“The ability to speak does not make you intelligent.”
– Qui-Gon Jinn
One could imagine the kinds of responses people might give when asked to list humanity’s greatest achievements. A quick internet search reveals such monumental accomplishments as the building of the pyramids, the advent of flight, or the recording of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.” Not surprisingly, few of these lists include the creation of language — more specifically grammar — as great accomplishments, but how many of humanity’s greatest achievements would have been possible without the ability for human beings to communicate with one another in precise terms? The phrases failure to communicate or communication breakdown are commonly heard, and indeed, poor communication seems to be a handy scapegoat for a myriad of failures, including: marriages, wars, and road construction projects. It seems natural for humans to go straight to the source and blame language when things go wrong, so what exactly is the point at which language loses all meaning?
The Oxford Dictionary definition of grammar (copied below) describes it as “the whole system and structure of a language or of languages in general, usually taken as consisting of syntax and morphology (including inflections) and sometimes also phonology and semantics” which could be simplified further to essentially say the structure of language. This definition basically categorizes grammar into two parts: rules and word forms.
Many grammar purists complain when wrong word forms are used in writing, such as incorrect homophones, e.g.: your and you’re; there, their, and they’re; to, too, and two. However, the meaning of a sentence can still be clearly communicated even if the wrong word form is used. In fact, studies have shown that word form is not critical to communication and that the brain can recognize words if they are completely misspelled, provided the first and last letters are correct. You may have seen something similar shared on Facebook:
Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.
Indeed, the meaning of a sentence can still be properly conveyed with misspellings and missing words. Logically, it would seem that word form is less important than the rules, i.e.: syntax is king.
This would suggest that since punctuation governs the structure of sentences, then any missing punctuation marks would result in sentences that are difficult or impossible to understand. But is this true? Is it impossible to understand if a sentence is a statement or a question without end-sentence punctuation? Or is it impossible to understand someone is being quoted without quotation marks?
If these punctuation marks are not crucial to understanding the absolute meaning of a written sentence, then which ones are?
Some interesting bad grammar internet memes are helpful in providing this answer and are also very revealing. A simple yet effective example demonstrating the point at which meaning breaks down is revealed in the following meme comprised of only three words:
Let’s eat, grandpa.
Let’s eat grandpa.
Or how about the following?
I love to cook, my pets, and my family.
I love to cook my pets and my family.
I’m sorry, I love you.
I’m sorry I love you.
In the above examples, it becomes apparent the meaning of each sentence depends entirely on the use of the comma. Entire words can be misspelled and all punctuation minus the commas can be omitted and the sentences still maintain their meaning; however, removal of the comma results in statements with entirely different meanings, some with horrific implications. These examples demonstrate the power of the most underrated symbol of punctuation: the comma.
Likewise, consider the power the apostrophe holds in determining the meaning of a sentence:
That bears watching.
That bear’s watching.
So considering the failure of communication, then, in what could possibly be the most famous historical example in which language was to blame, the biblical story of the building of the tower of Babel, was it necessary for language to be altered entirely for complete communication breakdown to occur? It would seem that had the builders of the tower of Babel relied solely on written communication, the omission of a few necessary commas and apostrophes could have resulted in monumental failure. What does this mean in the digital age, then, and for the future of humanity as entire generations are beginning to grow up using communication platforms, such as Twitter, that eschew punctuation almost entirely and devalue proper sentence structure? Will history repeat itself with the result of a society that is unable to communicate clearly? Only time will tell.