Entering content area for The Web of Language

blog posts

  • The laws of English punctuation

    Here's an SAT-type question for you.

    People who ask, “Where does the comma go?” do so because they are convinced that incorrect punctuation represents which of the following linguistic problems:

    a. carelessness
    b. the failure of education
    c. the decline of grammar
    d. the end of civilization
    e. all of the above

    However you answer this question, you’re likely to think that punctuation errors need to be corrected, the sooner the better, and that they represent some bigger problem that surely warrants attention too, but fix the punctuation first. Punctuation is certainly useful to help readers deal with long or difficult texts and to make up for features of spoken discourse like intonation or emotion that don’t transfer well to the page. But if you spend a lot of time correcting other people’s punctuation, and you’re not a copyeditor by profession, then maybe you need to get a life.

    Greengrocer's apostropher: Pizza's & Pasta's

    Using an apostrophe to indicate plurals is sometimes called the greengrocer’s apostrophe (not the greengrocers’ apostrophe) because it’s common on hand-lettered store signs.

    Few people get as exercised over punctuation errors as Grammar Man, a caped crusader who roams Chatham and nearby English cities correcting the spelling and punctuation of urban graffiti with more graffiti. His logo is an exclamation point. 

    Grammar Man corrects grafitti

    Roaming the cities of Kent, in England, Grammar Man corrects graffiti with more graffiti. He’s been accused of unnecessary capitalization, but even his critics have missed the point that Grammar Man is a misnomer, because spelling and punctuation are not actually grammar.

    But recent commentaries in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times confirm the view that punctuation represents the bright but fragile line that separates us from the abyss. The Journal suggests that our punctuation system is on the brink of collapse, as evidenced by the growing number of hand-lettered signs like “Apple’s, $1.59/lb.,” and the Times warns that the universe of punctuation is expanding uncontrollably thanks to smiley-laden texts and tweets.

    Those who place so much store in punctuation should remember that for most of the 5,000-year history of writing, punctuation was either nonexistent or it played a minor, unsystematic role. As Noah Webster wrote in his definition of punctuation, “The ancients were unacquainted with punctuation.” For most of recorded history, writers and readers just didn’t care where the comma went. 

    Archaic Greek papyrus

    This archaic Greek papyrus shows minimal punctuation and no breaks between words. As Noah Webster observed, in a sentence whose punctuation would be marked wrong today, “The ancients were unacquainted with punctuation, they wrote without any distinctions of members, periods or words” (An American Dictionary of the English Language, 1828, s.v.).

    Even during the 18th century, the great age of English standardization that produced Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary, Bishop Lowth’s grammar, Noah Webster’s blue-backed speller, and, ultimately, the SATs, punctuation didn’t warrant much attention from the language regulators. What Lowth tells us is not very encouraging to sticklers convinced that punctuation is an exact science: “The doctrine of punctuation must needs be very imperfect: few precise rules can be given, which will hold without exception in all cases; but much must be left to the judgement and taste of the writer” (A Short Introduction to English Grammar, 1762).

    Bishop Lowth says punctuation is imperfect 

    The popular 18th-century grammarian Bishop Robert Lowth was not particularly interested in punctuation. [Short Introduction to English Grammar. London: 1762, 155]

    The variability of punctuation is easy to demonstrate. In Art. I, sec. 10, of the U.S. Constitution, the framers wrote the possessive it’s (not quite the greengrocer’s apostrophe): “No state shall, without the consent of the Congress, lay any imposts or duties on imports or exports, except what may be absolutely necessary for executing it’s inspection laws” (emphasis added). A student writing it’s for its today would be marked wrong. 

    It's for its in the US Constitution

    In the original ms. version of Art. I, sec. 10, of the U.S. Constitution, the framers wrote it’s instead of its. That’s not surprising, in part because punctuation didn’t carry much weight, even in the law, but also because possessive its was a fairly recent addition to the pronoun paradigm (the earlier forms were uninflected it, and sometimes his).

    Since that time, a conglomeration of punctuation rules has become more central to our understanding of what makes good writing, yet punctuation itself remains variable, not just in grocery signs, but also in more carefully-edited prose: how we punctuate items in a series (hither, thither and yon or hither, thither, and yon); how we indicate possessives (master’s degree or masters degree); the interchangeability of commas and semicolons.

    The influx of smileys (they’re sometimes called emoticons) could signal just another stage in punctuation’s brief and chaotic history, which brings us not just commas, semicolons, and periods, but also the index, ☞, the hashtag, #, and the universal symbol for an email address, @. So why not add ☺ and its frowny opposite, ☹, to the writer’s bag of tricks? 

     original smiley face, 1960's

    The smiley was created in 1963 by the commercial artist Harvey Ball for an ad campaign. It began to appear in print as :) until word processing programs developed the ability to convert those keystrokes into the graphic smiley ☺.

    Maybe punctuation rose from peripheral reading aid to major indicator of writing success because it’s easier to put your finger, or your can of spray paint, on a punctuation error than it is to identify why an argument is faulty or explain why a text is just not very interesting. But the common assumption today is that if punctuation is flawed, then the rest of the writing, and the thinking behind it, must be flawed as well. And so the reaction to emoticons making their way from informal to more self-conscious kinds of writing, business communications, for example, tends to be horror at what one critic cited by the Times called the general "degradation of writing skills" that is attributable to digital technology: everything from poor grammar to bad handwriting.

    But punctuation, like most everything in life, is only temporary, and so even if you condemn the rise of the emoticon you should consider that popular punctuation marks once included the now-obsolete paragraphos, represented by one of several symbols, the paragraphos, to indicate a paragraph break. That, in turn, was replaced by another mark that was later discarded, the pilcrow: ¶. And don’t forget the hedera, ❧, which served a similar purpose. Today we don’t signal paragraph breaks with punctuation but through line breaks and indents.

    And this brings me back to the question I started with: “Where does the comma go?” My response to this frequently asked question is, “Why is this important to you?” But seekers of practical advice don’t tend to pick up on my invitation to reflect on linguistic complexity, and that in turn leads me to the eleventh of Baron’s laws of English (you can read about the others here and here; you can read my earlier commentaries on commas here and here). It’s called the Principle of Recurring Punctuation, and it states,

    No matter how often I try to duck the issue and get on to topics that are really interesting, most people still want to know where the comma goes.

    But I suspect that by now you don’t really want me to tell you where to put your commas. Which reminds me there’s another use for punctuation we’re not going to give up any time soon: #*&%!, without these useful little symbols, we’d never be able to euphemize dirty words in print.

#1
mburke@stlcc.edu Oct 23, 2011 6:08 pm
I'll stipulate that punctuation is largely arbitrary, that it has changed over time, and is much the product of the invention of printing. But you have to admit that it makes reading much less tedious, clarifies ambiguity when done well, and is a marker for class and education in our culture. Your dismissal of its importance is, I think, unfair, rooted perhaps in being tired of answering what to you seems a trivial question. Thus it deprecates the interlocutor and lets you establish a stance that combines world-weariness and erudition, something at odds with what many consider to be the prime purpose of college professors, to educate others and, better yet, inspire them to educate themselves. Perhaps you could write a column about language questions you like to answer.
#2
jack_runnels@hotmail.com Oct 23, 2011 7:26 pm
I think that the bottom line is that while it is important to mark up a student's paper for incorrect or unclear punctuation, making up a greengrocer's sign for similar errors--especially when the meaning can be discerned by the educated and uneducated alike--is just plain silly.
#3
bill@emr.net Oct 23, 2011 8:05 pm
I like punctuation, too. See! However, I agree with what seems to be the gist of the article, that the most important thing about the message is the meaning, not necessarily the delivery.
#4
dschlack@uwsuper.edu Oct 24, 2011 9:52 am
Actually, marking up a student's paper doesn't work: that is, it doesn't, in most cases, cause the student to learn how to punctuate correctly in the future.
#5
duncan.mitchel@gmail.com Oct 24, 2011 10:57 pm
"and is a marker for class and education in our culture." That's one of the things that are wrong with the obsession with punctuation, spelling, and grammar (PSG): it's a marker for class and education in our culture. Which means that "correct" PSG is determined by contemporary fads and fashions in those areas. The Constitution was written by educated men, for example, who didn't care much about punctuation, at least by today's standards; they had other ways of showing rank. I believe I read somewhere that "dropped" g's for example, used to be a marker of upper class; but no longer. PSG obsessives talk as though they believed that correct spelling is timeless and somehow inherent in the language; but show them examples of change -- erratic punctuation in the Constitution, double negatives in Shakespeare -- and they suddenly become radical relativists: Shakespeare's English was primitive and undeveloped, but our English is correct! The Founders were backward and didn't know any better, but we do! So what makes me seriously angry about PSG obsessives is that a large part of what drives them is a desire to feel superior to other people who are really not their inferiors at all, over matters of no real importance. When PSG obsessives look down on other people for their supposed of education as shown in their use of language, that reflects badly on them, not on the people they despise. It's a form of bigotry, and should be regarded and treated as such. I'll agree that I enjoy the skillful use of punctuation, and I'm neurotic enough that the greengrocer's apostrophe drives me up the wall sometimes. But it's only a neurotic reaction. It's not important at all. Which makes your complaint to Prof. Baron rather ironic. "Thus it deprecates the interlocutor and lets you establish a stance that combines world-weariness and erudition, something at odds with what many consider to be the prime purpose of college professors, to educate others and, better yet, inspire them to educate themselves." By your own account you don't really believe this: you think that education is a class marker, to enable people to feel superior to others. Even the best professors are entitled to get tired of being asked, repetitively, stupid questions by people who don't really want to be "educated" but rather want their prejudices to validated, so they can continue to look down on others. I took this post to be an expression of exasperation, which I can well understand. The readers of Prof. Baron's blog aren't students, aren't a captive audience whose feelings might be hurt by his use of his authority. And what he's said here isn't nearly as offensive as PSG obsessives who pretend, for example, not to be able to understand other people's perfectly understandable English speech or writing, to express their wishfully superior education and class standing.
#6
mburke@stlcc.edu Oct 28, 2011 8:48 am
I am not a PSG obsessive. I do think education is a class marker, in that if people want to move up economically/socially/whatever, they have to have a fair amount of education (one-offs like Bill Gates aside). And I think my job as a teacher, especially in a community college, is to help my students join the "company of educated men and women," as a university graduation speaker I once heard said. I can't change the larger social structures that govern so much of our lives--too old for Occupy Wall Street, alas. But I can try to make sure my students do not foreclose their options. That is why I also teach Shakespeare-- BTW--I do find Professor Baron exasperating--challenging, too. This column did not show him in his best light.

additional blog information