How might punctuation now evolve? The dystopian view is that it will vanish. I find this conceivable, though not likely. But we can see harbingers of such change: editorial austerity with commas, the newsroom preference for the period over all other marks, and the taste for visual crispness.
…One manifestation of this is the advance of the dash. It imitates the jagged urgency of conversation, in which we change direction sharply and with punch. Dashes became common only in the 18th century. Their appeal is visual, their shape dramatic. That’s what a modern, talky style of writing seems to demand.
By contrast, use of the semicolon is dwindling. Although colons were common as early as the 14th century, the semicolon was rare in English books before the 17th century. It has always been regarded as a useful hybrid—a separator that’s also a connector—but it’s a trinket beloved of people who want to show that they went to the right school.
More surprising is the eclipse of the hyphen. Traditionally, it has been used to link two halves of a compound noun and has suggested that a new coinage is on probation. But now the noun is split (fig leaf, hobby horse) or rendered without a hyphen (crybaby, bumblebee). It may be that the hyphen’s last outpost will be in emoticons, where it plays a leading role.
Hmm. I am indeed a fan of the dash; I see it as a linguistic pause button, allowing a brief aside, saving the lengthier ones for enclosure within parentheses. I also would rather dehyphenate most words; something about the hyphen always strikes me as annoyingly retro, like when people used to write “to-day”. But as you can see from the previous two sentences, I find the semicolon very useful and fail to understand why it should have come to be synonymous with snobbery and esoteric rules.
An English professor friend of mine occasionally passes along egregious examples of the kind of writing her students submit; it’s fun to read them out loud, verbatim, in keeping with the lack of punctuation. I usually manage to stay sanguine about the “kids these days”, figuring that the glass has always been half-empty when it comes to basic literacy. The easiest way to become a good speller and good writer is to read, read, and read some more, and most people don’t like to do it. So it goes. But I have to admit that I’m currently ready to issue death sentences to all those people who refuse to ever capitalize anything, even when submitting information for an official form. The Internet has become the recessive gene pool of Cormac McCarthy and E.E. Cummings, it seems.