I am glad to say that I didn’t leave Lynn Truss’s talk feeling inadequate when it comes to my skills with the English language. In fact, I felt the emphasis on convention rather than rule was refreshing and honest, reflecting a pragmatic attitude to English grammar and acknowledging changes over time which, doubtless, will continue.
The focus was on the purpose of punctuation: the meaning-making that is an essential process of writing. Not that perfect punctuation can ensure perfect understanding (‘I know you like the back of my hand’ vs ‘I know you like the back of my hand’) but it can help (‘The Queen: without her, dinner is noisy’ vs ‘The Queen without her dinner, is noisy’).
An interesting point was brought out by a questioner: is this lack of interest in punctuation linked to a lack of interest in thinking of the needs of others? Do we think the recipient is responsible for finding the meaning in a message, rather than it being the role of the writer to punctuate it correctly to give the meaning?
Two questions mentioned ‘text speak’ and how it might be part of the decline (symptomatic if not causal), but another mentioned the telex machine which also used a system of abbreviations. An essential difference is of course the number of people who have some experience of text-speak (either using it or have to decipher it) compared with telex users (who must have been relatively rare.)
The one area where I disagreed with Truss was her imagining of a future where all punctuation disappeared. I can’t imagine, since English took up punctuation to enable it to develop a greater level of sophistication, it reverting to a punctuation-free form again whilst it is still written down.
Bath Literature Festival 2012 http://www.bathlitfest.org.uk/lynnetruss.aspx