Language Change – punctuation


Punctuation usage hasn’t changed. It’s evolved. To say something has changed, to me, is to infer that there was one set way in the first place. Some examples of punctuation developing are:

  • Prepositions shouldn’t end a sentence – possibly one of the more famous examples. Possibly one of the ones no-one really understands why as we do it all the time and it doesn’t sound ‘wrong’ in the slightest.
  • Subjunctive – If I were you – many also use ‘if I was you’. In my dialect, many people still use the subjunctive.
  • Tag questions – ‘Innit?’ now more of an acceptable way to ask a tag question, due to influences from different cultures in London and surrounding areas. It was also given a platform through Ali-G. It’s the first time I, and many people I know, heard it.
  • Apostrophes – many companies now omit apostrophes from their branding. Some big brands are still holding on. It’s stupid really but I like them. Well done Sainsbury’s and McDonald’s. Unfortunately I cringe every time I open my Barclays Bank statement. A possible reason why they’re going out of fashion a little could be because of its irregular and ‘incorrect’ usage in forming plurals. I’ve had learners who will spell one plural without and apostrophe, and another with one. People are unsure, and feel that most of the time it doesn’t impede meaning. Peter Viney has an interesting post on his blog that’s worth a read. I’ve been guilty of doing that activity where the apostrophes change the meaning of the text because I was trying to prove a point. I think it actually gave little to the learners though.
  • Hyphens – As words are accepted as common compound words, they seem to lose their hyphens. Again, silly maybe, but as a Functional Skills Coordinator, the lack of a hyphen makes me uncomfortable. Read this amusing Oxford Dictionaries blog post, highlighting when the hyphen is needed, and an Oxford Dictionaries fact page where you can refresh your knowledge.  Also, take a look at the Oxford Dictionaries usage guide for dashes which I use in a lot of my writing to separate my ideas for typographical reasons, and sometimes to make a point to someone!E.g. Yes, if you could that would be great – see instructions I sent last week – and let me know when it’s done. Thanks.
  • Hash (tag) –  I look like I’m working for Oxford Dictionaries, but their little usage guides, like this one on hash (tags), have been helpful! Twitter has changed our language forever. If only we could get apostrophes to catch on and multiply (correctly)!
  • @ – Again, take a look at Oxford Dictionaries’ info on the @ symbol, but computers have completely changed how we use punctuation, along with the underscore which was introduced (I’ve heard) for typewriting when you wanted something underlined, and in computer programming when you can’t put a space.
  • *insert any emotion, thought or instruction here* – E.g. I phoned IT and asked them how to turn my computer off *shame*.

Exclamation marks – In one of my assignments, I looked at the different uses of exclamation marks (to show shock, excitement, happiness, excitability, questions, anger, and possibly gender). They’re used especially online, but they have been leaked to paper-based writing too. I’ve seen it in my learners’ work and I’m assuming the acceptance in technology has reinforced their use overall. We’re all familiar with the fact that using more than one exclamation mark just means you’re really *insert adjective form of nouns in brackets above!* XYZ. Take a look at Stuart Jeffries’/Jeffries’s account in The Guardian. You can also put exclamation marks in brackets now to show you don’t value something, or you’re noting something about someone else’s character – unsaid, but an attribute known to both reader and writer, either positive or negative. For example:

He’ isn’t very pleased that I’ve spent a lot of time doing this(!)
Meaning: He should have done it himself/he’s lazy/what’s his problem?/I accept no blame.

Should the initial capital after a forward slash have a capital if it’s a complete sentence? Should you use the forward slash with complete sentences at all? I don’t consistently capitalise (!) after using a hyphen either.

  • Question marks – Similar to the exclamation mark, typing multiple question marks now mean you’re really confused, or you’re saying someone’s a little bit stupid. It’s amazing how character is shown through punctuation now.E.g. You put the potatoes in the freezer???Meaning – You’re stupid and now I’m going to have to waste 20 minutes going to the Tesco Metro/Express for more potatoes. Obviously they’ll be out of spuds and I’ll be even more angry at you.
  • Question marks and exclamation marks – Of course if using multiple exclamation marks or question marks weren’t enough for you, cue the mixture. Adds even more emphasis.E.g. You put the cat in the freezer??!!?!?!Meaning – Our relationship might actually be over. ??!?!, or a different combination of the same symbols also gives the feeling of an expletive coming your way.
  • Ellipsis… Stuart Jeffries also comments on ellipsis. I ellipses too! Used when you don’t finish a sentence, again, it implies the reader can finish your sentence because what you’re speaking about is truth (often used when talking about people!)E.g. He isn’t very pleased…(because he’s a xyz/because he never is/because he…you get the idea)Personally, I use it to involve my reader. Conversations feel a lot more personal when you use ellipsis. Especially good for flirting…


We had a conversation in class about bullet points, and as far as anyone was aware, there were no definitive rules for bullet points. A lot of current usage points to modelling and imitation – much in the same way you learn particular writing and layout conventions.

I love the ways in which punctuation is used now. I spent much of my teenage years on MSN Messenger, where I learnt how to have personal, hormone-ridden conversations with friends about how proud I was of them for something completely insignificant, and how true friendships last forever, and how *insert crush name here* looked at me weird and what did it mean?! Ahhh. People have got really good at expression online, even with ‘poor’ literacy skills. Just because you have a problem spelling, doesn’t mean you haven’t picked up important nuances of punctuation usage.

This is especially important when working with learners in terms of not assuming anything. We’ve all seen the old DfES Initial Assessment, which asks learners to insert punctuation into a sentence on a memo or something equally bizarre like, ‘we are all aware of last months meeting’. Maybe if we changed the context to something our learners were likely encounter, we’d see a truer picture.

Off to think of ways I could get real examples of learner’s informal conversations…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s