelling as “good enough?” Spelling and punctuation still do matter in the real world. I’d dare say that thy’re the next level of opposable thumbs. We shouldn’t be so complacent about forgoing those skills in our mad dash towards cyber-reality.