Why punctuation matters in 21st century

Jason Renshaw, who teaches English literacy in a vocational program for students 16-18 in Australia, blogged recently that his students have given up using punctuation:

Evidently, the apostrophe is obsolete to my learners, as are capital letters for proper nouns (though, curiously, they do occasionally capitalise the starts of other words for what appears to be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.

Jason discusses the reasons students give for their disuse of punctuation, which range from “that’s what computers are for” to the difficulty of punctuating on a mobile phone.  He notes that punctuation-free prose does not look wrong to students. One student him there’s no need to use punctuation when everyone already knows what you mean.

Unfortunately, everybody does not know what you mean.

The 21st century is experiencing an explosion of English users around the world. Most of them will learn English rather than acquiring it. Those new English learners will not know what you mean unless they can parse what you say or write.

Since punctuation is handmaiden to grammar, only those who understand grammar at more than a superficial, acquired language level, will be able to make themselves understood internationally.

Teens tend to have a cosmos that is all ego, to borrow Henry Syndor Harrison’s phrase. A major function of education is to teach students that the world is a bigger than their circle of Facebook friends. That should include teaching them to use punctuation to make themselves understood by people who do not already know what they mean.

Jason’s  Twitter name is @EnglishRaven.
Novelist Henry Syndor Harrison’s 1911 novel Queed, which contains the phrase noted above, is reviewed here on my vintage novel blog.

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