Is social media changing how we use punctuation?

By Natilly Macartney

16 Jan 2023

A student writing in the classroom.

Punctuation is not only difficult for children who are learning it for the first time, but it’s also difficult for us adults.

Do you know where to correctly place commas in a sentence? Do you know when you need an apostrophe or how to use a semicolon?

Many of us cannot remember the rules once drilled into us at school, and even if we do, we tend not to apply them diligently. Nowadays, we share much of our lives on social media and seem to pay more attention to great angles and witty captions than accurate punctuation.

With the need for language changing to fit the digital landscape, does punctuation still matter? The answer is, of course, that it depends - keep reading to learn more about the applications of punctuation for social media.

Prescriptivism vs descriptivism

Language experts typically align themselves with one of two camps – the prescriptivists or the descriptivists.

Prescriptivists are language purists who adhere to a consistent and standard form of written English. They believe that language should be used in certain ways and follow strict rules, which they spend time defining.

In contrast, descriptivists see language as something dynamic, a system that is constantly changing and evolving. They prefer to describe ‘how’ language is used at a point in time, rather than state how it ‘should’ traditionally be used.

Prescriptivist and descriptivist views impact how we teach language. For example, teaching approaches that involve lots of drilling and repetition, such as the audiolingual method, are influenced by prescriptivism, whereas approaches grounded in social-cultural theory, such as the communicative approach, are influenced by descriptivism. Such approaches are popular in settings where the teacher’s focus is on learners communicating meaning rather than producing flawless grammar.

How have texting and social media changed the way we use punctuation?

Since the early 2000s, the way we communicate with one another and the speed with which we communicate has transformed. This has mostly been due to an increase in the accessibility of mobile phones and the dawn of social media. These developments have given way to new mediums of communication that promote short and speedy messages, originating from the strict character limit of texting on pay-as-you-go flip-phones and continuing onwards to snappy Instagram captions.

Platforms such as Twitter further contributed to the simplification of messages by enforcing character limits on users’ posts. Within the space of a century, a new, informal style of written English has evolved that drops vowels, abandons articles, and cuts punctuation.

What does this mean for the future of punctuation?

It would be extreme to claim that punctuation might be lost altogether - aside from unedited social media posts and texts, much of the writing produced today continues to be written in standard English. Media agencies, news outlets, publishing houses, and marketing companies all adhere to strict style guides, and this is unlikely to change.

However, what is evolving is how we consume information. Many young people today get the majority of their information from social media and their mobile phones rather than traditional media. This means that young people are regularly exposed to writing designed to be short and concise, and which is more likely to contain grammar mistakes. In the long term, these short posts may potentially affect readers’ ability to concentrate on longer prose and approach literature critically, or may lead to readers acquiring bad grammar habits.

What does this mean for learners?

If learners are not regularly exposed to standard written English, it could have an impact on their ability to produce texts with accurate punctuation and grammar.

One problem with poor grammar awareness is that it can lead to confusion when interpreting meaning. For example, take the sentence, ‘I’m sorry I love you.” Read without the full stop, it conveys a feeling of regret for loving someone. If you contrast that sentence with, ‘I’m sorry. I love you,’ the full stop mid-sentence transforms it from a regret to an apology. If we overlook that full stop in the second sentence, we miss the subtle change in meaning.

In addition to this, unintentional poor choices of grammar remove opportunities for making inferences - learners cannot trust that grammatical choices are intentional, and do not get used to noticing small changes in grammar and structure to boost their reading comprehension. For learners to develop their critical reading skills, they must build upon a foundation of strong grammatical knowledge.

Punctuation is a feature that many writers play with. In J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, the main character is made to feel like a friend to the reader; this is achieved through the writer’s clever use of sentence structure. For example, in the sentence, ‘It was around ten-thirty, I guess, when I finished it,’ the writer inserts “I guess” as a clause. As this sort of interjection is usually spoken rather than written, this makes the narrator seem down-to-earth and confessional. If we contrast this with, ‘I guess it was around ten-thirty when I finished it,’ the pace is slower, and the sentence has a seemingly more serious tone.

A confident grasp of punctuation helps us to communicate with clarity and gives our writing a formal and professional feel, whether that’s used for a high-marking exam paper or a professional CV.

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How do we use punctuation?

Let’s take a look at the three questions we started this article with and review how to use some key punctuation correctly in English.

1. Commas with embedded clauses and between dependent and independent clauses

We use commas to separate embedded clauses from the main clause; these are short clauses that carry details and are not essential to the overall meaning of a sentence. For example, in the sentence, "By 4.30, which was almost closing time, nearly all of the paintings had been sold," the clause ‘which was almost closing time’ is an embedded clause. The sentence would still make sense if this part was removed.

We also use commas between independent and dependent clauses.

Learn more about the rules of using commas.

2. Apostrophes for possession and contractions

We use an apostrophe to mark possession; to show that something belongs to someone or something else. For example, ‘They met at Mark’s house.’

When using ‘its’ to mean belonging to something - for example, ‘She broke its [the bike’s] wheel.’ - we need to be careful. In this case, you don’t need an apostrophe because we’d only use an apostrophe when it is used in a contraction (it’s). Of course, contractions are another important place to use apostrophes.

Learn more about apostrophes.

3. Semicolons instead of commas between independent clauses

Semicolons are tricky to grasp; in fact, many writers do not use them. Renowned writers such as Stephen King and George Orwell have both expressed a dislike of semicolons and avoid them in their writing altogether.

If you do decide to brave semicolons, then a good place to start is between two independent clauses that are not connected with a conjunction, for example, ‘School was difficult for the children initially; they did not complain.’

Learn more about colons and semicolons.

Will changes in communication online affect teaching?

Rather than our learners’ decreasing awareness of punctuation influencing how we teach, it’s more likely to be developments we’ve seen in technology over the last decade that will affect how we teach. The world is changing, and so are our learners’ wants and expectations.

Technology is an integral part of young people’s lives - it is reasonable that they expect and want technology to be incorporated into their education, and using technology in the classroom can prove beneficial for teaching as well.

As we deal with increasing numbers of learners who are regularly reading non-standard written English, it may require an additional push from the teacher’s side to help them value the importance of good grammar and expose them to texts written using standard English.

We may also need to adapt our teaching to new ways of consuming information. For example, popular apps such as Tiktok will inevitably have an impact on learners’ attention spans in the long term.

To ensure explicit grammar instruction remains effective, it’s time for teachers to utilise different methods of presenting information so as to engage learners born into a technological world.

How Bedrock can support grammar skills in a digital age

Bedrock Learning’s grammar curriculum teaches learners English grammar through original fiction and non-fiction texts.

The format of original texts is crafted to emulate writing styles learners may encounter in the classroom or online, such as through newspapers, blog posts and websites. Following this, learning is reinforced through engaging teaching videos. Comprehension is tested through a series of fun, low-stakes activities, which are then solidified through mastery activities. This sequence ensures long-term retention of new grammar skills, with frequent formative assessments giving teachers visibility of their learners’ grammar mastery.

Incorporating elements of gamification, Bedrock’s grammar curriculum is designed to compete with the digital world, keeping learners engaged in their literacy improvement.

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