THE BLOG

Punctuation - From Heated Debate to New Possibilities

04/03/2016 12:13 GMT | Updated 04/03/2017 10:12 GMT

Punctuation has triggered some of the most heated arguments ever arisen in the English usage throughout its history. Whilst some punctuation marks have more or less straightforward function in sentences, others divide opinions. In his new book, the all-things-linguistic god Professor David Crystal explores the bizarre, wonderful, funny and adventurous stories of English punctuation marks. Making a Point: The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation is a valuable addition to David Crystal's first two books in the series, The Story of English in 100 Words and Spell It Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling.

2016-03-03-1457045156-2542313-51ibPJea2QL._SX322_BO1204203200_.jpg

Making a Point covers the use, controversy and history of English punctuation. From the historical context, Crystal tours us into the modern day classroom use of punctuation marks, surveying the various attitudes and preferences of literary figures, teachers and individuals along the way. As with English spelling, punctuation has always been a hot, painful and sensitive topic, triggering all sorts of exaggerated reactions. We learn that Wordsworth, for example, was "hopeless at punctuation and abdicated all responsibility for it". Going back in time, Ben Jonson was so much into language usage that, besides writing plays, he wrote an English Grammar. He was also in constant fight with his printers and publishers over his preference for heavy punctuation. More extreme was often Mark Twain's reaction when his work went through editing and proofreading before publication. Crystal quotes Twain from 1889:

Yesterday Mr. Hall wrote that the printer's proof-reader was improving my punctuation for me, & I telegraphed orders to have him shot without giving him time to pray.

On the other hand, we can see how distant a publication can become from the original as a result of editorial involvement with the author's manuscript. Differences can be crucial even between two different editions. Crystal illustrates the point on examples from Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson and, further back in history, William Caxton. In these cases, the author's punctuation is heavily altered to conform to the printer's or publisher's conventions. A convincing example Crystal cites of when an author's voice and style suffer, is the substitution of commas for dashes in Dickinson's poetry in one edition.

Crystal discusses the old argument upheld by elocutionists and grammarians as to whether punctuation should serve the intonation in speech or the grammar of the sentence. The names of most of the punctuation marks derive from the late sixteenth century and this is also when first specialist books on language start to appear. In the eighteenth century, grammar is now the sexy subject. We see how the works of influential writers on language, such as Dr Samuel Johnson, Lindley Murray and others, dictated usage. Crystal writes that Murray's English Grammar (1795) sold over 20 million copies!

At the opposite end, demand for elocution was on the rise. According to Crystal, Thomas Sheridan, the father of playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, delivered lectures on elocution to packed halls all over the country.

Crystal warns against the black and white take on the use of different punctuation marks and emphasises the importance of register, context, tone and intention. Crystal writes that what is lost in the grammar versus speech argument over punctuation is the meaning and intention - semantics and pragmatics. He illustrates the fascinating range of meanings, nuances, intentions, moods and attitudes that can be expressed via punctuation marks or, indeed, the absence of them. Crystal's remarkable illustrations home in on the powerful potential of only so many punctuation marks when the various ways of punctuating even the same bit of language can help convey all sorts of meanings - even more so in the age of the Internet. To allude to the book's apt title, punctuation is there to make a point.

At the end of the day, whether you are one who raves at the apostrophe in a Potato's or loves the serial comma, it's worth getting a copy of Crystal's Making a Point and heading for the Question-Mark tavern in Belgrade(!).