I swear this is what many of my learners think when they are forced to read or (heaven forbid!) produce traditonal/formal text. Image: Kevin Trotman
I recently retweeted a link to a quick video featuring David Crystal and his thoughts on how the English language is changing as a result of the Internet Age. I'm quite a fan of Crystal and enjoy hearing his observations; it's worth reposting the video in question here:
I'd be inclined to agree with most all of what Crystal claims here, except for the small point he makes about punctuation. He states that there have only been relatively minor changes to the ways people are using regular punctuation, and that punctuation is more noteworthy in terms of how it is being used as an expressive device in its own right (he uses the examples of 'smileys' and emphatic repetition of things like exclamation marks).
Based on the learners I teach (native speakers in the 16-18 age bracket) and what I see them producing in written texts, this is definitely not the case.
Their punctuation hasn't undergone a few minor changes; their punctuation has gone almost completely out the window.
The way I have written the title of this post is pretty darned close (I would imagine) to how most of my current learners would write it. What has been striking to me, however, is just how systematic and regular these punctuation omissions have become across a wide sample of my learners.
Here's a quick list of what I see on a constant basis:
ill, well, hell, shell (I'll, we'll, he'll, she'll)
dont, cant, wont, etc. (don't, can't, won't, etc.)
hes, shes (he's, she's)
george connolly (George Connolly)
are u ready (Are you ready?)
Evidently, the apostrophe is obsolete to my learners, as are capital letters for proper nouns (though, curiously, they do occasionally capitalise the starts of other words for what appears to be something along the lines of emphasis).
At sentence level, commas are very infrequently used and even full stops are sporadic at best (and almost never followed up with a capital letter to signify a new sentence). Question and exclamation marks are seldom employed; colons, semi-colons, dashes and brackets are quite positively extinct.
Where things get interesting (for me at least) is how my learners account for this.
They do, in fact, have some awareness of punctuation (at least in terms of capitalisation and apostrophes) but inform me that they rely on programs like Microsoft Word to either automatically correct their writing or at least show them where their mistakes are before they submit any writing.
My current literacy program involves text input boxes that have no auto-correct or error notification functions. In addition to all this punctuation-free text flowing through, it is alarmingly evident how much spelling has gone to literacy's equivalent of hell. (But then again, English has gotten away with a ludicrous spelling system for far too long now; it seems almost fair to see young native speakers sending it on to hell!)
Some of my learners even accuse me of getting what I deserve, because I don't feature auto-correct or error notifications in the online literacy program I use. In other words: "Let us use the regular typing programs we have at our disposal and you'll get less spelling and punctuation errors to deal with." It's a fascinating accusation to observe as a teacher.
Other conversations with them have yielded other interesting information.
For example, they are more accustomed to texting than typing on a keyboard; texting doesn't feature punctuation as a sentence device but as a 'smiley/emoticon' device. With most phones (smart ones or otherwise), using punctuation involves flipping back and forth between different keyboard screens, making quick messaging a bit of a chore. I can actually sympathise a bit on this front, recalling how frustrating it can be to try and type I'll or we'll or even Fred on my smartphone when I'm in a hurry. This also results, some of my learners inform me, in a situation whereby they sit down with a computer keyboard and don't even 'see' any of the peripheral punctuation keys around the main letter keys -- unless, of course, they're ready to use an emoticon-style device in their communication.
And relatively (or even wholly) punctuation-free text doesn't look or feel wrong to them, no matter what context they are using it in.
This goes far beyond my admittedly 'non academic' vocational students. I now see this sort of text being produced regularly in the comments sections of online newspapers. The more it is published online, I think the more accepted it is becoming.
My final observation about my students' writing and their thoughts about it was possibly the most striking.
"People know what you mean," one student told me. "They just know. Or should know. We don't need to use all those symbols and stuff, do we, if people already get what we are saying?"
This reminded me all of a sudden of my own days as a university student studying Old English, Old Norse and (yes, believe it or not), Runic Scandinavian. On the old parchments (Beowulf, for example) and on the rocks where runic messages were inscribed, there was very little indeed in the way of punctuation. In fact, with Scandinavian runes, they even used the same letter for multiple sounds (b/p, g/k, etc.). There was, at least to some degree, an assumption that the reader would know where to pause and how to interpret the written text, making punctuation relatively unnecessary. Perhaps there was even the assumption that there was more onus on the reader to correctly read/interpret the text than there was for the writer to assiduously transcribe it in a way that left as little to doubt as possible.
In the hands of the Internet generation, is English heading towards (or back to) a similar orientation? With the expectation that machines and programs will do the translating back over to a more traditional form of literacy for those who require it?