Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

Based on the title of today’s post, you may be led to believe that this is going to be a rant on the demise of proper grammar. You may think that I’m about to admonish the rise of text talk, l33t speak, and Internet slang. But that’s not the case.

While I could certainly yammer at length about how the so-called e-generation has systematically degraded what we consider to be acceptable and proper English, that’s not the point of today’s grammar post. Instead, it’s more about how technology has evolved the way that our words (and punctuation) appear on the screen and on the printed page. There are different quotation marks, for example, but that’s only the beginning.

Two Spaces After Periods

Growing up, I was always taught that I should double-space after a period. This was meant to clearly signify the full stop and the subsequent beginning of a new sentence. The same rule was applied to the application of question marks and exclamation marks if they signaled the end of a sentence too.

In the earlier days of computers, this now archaic rule still carried through. Even up until my university days, I wrote essays where periods were followed by two spaces. Such is no longer the case. In all of my web writing, as well as writing I do offline for clients, the standard is a single space after a period. Realistically, I’m indifferent to the change and the single space has become second nature.

Indented Paragraphs

Much like the double-space after a period, this “rule” is likely a holdover from the days of mechanical typewriters. The first line of a paragraph would always be indented. And again, this held true for many of the papers I wrote in college.

Such is not at all the case when it comes to writing on the Internet. Every blog post I write here, every review I write elsewhere, every feature article I post online… they all do not have indented paragraphs. Instead, the paragraphs are simply separated by an empty line. I prefer this, as it is cleaner and easier on the eyes, though we still see indented paragraphs in many printed documents and manuscripts.

Hyphens and Dashes

A hyphen and a dash are not the same thing. You use a hyphen to connect two words, as would be the case with brother-in-law and four-thirds. An em dash is used to break up a thought, as would be the case with the following sentence: He ate everything on the plate–including all the fries–and he still hungered for more.

They may both be horizontal lines, but a dash is longer than a hyphen. In the days of a typewriter, a hyphen would be one stroke like this , whereas a dash could be signified with two strokes like this --. That changed with the rise of word processors (and the Internet).

Nowadays, if you try to type --, the computer will likely automatically replace it with —. See the difference? Many people don’t and that’s why the distinction between the different punctuation marks (let’s not even get into different dashes) has become so murky.

Evolving with Technology

The English language continues to evolve. Older words are discarded. Newer words are invented. What was once deemed unacceptable is becoming the norm and the continuing growth of technology spurs that along too. Language is not a fixed entity, so we should all understand that grammar rules must too change with the times.

It might only be a matter of time before we get rid of capital letters altogether. After all, it was completely outside convention to use name formations like iPod and TechCrunch just a few short years ago.