'Punctuation Can Go Viral. Syntax Is a Meme.'

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A new form of punctuation is infecting the Internet, writes Conor Dillon in an intriguing post on the "jumper colon."

A new colon is on the march. For now let's call it the "jumper colon".

For grammarians, it's a dependent clause + colon + just about anything, incorporating any and all elements of the other four colons, yet differing crucially in that its pre-colon segment is always a dependent clause.

(Yikes.)

For everyone else: its usefulness lies in that it lifts you up and into a sentence you never thought you'd be reading by giving you a compact little nugget of information prior to the colon and leaving you on the hook for whatever comes thereafter, often rambling on until the reader has exhausted his/her theoretical lung capacity and can continue to read no longer.

It's a fun and lively riff on punctuation in the digital age. But of course punctuation would have to "be viral," and spread socially. How else could we come to a common understanding about what punctuation means? I'm reminded of the lovely GOOD piece on the very long history of emoticons, written by Oberlin English professor, Anne Trubek. It provides a pre-facto riposte to Dillon's post.

So is it okay to invent punctuation marks? Absolutely. At first, writing had no punctuation at all. Usually, authors dictated their words to scribes, and were meant to be recordings of speech. The scribes were simply transcribers, and had no license to add anything not heard by the speaker. Also, no one read silently. All writing was read aloud. A space is a punctuation mark, remember, so in those days, everyone used a script called scripta continua, which, as you may guessed, meant therewerenospacesbetweenwords. As more people began reading, itbecamehardertoreadthedamnedmanuscripts, and punctuation marks were invented to ease reading aloud. The earliest marks indicated how a speaker's voice should adjust to reflect the tone of the words. Punctus interrogativus is a precursor to today's question mark, and it indicates that the reader should raise his voice to indicate inquisitiveness. Tone and voice were literal in those days: Punctuation told the speaker how to express the words he was reading out loud to his audience, or to himself. A question mark, [Ed: a jumper colon], a comma, a space between two words: These are symbols that denote written tone and voice for a primarily literate--as opposed to oral--culture. There is no significant difference between them and a modern emoticon.
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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