A classic riddle asks: Using three periods (.), two commas (,), and one question mark (?), punctuate the following line to produce a logical and grammatically correct sentence:
That that is is that that is not is not is that it it is
If you know the answer, don’t text it to your friends. You might hurt their feelings.
However, just between us, here’s the solution:
That that is, is. That that is not, is not. Is that it? It is.
The beauty of a brainteaser like this one is not just that it gets us to think. More important, it gets us to think about thinking, to appreciate how communication is critical to critical thinking, and to think about how the same string of words can be fashioned into a cogent message or left as a meaningless hodgepodge of phonetic symbols.
But don’t say so out loud. You might offend someone.
That’s what Professor Celia Klin and researchers at Binghamton University found when they asked undergraduates to interpret text messages responding to an invitation. Their study revealed that students perceived responses properly punctuated with a period at the end as less sincere and, in some cases, psychologically combative.
In other words, it’s antisocial to be articulate, crass to follow convention, and reprobate to observe the rules.
According to simple logic, it should be just the opposite. The effectiveness of purely verbal communication has always been overestimated. When not compensated for by the compositional genius of, say, an Orwell, a Hemingway, or a Salinger, the absence of vocal intonation and facial expression renders the written word subject to all kinds of potential misinterpretation. The reason literate society invented written punctuation was to offset the inherent deficiency of non-oral communication.
So now that we rely more than ever on terse exchanges with minimal context, one would only expect a heightened sense of dependence upon meticulous grammar and syntax.
But it’s just the opposite. Capital letters are an endangered species. Vowels are threatened with extinction. And punctuation marks belong in a museum of antiquities, with the medieval catapult, the ox-drawn plow, and the corded telephone.
In place of verbal convention, the webisphere has tried to enhance messaging with emojis and the like, with predictably mixed results. The panoply of little yellow faces has left many texters and posters overwhelmed, while leaving those on the receiving end frequently baffled and occasionally irate.
But there’s no going back. Just as bastardized words such as irregardless, flammable, and ginormous have gained acceptance as legitimate building blocks of English expression, so too has the period suffered the indignity of slanderous denunciation and extirpation.
Ironically, the very same age of technology that is rendering the period defunct has simultaneously grown hyper-dependent upon it. Where would the world be without dot-com, dot-org, and dot-edu? And so I say to all of you who seek to banish the period to the recycling bin of history, how long would you survive without that precious little dimensionless speck of indispensable information?
And there, perhaps, is the silver lining. Even if we no longer dot our eyes, sign on the dotted line, or properly demarcate the conclusion of our sentences, there is comfort in knowing that the period will survive, perhaps even after civilization itself has crumbled into linguistical dust.
But even if we accept that the times are a-changin’, what does it say about us that we take offense at something as diminutive as a tiny dot? Is it any wonder that our fragile collective self-esteem now necessitates a whole movement of militant political correctness to protect us from every perceived affront, like the recent madness at Virginia’s James Madison University: When college students require administrative intervention to protect them from such offensive statements as you have such a pretty face, I know exactly how you feel, and love the sinner, hate the sin, it’s time for us to either wrap ourselves in bubble wrap or enter a cryogenic chamber and wait for the return of sanity.
Of course, people need to be civil and sensitive. But awareness cannot be enacted by legislation, any more than cluelessness can be eradicated by government fiat. Sometimes we have to live with the social clumsiness of others. It’s called life. Get over it.
Debasing the language in pursuit of social justice is not only ineffective; it is self-destructive. When we erase from our culture the means of self-expression, we simultaneously destroy our own ability to engage in complex thought and purposeful debate. The inevitable result is that predicted in George Orwell’s 1984, where the implementation of Newspeak would eventually reduce the general populace to such a limited and tightly controlled vocabulary that higher thought, especially anti-government thought, would become an intellectual impossibility.
Taken far enough, the demise of grammar and syntax might one day become truly fatal.
You’ve probably heard the one about the panda who walked into a restaurant and ordered dinner from the menu. As soon as he finished, he took out a pistol and gunned down the waiter, then headed for the door.
The manager ran over and cried, “Hey, you shot my waiter.”
The panda replied, “What do you expect? I’m a panda.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” asked the manager.
“I’m a panda. Look it up.” And with that, the panda walked out onto the street.
Uncertain what else to do, the manager pulled out his phone and Googled “panda.” He found the following definition:
Panda. [pan-duh] a white-and-black, bearlike mammal, rare and restricted to forest areas of central China. Eats shoots and leaves.
If we don’t mind our grammar, we might be next.