Dots and Dashes
One of the most insidious plagues of our time is the deteriorating respect for punctuation—those crucial little font adjusters and wisps of ink that, used correctly, offer readers necessary guidance and clarity and, used incorrectly…do not. For some reason, those who still adhere to the very useful and well-established rules of punctuation are seen as boring old fuddy-duddies these days, rather than as lovers of clear communication. Whenever we point out an error, those who should be grateful are instead resentful. They’d rather be wrong in their punctuation than have anyone dare to suggest a more accurate way to express themselves.
It is interesting that this is not the case in written music, where the shared language of dots, stems, lines, curves, and so forth has held firm, each mark retaining its meaning across cultures, countries, and centuries.
And why has that written language remained so constant? It’s so that musicians can communicate musical ideas to each other and play together, and so a composer can communicate details and nuances of her work in a way that allows musicians to know what she’s talking about. Without the commonality of language—an agreement on the meaning of these marks—all music would sound like Bedlam…or like that kind of jazz where they all play at once, whatever notes they like, as loudly as they can. (A friend of Mrs. Curmudgeon recently posted “Does anyone else listen to jazz music and wonder when they're going to stop warming up and play something?” It’s beside the point I know, but it’s a valid question nonetheless.)
This is why people who communicate with written words and sentences (i.e. the vast majority of humans) should care about accuracy in punctuation. Just like accuracy of word usage, and just like accuracy in music notation, punctuation helps people understand each other. So I’ll stay over here with the sticklers, thank you very much, and let the mockers struggle to express their poorly punctuated mockery.
Mind you, the problem is not just the omission of proper punctuation; there’s also its frequent misuse. Indeed, those who flout the well-established meanings of these symbols have gotten awfully creative, just using whatever punctuation they like and putting it wherever they think it looks fun.
For example, we have available to us no fewer than four approved ways to indicate emphasis: italics (by far the classiest, and most often correct), underlining, using bold print, and (shudder) writing in all capitals. And yet, in spite of this absolute smorgasbord of options, you will still see people use asterisks or quotation marks for emphasis. (As in, I *tried* to call you but you were “not answering.”) This is how we get confusing signs like the one I once saw recently at a restaurant proclaiming:
BREAKFAST “SERVED ALL DAY”
Who were they quoting?
Part of the problem, of course, is that our phones don’t offer the option of italics—a gross oversight, as italics are often required tools of expression. It would seem that the makers of cellphones simply took it upon themselves to decide that italics weren’t important. And yet, they did manage to include the option of making the words bounce around the recipient’s screen when they’re texted. It’s a comfort to know their priorities are in order.
The Curmudgeon just feels we ought to be running toward our agreed-upon communication tools rather than away from them. Do you see what I did there? I emphasized a word by italicizing it. That’s the proper way to do it. If I were typing this on a phone, then I suppose my only option would have been to write the word all in capitals—less elegant, but not incorrect, or surround the word with asterisks which—God help us all—has become an "accepted" (the quotation marks there mean I'm not buying it) way to indicate emphasis in the absence of the proper keyboard options.
As always, I'm here to remind anyone who will heed that just because something is a widespread trend doesn't mean it's correct. We have rules. Rules are our friends. And using asterisks (which are only for indicating footnotes) or quotation marks (which are only for indicating quotes, expressions, or that the reality of something is different from the words being used) for emphasis is simply wrong.