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New punctuation to hit the right note in these jazzy times

In Japan, they are writing novels on mobile phones. Nearer home, the quickest, hottest way to communicate is through a controversial, attention-grabbing blog. Forms of expression are moving and morphing, popping the buttons of the old conventions like the Incredible Hulk entering one of his green moods.

Yet one aspect remains unchanged. Not only are rules of punctuation unchallenged, but there are many who believe that to tamper with them will lead to anarchy and moral chaos. Language is enjoying a wild party, but punctuation, like a disagreeable old aunt, refuses to join in.

There have admittedly been feeble attempts to bring colour to the basic rules of language. Some time ago, computer users, aware perhaps that in their hands mere words were an unreliable resource, took to using “emoticons”, naff little symbols designed to express the mood of the moment – smiley, frowny, randy, frazzled and so on. It is time to move on. The new punctuation will reflect the loose and jazzy times in which we are living.

The boxogram. People in business are forever being asked to “think outside the box” or “push the envelope”. Yet often, when they attempt to do these things, there are horrendous misunderstandings and their boss thinks they have gone bonkers. Too late, they try to explain that they were trying to push the box or think outside the envelope. A boxogram will solve the problem. By opening and closing a section in a proposal or email with a boxogrammatical symbol, the writer indicates that what follows is experimental, adventurous, and should not be taken too seriously.

The quexclamation mark. It happens to us all when we are writing to one another, that moment when our prose is caught awkwardly – would you believe it?! – between a question mark, as demanded by convention, teachers and Lynne Truss, and the exclamation mark which truly reflects what we wish to communicate. The quexclamation mark will be an economical way of expressing interrogation and humour at the same time.

Allonics. As ‘Allo ‘Allo, the ancient TV comedy show, once proved, words that are spoken in a foreign accent tend to have an entirely different spin on them. It might be comical, or sexy, or downright bewildered. Until now, this process, when written down, needed to be clumsily explained, often underlining what should be (though not, as it happens , in ‘Allo ‘Allo) a subtle nuance. An allonic font, somewhere between bold and italics, will reveal that the words being read should be heard in a foreign accent.

Quotics. One of the most frustrating aspects of writing is that often readers – and possibly even critics – remember and quote the very phrases of which the writer feels least proud. By placing felicitous phrases, neatly constructed sentences, and paragraphs that contain a profound truth, in quotics, the writer will help readers differentiate good stuff from ordinary, dutiful prose.

Parenthesis. As they enter their teenage years, young people develop two languages. When talking to friends, they communicate in a tongue which many adults find incomprehensible. Yet when dealing with grown-ups, these same people adopt an imitation of normal language. To avoid confusion, this secondary language can henceforth be presented in a parenthesis font.

Perverted commas. A sure sign that the writer of a letter, email or work of erotica is trying to get the reader worked up is when the punctuation goes awry. The prose plunges forward in an ecstasy of dashes, rarely pausing for even the lightest punctuational foreplay before a sudden startling penetration by exclamation marks. These passages will now be placed in perverted commas. By using them, the writer will be revealing that very shortly clothes will fall to the ground and hands will wander and, aware of a sharp tang of animal need, a shortness of breath and that unmistakable tingle and shudder, and all normal rules of punctuation will be suspended until, with a deep and heartfelt groan of relief, the perverted commas can be closed.

  • Chris Rust

    It’s not a trivial issue that the researchers here don’t seem to have any notion of irony or context. If McCartney is saying old people are unloveable how come so many oldies belt that song out at their 64th birthday parties? It’s an affectionate song about love persisting despite the inevitable effects of getting older, what could be more positive?

    But there’s something quite sinister here, the conclusions of the article say:
    “It is imagined that the negative representations of age and ageing can be dispiriting and confidence and esteem lowering for older people and that more scrutiny of these texts by censorship boards should be exercised.”

    In other words it’s a manifesto for the thought police to start telling artists what to do, based on a particularly numb piece of research. Decidedly chilling.