So, Mid Devon District Council may be about to reverse the decision to ban apostrophes from street names. A victory for the Plain English Campaign and for all of us who strive to write clear, concise copy for ourselves and for our clients, with commas and full stops and even the odd semi-colon, in roughly the right place. There’s nothing mysterious or sinister about punctuation – it’s simply a tool to aid understanding. So why all the fuss?
Possibly because it’s part of a bigger issue about communication in general and the way it’s changing as a result of technology. Because of spell-check, many people can no longer spell; because of twitter, some can’t compose a sentence; because of email, a large number of graduates can’t write a formal letter. I saw an email from a teacher recently in which he’d written ‘could of’ instead of ‘could have’ – an error which is increasingly common.
But that’s just the nuts and bolts of communication. If the educational flesh is willing, this can be fixed.
What is also changing dramatically is the content of people’s communications. This is harder to address. The speed and ease with which we can message/text/tweet/facebook has seduced many into communicating matters trivial, dull, intimate and irrelevant. Forgive me, but I am just not interested in what people are eating for lunch or who they are sitting next to on the tube. And why are they wasting their time telling us about it?
The desire for human beings to share the content of their lives is age-old. No doubt cave people sat around the fire telling tales of the day’s hunting and foraging. But the channels people have predominantly used to communicate have been face-to-face or ear-to-ear. And that involves human interaction. Today’s communication channels of choice are mainly remote, removed and faceless, and that can lead people to communicate recklessly (Evening Standard budget leak) and put themselves in danger (child grooming on the Internet).
So, are we all doomed? I don’t think so. As with all new technology, we’re in a period of transition. Individuals and businesses are excited by the possibilities available to us, and are trying them for size. But pretty soon, the basic rules of good communication will reassert themselves, and content which is irrelevant and inappropriate will fizzle out. I, for one, can’t wait.