Andy Strycharski hates semicolons and other cautionary tales

Let’s eat grandma. Let’s eat, grandma.

Punctuation. It’s a little thing that can make the difference between inviting grandma to supper and a homicide conviction. Punctuation is nothing more than little marks that provide clarity to the written language. Without it, sentences would have no beginning or end. Every year, punctuation is celebrated on National Punctuation Day in September.

rottenecard_6419836_9qd85dt3rzBut not all punctuation is created equal. For FIU English Professor Andy Strycharski, no one really knows what to do with semicolons anymore. Really, do you ever use a semi-colon when texting?

“That’s probably for the best because it’s a terrible piece of punctuation and really should just be taken out and drowned,” Strycharski mused. “But then some writers end up scatter-seeding their prose with them because they look fancy. I tell my students that they are allowed five semi-colons. Ever. So it’s probably best not to waste any of them in my class.”

With text messaging, email and social media dominating how we communicate, sentences are shorter, words are increasingly abbreviated and punctuation is used on a whim. Or so it might seem.

“If you read the New York Times, punctuation is used in much the same way it has been for a very long time. If you read a text message, you’ll see people following different punctuation conventions,” Strycharski said. “Honestly, I think we just see a lot of more writing from regular people these days than in days before cell phones and the Internet.”

portraitStrycharski, a literacy, technology and education expert, teaches Writing and New Media. The course is focused on teaching undergraduates how to produce polished, nonfiction work for the web across different formats, including blogs, video, social media and wikis. Platforms like these have opened the door to unlimited possibilities for people to create, view and share information with each other. They have also opened the door to increased scrutiny for to those who use punctuation incorrectly or who don’t use it at all.

“I think people often get hung up on the idea of being correct for its own sake,” Strycharski said. “Too often you see people enforcing punctuation rules just for the sake of following rules, or ignoring them for the sake of flipping off the Gradgrinds.”

If you’ve ever wondered whether emojis are considered punctuation, Strycharski isn’t sold on the idea. But emojis provide emotional clarity in writing, similar to how punctuation provides structural clarity.

“If you forced me to answer yes or no, I would answer no,” he said. “For the most part, punctuation serves a grammatical function. It separates certain kinds of phrases or clauses, or indicates the mood of a verb, or something of the sort. You can almost always describe a particular use of punctuation in terms of the grammar it supports or indicates. Not so with emojis. But they can serve a function that is close to what punctuation does, so maybe in the future what we mean by punctuation will change.

As society evolves, the language and technologies they use to communicate will evolve too. Non-standard punctuation has become a more prominent part of our virtual social spaces, but one thing remains constant: punctuation used skillfully aids expression and clarity. And your grandma might just thank you for it.

JoAnn Adkins contributed to this story.