“In writing, punctuation plays the role of body language. It helps readers hear you the way you want to be heard.” -Russell Baker
I find myself torn between two schools of thought about punctuation.
On the one hand, I am a purist. Punctuation is vitally important to the correct understanding of the written word and using it incorrectly can radically change meaning. Consider the following:
A woman without her man is incomplete.
A woman: without her, man is incomplete
These two sentences have the same words, but totally different meanings. The first says that women are only complete if they have a partner of the opposite sex, and the second that man must have a female partner to be whole. The meanings are opposite, but the words are the same. The difference in meaning shows the magic of correct punctuation.
I cringe every time I see an apostrophe used in the wrong place. There seems to be a growing trend to randomly add an apostrophe to every word that ends in an “s.” It is not just in private messages that one sees this, walking down the street one is constantly assailed by incorrect use of the apostrophe in shop signs and directions. Indeed, if the trend continues, that sentence last will soon read “shop sign’s and direction’s.”
On the other hand, I am also a realist and know how language changes. Indeed, it is one of the great strengths of the English Language that it does change. If English was unalterable, how would we now be able to talk about computers or jet propulsion? The potency of the language is that it is not unbending. English will happily add in new words from other languages, new forms of nouns and verbs, new usages and ways of speaking. Some people believe that a sets out the rules that have to be followed, whereas it is better thought of as a snapshot of a moving and living thing, which will have changed by the time the book is published.
Geoffrey Chaucer, for example, is acknowledged as one of the greatest poets in the English language, but if he were to write today as he wrote in the Middle Ages, many Grammar Purists would condemn him. Take this excerpt from his best-known piece, The Canterbury Tales, for example:
And as an angel ladde hym up and doun, To shewen hym the peynes that the were
Even a simple spell checker shows that this is incorrect, and it’s unlikely that Chaucer would pass a modern English Literacy test. In current English, we would say something like:
And as an angel led him up and down, To show him the pains that were there.
Such changes are part of the natural evolution of language. Without them, English would stagnate and become one of the ancient languages, studied by scholars and recognized as important, but not useful to the population as a whole.
So, much as I cringe at the misuses of the apostrophe, I fear I am losing this battle, and will soon join in with all the others (other’s).