On Writing: How to Communicate in Arbitrary Symbols

When language was invented, arbitrary noises were ascribed meaning. Eventually, the cultures that had effective spoken language stopped putting their elderly out to pasture when they started asking for the younger generations to repeat themselves (the reason is economic, and will be discussed another day). But with all the old folk bumbling around trying to figure out if it’s “leaves of three let them be” or “leaves of three wipes up pee” a new system of communication needed to be established, one that could be referenced with there wasn’t a youth to offer counsel. From that, writing was born.

There have been some dramatic shifts in writing, even during the span of my life. Verse has fall by the way and stream of consciousness reigns supreme. Literally literally doesn’t mean literally any longer. Tomes have yielded to snippets and lists.And punctuation has been lost to just a few boring pauses.

As language evolves, it’s sister, the ever elastic written word, shifts in parallel. A few nuance can be found below.

The quote

Historically, and this is relevant when reading works written prior to the twenty first century (unless it was written by Cormac McCarthy) a quote denoted speech, or in academic cases, the copying of concisely worded information you wish to use in order to further your point. Quotation marks varied from language to language but the idea was ubiquitous until now.

Today, a quote has been re-imagined to be the thing that no one said, no aloud, not in writing, not ever. As literally has gone, so too has the quote doing an about-turn in definition. This may be the result of sarcastic air quotes bubbling up around the same time as the “as ifs” and “whatevers” that permeated spoken English during the 1990s, but one can never know.

The exclamation mark

There was a time when if someone popped and exclamation point into any bit of writing it conveyed excitement. And exclamation point in a quote, to the joy of high school teachers everywhere, replaced having to tell the reader that the speaker ejaculated whatever he or she had said. It was used for emphasis in a time when bold and italics weren’t standards in print. It was loud. It carried weight.

Now an exclamation mark is a whimper. It says, please do not read this in any way that would suggest that I am either angry or less than enthusiastic. It wheezes a weak inflection that mimics a question. If Jane said it! the reader still needs to be told she ejaculated it!


Diction dictated tone in the days in which only the educated read. A flamboyant vocabulary lends its hand to expressing excitement and fury without the need for stating this feeling outright. Clever writers could change the tone of a piece as a musician does, shift the phrase and it’s different.

If you have ever written an email, you must know that tone is dead. Language has to remain neutral to prevent the recipient from being offended (god forbid you use words like decline or fail!). Syntax has to remain neutral, lest your choppy sentences be perceived as aggression.

The irony being that where there lacks tone, lacks the ability to change the tone, hence the flattening of the exclamation point.


It used to count. Now, it doesn’t.

I apologize for my hand in this.


Things that happened belong in the past tense. And there are various forms of this historical conjugation but for simplicity sake we stick to before now, now, and after now. It saved further explanation as to the circumstances surrounding the timing of the even to which you write. School teachers used to whip children who couldn’t differentiate between drunk and drank.

This is no longer the case, instead the world is written in the same subject/verb disagreement that my freshman Spanish speech on ecoturismo strongly embraced. Your resume of past jobs bumbles about in a current state and no one bats an eye.


***If you really want to look at a decent discussion of writing, pick up a copy of On Writing by Stephan King, it’s a bit better than this post, plus when people see it on your shelf they’ll think you are smart.

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