There should have been few surprises in the tweet announcing former US vice-president Joe Biden’s candidacy for the 2020 presidential nomination.
Indeed, the message was on-brand. The form, however, was truly shocking: syntax with the kind of punctuation that turns editors and English teachers into single-issue voters; makes self-appointed grammarians’ eyes bleed; and sets fire to every style guide on the shelf.
(In Quartz’s own house style, it might look a little more like this: “The core values of this nation—our standing in the world, our very democracy, everything that has made America, America—is at stake. That’s why today I’m announcing my candidacy for president of the United States.”)
Why does Biden type like this? Though perhaps not the most traditionally academic of the Democratic candidates, he’s an educated man. His cellphone and internet browser are all but certain to have an in-built grammar checker. And there’s surely someone on his sprawling campaign team who could have cast an eye over those rogue ellipses before he hit “tweet.”
The evidence suggests that these idiosyncrasies of punctuation—which may (or may not!) remind you of texts from your parents—are in fact deliberate choices from Biden. They speak to his age, as US president Donald Trump’s do to his. These are the hallmarks of a generation born in the very early decades of wholly standardized punctuation, for whom the internet, and regular and instant text-based communication, only became a feature of life in their sixth or seventh decade.
There’s a message in all these thoughtful ellipses: 76-year-old Biden wants us to think of him as a friend, sliding into our DMs for a chat about America. The trouble is, he’d probably rather pick up the phone instead.
Blame it on the internet
For generations brought up on computer-based word processors and smartphones, the tyranny of autocorrect has imposed its own style guide on the masses. In Microsoft Word, autocorrect turns two -‘s into —, or encourages you to consider revising your fragments; iPhones helpfully (though not always correctly) nudge you to use “it’s” instead of “its”.
If you spend most of your time on a screen, you will grow accustomed to near-constant suggestions on how to improve, or standardize, your grammar and punctuation, no matter how casual the communication. Ultimately, it’s a question of register: how conversational is a tweet?
Biden adopts different punctuation styles according to the perceived formality of his communication. Screenshots of professional emails to his staffers show an entirely regular approach to punctuation. The few handwritten letters by Biden in public circulation are a little more whimsical. One example begins “Dear Brandon —” and includes the line “You are a fine — bright — young man.”
Biden knows how to punctuate properly. But he’s chosen not to in this tweet for a certain rhetorical effect—to communicate the conversational tone he thinks of as appropriate to social media. (There’s an analog here in older people who pepper their personal texts with irony-free abbreviations: LOL; 2nite; thx.) It’s supposed to sound friendly and informal, and perhaps to some it does. But to people who live on the internet, and always have done, it seems slapdash and willfully careless.
That some older people overuse ellipses is a well-documented phenomenon. The reasons why are a little hazier, though analysis from The Outline suggests a desire to appear open-minded and friendly, as if pausing for thought, or a reluctance to commit to the definitive finality of a brusque little period.
Slightly younger people employ different forms of punctuation when they want to communicate a thoughtful, friendly tone. Tweets from Biden’s much younger rival, Pete Buttigieg, are much more technically formal, even when they’re quite casual. If he wants to sound a bit more chatty, he might drop the “I’m” in “I’m hoping,” leave off a period, or end with a breezy !. Losing a period isn’t correct—but it’s far more acceptable as a way to communicate spontaneity, according to contemporary norms.
The rise of the style guide
That said, having grammatical norms at all is a relatively new innovation. Though they may seem as immovable as the tablets of Moses, prescriptive, wide-ranging style guides handed down from on high only became an important feature in the past century.
The AP Stylebook was only formalized and made publicly available in the early 1950s; the New Yorker’s 1920s style guide, with its very particular diaeresis, was put together in an age in which editors felt at liberty to innovate as they saw fit. The earliest style guides left plenty of room for experimentation: the Oxford University Press’ first set of house rules, published in 1893, were a single broadsheet of do’s or do not’s. (Today, the same rules are hundreds of pages long.)
For most of the history of the English printed word, writers were permitted, and duly took, a much looser approach. Guides to grammar from the mid-19th century, for instance, balance a desire for readability with a general understanding that punctuation is itself a form of self-expression.
Take an 1839 guide from Leeds Mercury reporter John Best Davidson, which suggests commas be inserted “according to the caprice or taste of the writer.” Or the 1880 General Rules for Punctuation and for the Use of Capital Letters, by the American journalist and Harvard University professor of rhetoric Adams Sherman Hill. Punctuation, he writes, is “one of the means by which a writer communicates with his readers,” and thus “naturally varies with thought and expression.” Not only should no writer should be taken as a model, but “a system of rules loaded with exceptions, though founded upon the best usage and framed with the greatest care, is as likely to fetter thought as to aid in its communication.” Sorry, pedants.
While these musings predate Biden by many decades, they reveal a shift over generations in how people have thought about a “right” and “wrong” way to use punctuation.
Biden’s tweet is, by virtually every present-day grammar guide going, technically quite flawed. But according to earlier principles, it’s basically acceptable: You can understand what he means, and the “caprices” of punctuation tell you a little about how he would like it to sound in your mind, pauses and all. (Though it would be nice if he had used ellipses consistently.)
Of course, there is one another possible explanation. With Buttigieg earning plaudits for his praise of James Joyce, Biden may be going one step further into full-on pastiche. Will he run for President? “yes I said yes I will Yes”