An old friend has taken ill ... infected, apparently, by millennials. Darn those young folks.
Somehow, it had escaped my attention that the period, ever-reliable as a piece of punctuation, had fallen into this desperate state.
Text messaging stands as the center of the plague, and we’re all Patient Zero. In the quick-and-dirty way of things with instant communication, shorthand becomes king.
No need for the brake that a period applies. Our thinking has become a galloping horse, and we let it run.
Thus, I woke up Friday to a story in The New York Times announcing the period in full wheeze. We can no longer be bothered with it.
A linguist who worked as a master of pronunciation for Shakespearean works at the Globe Theatre in London, David Crystal sees the inevitability of the period’s demise.
“In the 1990s,” the professor told the Times, “the internet created an ethos of linguistic free love where breaking the rules was encouraged.”
Linguistic free love sounds like the most boring party ever … English majors losing their inhibitions and dropping their subject-verb agreements.
Yet Crystal has foretold the slide to oblivion of a full stop. The funeral will have a eulogy of run-on sentences.
(Not that texters have an aversion to punctuation. The question mark has been spared. And the exclamation mark, flush with emotion, has seen a renaissance, trotted out at the barest suggestion of excitement. Talk about uninhibited!!!!!)
As a literary instrument, writers have long fiddled with the absence of periods and other punctuation. Gertrude Stein called periods, commas and such as necessary “only for the feeble-minded.” In more modern times, Cormac McCarthy eschews quotation marks, calling them “weird.”
One of the American literary giants, William Faulkner, wrote in an occasional stream-of-conscience style that found punctuation of little utility.
In “Absalom, Absalom!,” a title not abashed in its use of two punctuation marks, a sentence went on roughly 1,300 words.
Jean Stein of The Paris Review interviewed Faulkner in 1956 and posed the question to him about the difficulty of following such a narrative:
“Some people say they can’t understand your writing, even after they read it two or three times. What approach would you suggest for them?”
Faulkner replied, “Read it four times.”
Artists must take their own path. Let someone complain to Faulkner about the eccentricities of his manuscripts, and he could simply point to the shelf where he displayed his Nobel and Pulitzer prizes. How’s that for punctuating a discussion?
At some point in grade school, I picked up the basics of punctuation. A rule follower by nature, I never abandoned these comfortable markings.
Maybe that’s a curse, doing what you’re told from a young age onward. Faulkner let slip his yoke. And so have those folks who type with dancing thumbs.
The revolution has come, and the rebels have left the battlefield strewn with dots, the periods that once seemed imperious in our every writing. Victors march on with their oddly inconclusive string of words.
As small revenge, I note that in my newspaper writings this past week, I used 147 periods. This just counts the sentence-ending sort, not those in abbreviations and other usages.
Extrapolated over the 36 years of my career, that would mean I used 264,600 periods for publication.
Call me conventional. Besides, after growing up in outback Missouri, I have enough trouble making myself clear with writing that actually uses punctuation.