The Fascinating Thing About Punctuation Is …

… that it did not exist

I get questions all the time about the ‘right’ way to use punctuation, as if there are universal, inherent, absolute and naturally correct ways to use punctuation, as if punctuation has ‘laws’ in the same way that physics has ‘laws.’ It does not.

Punctuation was invented. It is a creative human invention in response to challenges posed by written text.

Today, there are ‘standard usages’ and ‘practical usages’ for punctuation, but those usages are arbitrary.

Not meaningless, mind you, but arbitrary.

I wrote this post for those who get anxious about how to use punctuation. I wanted to write a short but practical overview of the role punctuation plays in writing.

I’m drawing on a shelf-full of books here, but there’s one in particular that deserves a shout-out:

Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West by M.B. Parkes

Why punctuation?

Imagine you like to shop at flea markets. One day, you stumble across an old notebook. You think maybe you can use it for scrapbooking or collage. You blow dust off the cover and open it. Someone has written page after page of notes.

Here’s what a passage looks like:

whenitalkaboutwritingwithworkshopsparticipantstheyalwayswantoknowwhentousecommasorssemicolonstheyaskandywhataretherulesitellthemttotakeastepbackandthinkaboutthebigpicturewhypuncutationwhatisitforhowdoesitfunctionthesocalledrulesmakemuchmoresenseifyouknowalittlesomethingaboutthehistoryandevolutionofthemarkswecallpunctuation

This is an approximation of what early written texts looked like. We’re talking about a long, long time ago.

It’s pretty unreadable from our vantage. Then again, it wasn’t meant to be read by just anyone. In The Age of Antiquity, the purpose of writing something down was to record speech. Because it was meant as a record, you would already know (if you were highly educated) what the text said. If you were to read it aloud, you would know where to pause and where to stop.

White Space as Punctuation

Time passed and that meant new readers who weren’t familiar with the text. The scribes responsible for copying these records would insert marks to denote pauses and stops. But there wasn’t anything consistent about the way they marked the text. It was often a matter of personal preference.

Enter the Christians. In matters of theology, interpretation matters. Christian leaders didn’t want followers to make up their own interpretations. They recognized that writing could be more than a record of speech. According to Parkes, they elevated the status of the written word:

“Members of the Christian communities in the West developed a keen sense of the role played by the written word in preserving and fostering orthodox tradition handed down by the Church, and in transmitting that heritage to new generations.” (20)

Parkes explains how Irish and Anglo Saxon scribes developed practices that generally improved readability and comprehension of written texts.

“The principal contribution of the insular scribes was that they established the rudiments of the grammar of legibility in relation to the new scripts as well as the old, and transmitted it to later generations of scribes for further refinement and development.” (29)

This ‘grammar of legibility’ included radical innovations such as putting space between letters and words. Hence, in my crude example above, you would get something more like this:

when I talk about writing with workshop participants they always want to know when to use commas or semicolons they ask andy what are the rules I tell them to take a step back and think about the big picture why punctuation what is it for how does it function these so called rules make much more sense if you know a little something about the history and evolution of the marks we call punctuation

Putting space between words was a huge leap forward. It’s so important that writing coach Roy Peter Clark tells students to think of white space as a form of punctuation. In his most recent book, Murder Your Darlings And Other Gentle Writing Advice from Aristotle to Zinsser, Clark writes:

“If the period is a stop sign for the sentence, white space does the same work for the paragraph. The white space is a visual form of ventilation of the text. It invites the reader in, sending the message that you can glide—rather than struggle—through a report.” (249)

Let’s Talk About Marks

Punctuation as we know it is a set of symbols. Those symbols are marks that mean something. Before we get into questions of standard usage (a much better way of describing so-called ‘rules’), we should talk about marks.

What is a mark?

A period is an example of a mark. The mark is a little dot that we put at the end of certain types of sentences.

A question ‘mark’ is also a symbol, and we use it at the end of a different type of sentence.

Consider once again my crude example: How would these two marks help with legibility? With comprehension and readability?

An obvious answer is that periods and question marks would signal the end of a sentence. Let’s see:

when I talk about writing with workshop participants they always want to know when to use commas or semicolons. they ask andy what are the rules? I tell them to take a step back and think about the big picture. why punctuation? what is it for? how does it function? the so called rules make much more sense if you know a little something about the history and evolution of the marks we call punctuation.

Can you feel the frustration melting away? The same unreadable prose at the beginning of this post suddenly starts to look familiar. It’s nice, right?

If we can use periods and question marks to make the writing more readable, what other marks do we have at our disposal:

, the comma

; the semicolon

: the colon

“” quotation marks

() parentheses

– the hyphen

— the dash

[] brackets

* the asterisk

/ the forward slash

\ the backward slash

• the bullet point

And many, many more. Take a look at your keyboard. What do you see? If you use Word, take a stroll through the Insert > Symbol menu for even more marks.

We can even make marks out of marks. You know, the way three little dots make an ellipses …

Some marks employed by scribes fell out of use over time. The most common marks today only became  standardized with the advent of the printing press. Before then, personal preference and even handwriting style played a much bigger role.

You’re Ready to Edit

If you struggle with punctuation, focus on the marks that end sentences. Remember how much easier it was to read my example when the sentences were isolated? If you get that down, you’re heading in the right direction.

Keep your eyes on the prize. For business communications, punctuation should improve readability. That’s the primary function. It should be helpful, first and foremost.

What about Commas?

Commas began as a mark that indicates a pause. There was a time when the placement of pauses was generally accepted as a standard among orators. There were ‘best practices.’ But we’re talking about a time in history when most people couldn’t read. If you learned to read, you also learned the tricks for inserting pauses. (And there was still disagreement.)

Commas are a mark that people get very anxious about, in my experience. If that describes you, just remember: The comma is an invention.

Pauses in speech are subjective in nature, so a technical language was invented to produce ‘rules’ for standard usage in writing. Of course the rules vary depending on who you ask and what style guide you prefer.

I think we can all agree that commas help when it comes reading  long sentences. Here’s what my example looks like with commas:

when I talk about writing with workshop participants, they always want to know when to use commas or semicolons. they ask, andy what are the rules? I tell them to take a step back and think about the big picture. why punctuation? what is it for? how does it function? the so called rules make much more sense if you know a little something about the history and evolution of the marks we call punctuation.

Compare that with previous examples.

Another innovation is the capital letter to indicate the start of a sentence.

When I talk about writing with workshop participants, they always want to know when to use commas or semicolons. They ask, andy what are the rules? I tell them to take a step back and think about the big picture. Why punctuation? What is it for? How does it function? The so called rules make much more sense if you know a little something about the history and evolution of the marks we call punctuation.

Quotations marks are another innovation that signal direct speech. According to Parkes, scribes would indent quotes. We still do that today, but we also have the marks for inline text.

When I talk about writing with workshop participants, they always want to know when to use commas or semicolons. They ask, “andy what are the rules?” I tell them to take a step back and think about the big picture. Why punctuation? What is it for? How does it function? The so called rules make much more sense if you know a little something about the history and evolution of the marks we call punctuation.

What other marks would help make this passage in line with contemporary sensibilities?

The Takeaway!

Punctuation marks have a purpose. They have many purposes, in fact. But those purposes are neither universal nor fixed.

Here’s some advice for when you’re editing a work and worried about whether the punctuation is correct:

  • Set aside ‘rules’ for a moment.
  • Ask yourself if it’s clear where sentences begin and end.
  • Ask yourself whether long the sentences lack internal punctuation. If so, are there instances where commas could/should go?
  • Consult a punctuation nerd for guidance on standard and practical usage if you’re still not sure what to do.

Further Reading

The Glamour of Grammar by Roy Peter Clark

Punctuation: Art, Politics, Play by Jennifer DeVere Brody

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