Does punctuation matter?

In a world where emojis are increasingly replacing punctuation, will we miss the question mark?

emojis, text message

Emojis have established their place in our daily communications. Photo: Larissa Lily, QUINT / UiO

Love them or hate them, emojis have changed the way people communicate digitally with friends. They even have their own World day of celebration. And according to a study made by Google in 2015, they are the reason English language is deteriorating. This is not an isolated study either; the increased use of emojis has changed how we use languages all over the world, and often to the detriment of sticking to formal grammar rules in writing.

In fact, earlier this month the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation reported on the worries that teachers and Education authorities in Norway feel over the declining grammar skills among secondary school students. According to the article, punctuation and question marks are often missing or replaced with emojis. Teachers have noticed that over the past ten years the students’ knowledge of formal grammar rules have become gradually worse. It is worrying that students seem to think that using emojis at the end of a sentence is the same as using exclamation marks or question marks.

Linking Instruction and Student Achievement in Nordic Schools (LISA Nordic) is a large scale video study, drawing on videotaped lessons from more than 150 different classrooms in all five Nordic countries.

This could all be caused by the fact that students communicate most often informally through digital channels and on social media, where it is normal for emojis to replace punctuation. However, Astrid Roe, PI of LISA Nordic Study at QUINT, also notes that LISA data shows that teaching grammar and punctuation are simply not emphasised across Norwegian language arts classrooms:

- We don’t know what teachers do when they give feedback to students on written work. We don’t see that in our study. They may focus more on grammar, punctuation and spelling, but we can’t know to what extent.

- What we do know is that as far as our study shows, we saw only one classroom where the teacher talked about the rules for using comma.

- When we have 180 lessons that are a representative sample from all over the country, there’s reason to believe that these lessons are representative of what we find in Norwegian language arts throughout the school year. We see a whole lot of reading of literature and writing instruction. The lessons are dominated by that. If the teachers had been more focused on punctuation and grammar, we would probably have seen more of it in the whole class instruction, Roe explains.

Grammar not on the agenda in classroom instruction

The fact that grammar and spelling are not very visible in whole class instruction is symptomatic of the fact that it is not paid so much attention to. During the last 50 years grammar has to a large extent disappeared from the syllabus, Roe explains. Research shows that just teaching grammar, if it is taught as an isolated part of the subject, doesn’t make you a better writer. That might explain why it has disappeared from the national curriculum. It is hardly present in the student’s textbooks.

- However, newer studies show that if you integrate grammar in the writing instruction, it really improves the quality of writing. If the teachers have a good knowledge of grammar and use it to teach good writing, this will have a positive effect, Roe emphasises.

Currently we see that the students write as they speak. There is a difference between formal and informal language. Informal language has usually been oral language, but now it has gradually become written language in informal settings too, i.e. when chatting with friends. The trade-off is that it influences your formal writing. This may harm young people who are not able to distinguish between writing in an informal setting versus a formal setting.

- If you never use formal language, you may not be able to write formal text at all, Roe warns. This may have consequences for when you need to write a formal letter or apply for a job. If the grammar is missing, it won’t look good for potential employers. It has to do with how you want to present yourself.


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By Larissa Lily, QUINT/UiO
Published Feb. 28, 2020 1:41 PM - Last modified Feb. 28, 2020 1:41 PM