Yesterday evening at about 6.30PM I had a moment of panic. I realised that in my rush to leave, I hadn’t read over my post and italicised all the words I should have. I couldn’t go back, and wasn’t in a situation to do it on my phone. It would just have to stay in that condition for a few hours, which aggravated me. Letting something unfinished like that out into the world seemed so sloppy.
What needed to be changed? Not much really, just two or three cases where I was referring to words, and not using them, and wanted to italicise them to make that clear. For example: “I’ve been trying to use the word application…” instead of “I’ve been trying to use the word application…”
A minor change, really, and most of my stress was due to my being a stickler for detail. Because, the post was probably quite comprehensible without my revisions (which of course I still made last night). Putting the word before application made what I wanted to say clear enough. Given also the topic of the blog and the specific context of the post itself, there was probably little ambiguity in the post. And it’s great that language can make things so clear for us, do so much of the heavy lifting of comprehensibility with words alone. But still, I’m drawn to being precise as I can in my use of language, just to be sure…
It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, as I’ve been noticing lots of signs and posters which are technically, potentially, ambiguous, but which still get their message across. And I’ve noticed it in a lot of online writing, particularly forum posts, which wouldn’t usually call for the same degree of care as a blog post. One example is a sign hear my parents’ house which has the word CAUTION at the top with CHILDREN underneath. And there’s a picture of some children under that, just so you know what they mean. And every time I see that, because I’m oh-so-clever, I think Ah, so if I see children I should caution them? Because without punctuation, you could interpret the sign as an order to caution children.
Except of course that nobody would actually think that. It’s clear that the signs means CAUTION: CHILDREN, and let’s be honest: we don’t really need that colon to make that clear. Because of the context, we’re in no doubt as to what the sign means.
I’ve also been noticing a lot of run-on sentences lately, most of which are still pretty comprehensible. Something like this for example:
I think the new film looks pretty good however I’m not sure if it’ll be a hit.
Strictly, that should be two sentences. We use however to make a contrast between two sentences.
I think the new film looks pretty good. However, I’m not sure if it’ll be a hit.
Or, we could replace however with another word:
I think the new film looks pretty good, although I’m not sure if it’ll be a hit.
For me (and hopefully you), the second and third examples are more elegant and clear. Still though, that first one is pretty much ok, isn’t it? Even if you had to reread it just to sure, the meaning is obvious. And you might not have to reread it. We know that the word however indicates a contrast, and when we read it we probably automatically pause a little before we say it (and we do see it coming as we tend to look slightly ahead of the word we’re currently reading). And we do that because when we hear the word spoken, or use it ourselves, we make that pause.
And that’s really the crux of the matter. Most of our experience of language is through speaking and listening. Which is lovely, and seems very social, but it does influence how we write. Most written methods of indicating some kind of shift of focus in writing have a verbal equivalent. When we quote someone, we often change our tone of voice, and more than likely will say he said/she said. When we introduce an independent clause we pause, to make it clear that there’s a separation between what came before and what’s about to come.
So then, when we write, we might not use those written indicators, because as we write we hear our own voice making those changes. And we assume, probably correctly, that people reading will do the same. For example:
He said lets go so I followed him.
All staff please make sure to wash your hands after using the bathroom thank you.
They could use some work, strictly speaking, but they get their message across, don’t they? So what am I trying to say then? That punctuation and discourse markers don’t matter? Not really. I think it’s important that people have the option to be precise in their communication, and are aware of how to do that. And yet, when it comes to most forms of everyday communication, it’s not really that important. If you’re busy at work and have to put together a sign for the lunchroom noticeboard, do you need to take the time to make a couple of revisions, and really think about how to punctuate it? As long as everyone understands it, isn’t that enough? Well, yes.
Where it becomes more important is in long-form writing. I’ve reproduced the opening paragraphs of George Orwell’s 1984 below, with some alterations:
It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.
The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats. At one end of it a coloured poster too large for indoor display had been tacked to the wall. It depicted simply an enormous face more than a metre wide the face of a man of about forty-five with a heavy black moustache and ruggedly handsome features. Winston made for the stairs it was no use trying the lift even at the best of times it was seldom working and at present the electric current was cut off during daylight hours. It was part of the economy drive in preparation for hate week. The flat was seven flights up and Winston who was thirty-nine and had a varicose ulcer above his right ankle went slowly resting several times on the way. On each landing opposite the lift-shaft the poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall. It was one of those pictures which are so contrived that the eyes follow you about when you move. Big brother is watching you the caption beneath it ran.
I’ve removed all commas, jammed a couple of sentences together, and made a few other little changes. Even though it’s already quite a simple piece of prose, for me it now sounds much more awkward. And if I’d done that with a more complex passage with dialogue, the effect would be worse.
It’s hard to say yet if literature like novels will be affected by changes like this. I have noticed that there are more and more works out there which replicate online communication, being made up of simulated blog and forum posts, for example. Which is really just reflecting how so many people read and write, and is also probably just a more modern form of epistolary novels like Dracula, which purported to be composed of people’s letters, notes etc. But there are still plenty of well-written and edited novels out there.
Am I worried that we’re losing our ability to get our message across clearly? A little, but I also know that for as long as people have written, they’ve adjusted their care in using language to match the importance of their message. We’ve always been sloppy when writing short notes, basically. Only time will really tell if we’re seeing any long-term, fundamental change in how we write.