English 2.0

or: there’s more than one way to be syntactically broken.

Written English needs a new character.

No, I’m not talking about the so-called SarcMark, which part of me still wants, to this day, to believe is some kind of brilliantly absurdist in-joke. “They don’t really want the linguistically inept to flag their sarcasm, thereby missing the entire point of sarcasm, do they?”

Proof that the creators have no soul: they missed the opportunity to be clever and make it a tiny raised pentacle, hinting at its evil aspirations. This way you could not only revert to the regular asterisk when on a system that didn’t support the new character, but they could then have coined the name “sarcasterisk”, which has more of a catch to it.

As a bonus, its continued use would actually benefit readers. Over time, it would condition them to reflexively interpret any asterisk-like character at the end of a sentence as announcing, in effect, “This sentence should not be interpreted as literally meaning what it in fact appears to be saying.” Which is exactly the right reaction to encourage when it comes to end-of-sentence asterisks in advertising.

But I digress. What English needs is not the sarcasterisk, but a character to take on half the duties the period is currently overburdened with. The period ends sentences. It also indicates abbreviations. This becomes a problem when you want to end a sentence with an abbreviation, such as “etc.”, and said sentence does not end a paragraph.

Do you use two periods, one to close the abbreviation and the other to end the sentence? That’s arguably correct, but definitely not standard practice. Do you use a single period and hope that the result won’t be excessive confusion for your readers? Or do you just write “etcetera” out, thereby eliminating ambiguity but also marking yourself as the kind of nerd who writes everything out at a time when the trend seems to be shorthand at any cost?

Well, I’ve probably tipped my hand with that last bit, but for the time being I’m going with the third option when I can. All the same, I still say we could use a distinct abbreviation character. This way the New York Times’ archaic practice of punctuating acronyms might become marginally less frustrating for the reader, at least when those acronyms occur at the ends of sentences.

I’m off to dial the language police.

(Yes, I said “dial”. The language police can only be reached by old-fashioned analog landline. Also, tripping their emergency alarm in their headquarters requires working a huge blade switch that takes up half a wall. Because that’s how they roll.)

While I’m on hold, you might want to check out Wikipedia’s entry for the “full stop“. As with most Wikipedia pieces, it manages to relate history while at the same time pointing out implications you hadn’t even gotten around to thinking of yet. (For instance, it turns out there’s actually a term for using one instance of a character when strict syntax would demand that you use two: haplography.)


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