Sept. 24 (today!) is National Punctuation Day®. That's not to be confused with National Handwriting Day, which comes on Jan. 23. National Handwriting Day is sponsored by the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association (WIMA) and is held annually near John Hancock's birthday, which is Jan. 12, because although no one remembers his birthday, John Hancock had the most famous American signature of all time.
According to the WIMA website, which is the main way the pen and pencil manufacturers communicate with one another, the goal of National Handwriting Day is to get you and me to take a break from “the rigorous world of electronic communication” and write “a good old-fashioned letter, complete with your penned signature.”
Not to be outdone, National Punctuation Day, sponsored by nationalpunctuationday.com, “celebrates the lowly comma, correctly used quotes and other proper uses of periods, semicolons and the ever-mysterious ellipsis.” The sponsor asks that you do the following to celebrate NPD:
· Read a newspaper and circle all of the punctuation errors . . . with a red pen (ellipses added).
· Take a leisurely stroll, paying close attention to store signs with incorrectly punctuated words.
· Stop in those stores to correct the owners.
· If the owners are not there, leave notes.
None of these activities will make you popular, because even though people may want to be correct, they don’t want to be corrected. However, a close look at the NPD website suggests that its real goal is not to get you in trouble with irascible shopkeepers but to sell latte mugs, t-shirts, greeting cards, and other punctuation-themed paraphernalia. To which I say, “!*?#&$@”!
Which is really what most people think about punctuation. It’s certainly what they think of people who correct their punctuation. And while punctuation is on everybody’s list of things they always wanted to learn about but never really had the time, like Russian novels or string theory, punctuation probably doesn’t deserve a lot more than a flying !*?#&$@! Punctuation fans point to a recent surprise best-selling punctuation book as proof that everyone wants to do right by commas and periods, but punctuation cynics retort that most people who bought the book never read it.
Coffee table books on punctuation notwithstanding, punctuation is probably not much of a money-maker compared to pens and pencils, and I’m guessing that punctuation-pushing latte mugs don’t exactly fly off the shelves either.
If we are to believe all the media hype, punctuation is actually in decline. So is handwriting. Despite healthy sales of pens and pencils – billions are sold each year – more people are shifting their writing from paper and pencil to computer, so there’s less demand for the kind of uniformly-legible penmanship that used to be required for success. Today Gilbert and Sullivan’s lowly office boy would get nowhere copying out his letters in a big round hand. To become ruler of the Queen’s Navy, he’d have to keyboard them in Times New Roman instead.
As for punctuation, no one ever agrees where the commas go anyway, and it probably doesn’t matter. Punctuation has always changed with fashion, location, and context, a fact of language history which angers everyone who wants the rules of writing to remain both as constant as the ten commandments, and violated a lot less frequently.
One reason for its instability is the fact that no one ever agrees what punctuation is for. Sometimes it indicates pauses, sometimes syntactic units. Sometimes it’s deleted for aesthetic reasons, and sometimes writers pepper their prose with punctuation in the hopes that some of their commas and semicolons will hit the target. When punctuation becomes dysfunctional, we drop it. When we need new punctuation marks, we invent them.
The newest punctuation mark is the smiley face. It started as two punctuation marks put together :) and then, thanks to the folks at Microsoft, it became a little picture, . But you won’t find the smiley face among the punctuation marks honored on National Punctuation Day®, where it’s ruthlessly edited out like an undocumented alien.
To observe National Punctuation Day, I wrote this blog entry. But I don’t plan to celebrate National Punctuation Day next year. I think that the sooner we put a stop to it, the better.
UPDATE: Remember, National Punctuation Day® is a registered trademark. Normal TM restrictions apply.