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Noted: The Past and Future of Punctuation

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There are inherent problems with digital communication — the emotions that define us as empathic beings are lost somewhere between the pixels. I can’t imagine the amount of relationships and business deals that have gone sour due to a misunderstanding in an email or text. When I receive messages from friends, I’m always asking myself: does this smiling emoticon really mean you are happy? Does this exclamation point mean you are excited or angry? Sometimes, the ambiguity of our electronic communication is too much to handle.

The way we “LOL” and “ROFL” with abandon, it seems our language is doomed to fall apart in its printed form. Fortunately, things might not be as bad as they seem; an article in The Wall Street Journal written by Henry Hitchings reveals that since the invention of the printing press, we’ve constantly invented new punctuation marks in hopes of better communicating the meaning of our words. One of the oldest punctuation marks, the leaf-like Hedera, was first used to indicate a separation between text and commentary. It was laid to rest by the Pilcrow, a sort of backwards “p” that denotes a new paragraph.

From left to right: the hedera, pilcrow and interrobang.

Some of our punctuation experiments might be well received if reintroduced today. The mark that seems most suited to contemporary society is the point d’ironie, a backwards question mark created in the 16th century by printer Henry Denham. Detecting irony in emails today is almost impossible — its subtlety is almost entirely dependent on voice inflection and facial expressions.

“How might punctuation now evolve? The dystopian view is that it will vanish,” writes Hitchings. While many of the writing conventions we use today might change or disappear, we need punctuation more than ever. As a greater percentage of our lives exists in a written format — phone calls are now often replaced by text messages — we will require more detailed symbols to convey complex emotions. The forefathers of print built punctuation from nothing; the written word in the Medieval era didn’t contain so much as a comma. So perhaps it’s time to take a lesson from the inventors of print — viva l’interrobang!

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Chappell Ellison is a designer, writer and design writer. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York where she serves as a contributor for The Etsy Blog and design columnist for GOOD.

3 Featured Comments

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  • AlannaRK

    AlannaRK says: Featured

    I dislike communicating electronically simply for the fact that I am always worrying how every little statement will be taken. As much as I loathe the over use of exclamation points and that the : ) is anywhere in my message it really does make a difference sometimes. Very interesting articles.

    3 years ago

  • KOszko

    KOszko says: Featured

    I love the look and feel and use of punctuation, but punctuation is not language. I think it's a bit much to say "our language is doomed to fall apart in its printed form" - as you point out, there was no punctuation in early texts, and we all use shortenings all the time, eg, etc and so on. Humans are hugely adaptable - our language has been around for a long time, and we will continue to be able to communicate long long into the future. After all, we survived the telephone - that apparatus that blanked out all non-verbal nuances.

    3 years ago

  • PrettyPatriots

    PrettyPatriots says: Featured

    I think that punctuation is hugely important, but I also think that many people don't slow down enough to think about the punctuation of what they are saying. The emotion, intent, and meaning of their words becomes lost in the need for speed, so quickness becomes the intent rather than accuracy. I must admit to thinking the world would be slightly brighter without so many LOL's and LU's and IMU's. If you can't find the time to properly type and punctuate our emotions than are they true emotions at all?

    3 years ago

  • NobleTextiles

    NobleTextiles says:

    Very interesting article!

    3 years ago

  • GloryBDesign

    GloryBDesign says:

    I like the idea of the point d’ironie! It would come in very handy! I think we also need a punctuation mark denoting sarcasm!

    3 years ago

  • MegansMenagerie

    MegansMenagerie says:

    Great post!

    3 years ago

  • Parachute425

    Parachute425 says:

    A backward question mark! I could really use that.

    3 years ago

  • MootiDesigns

    MootiDesigns says:

    Great post. Thanks for sharing!

    3 years ago

  • AvianInspirations

    AvianInspirations says:

    For a hilarious and quick read on punctuation, I highly recommend "Eats, Shoots and Leaves" by Lynne Truss.

    3 years ago

  • myvintagecrush

    myvintagecrush says:

    Great read! I could stand a bit less "LOL"s myself ;)

    3 years ago

  • ArtDecoDame

    ArtDecoDame says:

    Yes,the point d’ironie would come in very handy!

    3 years ago

  • BeatificBijoux

    BeatificBijoux says:

    The pointe d'ironie is brilliant! We could really use that today. Interesting read!

    3 years ago

  • audreytolove

    audreytolove says:

    So inspiring!

    3 years ago

  • volkerwandering

    volkerwandering says:

    Interesting article! I like the question/exclamation mark.

    3 years ago

  • HouseOfMoss

    HouseOfMoss says:

    We sure do need a punctuation mark for sarcasm!

    3 years ago

  • FluffyFlowers

    FluffyFlowers says:

    i live in the deep south. nothing bugs me more than seeing y'all spelled ya'll. y'all is a contraction of you all. lol & :) (just for effect)

    3 years ago

  • AlannaRK

    AlannaRK says: Featured

    I dislike communicating electronically simply for the fact that I am always worrying how every little statement will be taken. As much as I loathe the over use of exclamation points and that the : ) is anywhere in my message it really does make a difference sometimes. Very interesting articles.

    3 years ago

  • satellitedaisy

    satellitedaisy says:

    As a lover of the !!!!! I am for all the punctuation I can get!

    3 years ago

  • ThoseThreeWords

    ThoseThreeWords says:

    Love the interrobang, what a perfect name for a question and exclamation combination! Very interesting article.

    3 years ago

  • Verdurebydesign

    Verdurebydesign says:

    It seems electronic communication is making our language genetic. We are loosing those words that are unique to our area.

    3 years ago

  • TeenahTime

    TeenahTime says:

    Thank you for this insight. I find that I hesitate to sucumb to too much digital slang. I like to just spell things out. It helps out when it comes to miscomunication.

    3 years ago

  • Colettesboutique

    Colettesboutique says:

    Interesting article. I like the idea of a punctuation mark for sarcasm. That would be cool!

    3 years ago

  • thebeadgirl

    thebeadgirl says:

    as a former graphic designer i have always been fascinated with type and typesetting. i just taught my kids about the first printing press. so so awesome! the power of punctuation :)

    3 years ago

  • RivalryTime

    RivalryTime says:

    I love Typography.

    3 years ago

  • montgomerycrystalco2

    montgomerycrystalco2 says:

    in order to be understood at all we all need to learn correct punctuation, if just to be able to discard and/or improve upon it. correct spelling's even more important. what about "~" for sarcasm? [although if employed correctly, sarcasm goes noted only by its' instigator.]

    3 years ago

  • PeggyHoo

    PeggyHoo says:

    I love this. I added a link to it at my Copy Editing Forum Web site.

    3 years ago

  • halfmoonroad

    halfmoonroad says:

    Very interesting.

    3 years ago

  • lauraslastditch

    lauraslastditch says:

    Interesting! The linked Wikipedia article was, as well. Not sure what I'll do, though, because I haven't figured out emoticons or texting acronyms yet!

    3 years ago

  • Lauzz

    Lauzz says:

    There is an punctuation mark for irony! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Irony_punctuation Wonderful article

    3 years ago

  • KOszko

    KOszko says: Featured

    I love the look and feel and use of punctuation, but punctuation is not language. I think it's a bit much to say "our language is doomed to fall apart in its printed form" - as you point out, there was no punctuation in early texts, and we all use shortenings all the time, eg, etc and so on. Humans are hugely adaptable - our language has been around for a long time, and we will continue to be able to communicate long long into the future. After all, we survived the telephone - that apparatus that blanked out all non-verbal nuances.

    3 years ago

  • Jackphelpsstudio

    Jackphelpsstudio says:

    Very cool!

    3 years ago

  • ToosDetectiveAgency

    ToosDetectiveAgency says:

    Before we add any new punctuation marks, I everyone needs to get a grip on the proper use of what we already have. The incorrect use of apostrophes I see on a daily basis is embarrassing!

    3 years ago

  • everythingok

    everythingok says:

    I'd love to see the pointe d'ironie come into common usage. This would be well genius! I'm concerned about the future of punctuation, admittedly. I've recently been noticing a lot of public and business signage dropping apostrophes where they would normally be present. The reasoning behind this is a complete mystery to me; if anything, it makes signage that much more unclear, and I'm quite sure those little dabs of paint can't have made that much of a dent in municipal and business budgets. As for other matters of punctuation, I'm admittedly one of those nerds who insists on using an Oxford comma. Even some of my colleagues in the English department think I'm a stick-in-the-mud about it, but consider this: http://26.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lrnbgssGYo1qz8ujuo1_500.jpg Kind of a necessary distinction, no? Also, I was greatly dismayed a few years ago when taking a second-year level undergrad course in English that our instructor told us in no uncertain terms just not to bother trying to use a semicolon because no one knows how to use it correctly. I'm pretty sure a quick lesson in 15-minutes or less could have rectified this; it doesn't take a genius to figure out its usage, and it really comes in handy, especially in academic writing. I didn't mean to ramble on this much.

    3 years ago

  • RossLab

    RossLab says:

    I am reading The Elements Of Style by E.B.White, and I strongly suggest it to anyone interested in proper punctuation. The illustrations by M.Kalman are just as beautiful.

    3 years ago

  • CinnabarTree

    CinnabarTree says:

    I love letterforms and it's great to see someone making art from them.

    3 years ago

  • Shoshannah

    Shoshannah says:

    I like the idea of the heart point in the wikipedia irony mark article! I often have thoughts and feelings that I wish could be expressed with a more "lovey" tone of voice.

    3 years ago

  • katrinaalana

    katrinaalana says:

    That is so true. There are so many things that can be misconstrued with digital messages.

    3 years ago

  • mazedasastoat

    mazedasastoat says:

    Correct grmmar, punctuation & spelling need to be mastered before we start to add to it or change it. There seem to be an awful lot of young people who have never been taught the basics, which is a real shame.

    3 years ago

  • HomeStudio

    HomeStudio says:

    Interesting subject and very timely. Thanks!

    3 years ago

  • studiorandom

    studiorandom says:

    I've spent some time on the forum for a browser game and the players there have come up with a novel approach to the irony question. Any time they're being sarcastic, they post it in blue font. It's a shame we can't control font color everywhere we post comments or this might catch on elsewhere. It's not like the big experts are helping with the punctuation issue, though. Like the decision to eliminate the Oxford comma. Terrible idea.

    3 years ago

  • robertcoffin

    robertcoffin says:

    LOL. Way overused.

    3 years ago

  • HiddenMeadows

    HiddenMeadows says:

    The Hedra is awesome... Perhaps one day we will use it again. Thanks for such and interesting article. There is definitely a lack of communication with our punctuation marks today...

    3 years ago

  • HiddenMeadows

    HiddenMeadows says:

    Ooops, I meant Hedera. Sorry for the misspelling!

    3 years ago

  • mystichintime

    mystichintime says:

    Very Interesting article. Especially for the punctually challenged like myself.

    3 years ago

  • thewiredgoat

    thewiredgoat says:

    These would be great. Is there an app for Blackberry? (point d’ironie)

    3 years ago

  • accentonvintage

    accentonvintage says:

    Interesting article!

    3 years ago

  • LZsussies

    LZsussies says:

    fabulous article .

    3 years ago

  • Iammie

    Iammie says:

    Cool! Enjoy reading it!

    3 years ago

  • nevinackered

    nevinackered says:

    Off topic: I think 'interrobang' would make an awesome name for a band.

    3 years ago

  • urbanponyarts

    urbanponyarts says:

    love this! to me the most underrated punctuation mark is the dash- i like to sprinkle them in dickinson style!

    3 years ago

  • GemmaBeads

    GemmaBeads says:

    Viva la unicode!

    3 years ago

  • HandmadeByAlison

    HandmadeByAlison says:

    Long live punctuation! I'm afraid I'm a "comma splicer", but I do like to see the apostrophe correctly deployed. To see how tricky it can be to read without punctuation, try Don Marquis' brilliant "Archy & Mehitabel". It takes a bit of practice, but is well worth it, y'all :)

    3 years ago

  • oldecityvintage

    oldecityvintage says:

    Interesting article. I don't think people mean emoticons in terms of genuine feelings, but rather a defensive mechanism so that you don't interpret a written statement as being offensive. For example: I really like these articles, but I really miss the choice picks related to the article that used to be displayed underneath the article from etsy sellers. :( I used to find a lot of cool things on these posts that I otherwise never would have discovered. I think these articles would have more meaning to etsy- otheriwse, they seem a tad unrelated to the site . . .

    3 years ago

  • PrettyPatriots

    PrettyPatriots says: Featured

    I think that punctuation is hugely important, but I also think that many people don't slow down enough to think about the punctuation of what they are saying. The emotion, intent, and meaning of their words becomes lost in the need for speed, so quickness becomes the intent rather than accuracy. I must admit to thinking the world would be slightly brighter without so many LOL's and LU's and IMU's. If you can't find the time to properly type and punctuate our emotions than are they true emotions at all?

    3 years ago

  • LittleWrenPottery

    LittleWrenPottery says:

    I think its a little sad to see punctuation going out the window in modern communications, it can add so much personality to what you write!

    3 years ago

  • peshka

    peshka says:

    Great post. Thanks!

    3 years ago

  • deepbluesea

    deepbluesea says:

    A fabulous and inspiring article. I'm eager to see how punctuation will evolve!

    3 years ago

  • deepbluesea

    deepbluesea says:

    A fabulous and inspiring article. I'm interested to see how punctuation will evolve!

    3 years ago

  • AREjewellery

    AREjewellery says:

    I note that the article in The Wall Street Journal suggests the apostrophe will disappear. I don't understand how this can happen as it is fundamental in the actual understanding of the sentence. The ambiguity will be very confusing.

    3 years ago

  • bonobono79

    bonobono79 says:

    This article is so cool and inspiring to me. Thank you:)

    3 years ago

  • SoapGarden

    SoapGarden says:

    Love your post. Thank you!

    3 years ago

  • curiousfool

    curiousfool says:

    Great post, and great article! Perfect timing for me- I'm teaching a writing workshop tomorrow. The effect of social media (particularly Twitter, texting, and AIM) on grammar and punctuation has been a bain for years, and I'm glad to see someone call it out.

    3 years ago

  • BanglewoodSupplies

    BanglewoodSupplies says:

    Very Cool.

    3 years ago

  • VictoriaWest

    VictoriaWest says:

    ha ha ha, interrobang! the name alone sounds so funny! I'd love to see new, fun punctuation marks used more widely. It was very interesting to learn about the hedera; I had seen it before but I didn't know what it was used for, let alone that it is one of the oldest punctuation marks.

    3 years ago