According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Punctuation is "the use of spacing, conventional signs, and certain typographical devices as aids to the understanding and the correct reading, both silently and aloud, of handwritten and printed texts."
The Oxford English Dictionary offers this, slightly drier, definition: "The practice, action, or system of inserting points or other small marks into texts, in order to aid interpretation; division of text into sentences, clauses, etc., by means of such marks.”
Neither of these definitions is correct. Or, at least, neither of them is true. If they were, we would be taught to punctuate only when ‘understanding’ is in jeopardy. The rest of the time, we would write with the propulsive energy and joy of a Jack Kerouac, a William Burroughs or a James Joyce. Our job application letters would nod and wink in the general direction of e e cummings. Or E. E. Cummings. Every proofreader would have a copy of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson on her desk to be used as a vital reference tool. But we don’t write like that. Well, most of us don’t.
No, we use punctuation all the time. We use punctuation whether understanding is in jeopardy or not. We use punctuation because it’s the rules.
The fact of the matter is we should be able to adopt a fairly take-it-or-leave-it approach to punctuation. Take a look at the hyphens in that last sentence. Were they really necessary? And what about the question mark, there? Did it help you understand any better. Did the missing question mark in that last sentence leave you all at sea and discombobulated? I doubt it. The lack of a question mark may well have irritated you or caused you to feel something approaching anxiety but it wasn’t as if a crucial aid to understanding had been cruelly withheld.
So now that you and I are totally in agreement that punctuation is in fact an oppressive bunch of largely unnecessary dots dashes squiggles and whatnots lets get onto what this blog post is really about shall we
(And I promise not to do the no-punctuation thing again because, let’s face it, it makes you uneasy.)
I really just wanted to talk about how much I love the fact that punctuation has escaped the confines of grammatical despotism and upped and flown away.
Not only do I love the fact that most emails and text messages tend, almost intuitively, to eschew the use of punctuation unless entirely necessary, I also love the fact that punctuation is regularly used in emails and text messages to create a whole host of expressions; the fact that you can emote using just a colon and a closing bracket is fantastic. Swap the colon for a semicolon and that little face is giving you a cheeky wink. How great is that? A colon, dash and lower-case ‘o’ gives us a surprised face. Replace the ‘o’ with a capital ‘D’ and you’re laughing your ass off. Easy and powerful.
I don’t believe these little ‘punctuation doodles’ represent a dumbing-down of language. I don’t even think they’re a flash-in-the-pan gimmick, the linguistic equivalent of a Tamagotchi. I think they’re an evolutionary step, a new gizmo in language’s extensive and fascinating toolbox. In the rapid back-and-forth of a telephone text conversation, these gizmos are crucial. If somebody makes a funny remark, it’s actually quite difficult to respond in a way that can’t be misinterpreted as sarcastic. If you text back “Very funny” how does the recipient know the comment isn’t intended ironically? Besides, “Very funny” sounds… well, a bit lame, doesn’t it? But at least it’s not as bad as the half-demented “ha ha ha ha!”. No, a colon, a hyphen and a capital ‘D’ work perfectly.
And then there’s the trend for punctuation tattoos: question marks, exclamation marks, brackets, parentheses, ellipses and the semicolon. The semicolon is particularly interesting. Whilst other punctuation tattoos appear to be employed largely for their typographic and aesthetic value, the semicolon tattoo has a deeper meaning.
The application of a semicolon can be seen as a writer’s decision to continue a sentence that might otherwise have been terminated with a period. And so, the semicolon has come to represent the choice to continue living rather than bringing your life to an end. The meaning has expanded to represent the impulse to keep going in the face of adversity and, as such, has become a symbol of the fight against depression and, more broadly, mental illness. The semicolon is often seen together with phrases like ‘Be Strong’.
Initiatives like Amy Bleuel’s Project Semicolon and Jenn Brown’s and Jeremy Jaramillo’s The Semicolon Tattoo Project, have taken what was something of a trend that had bled out of social media and turned into something very much like a movement.
Punctuation has left home and is developing an exciting new life of its own.
As a proofreader, it’s my job to ensure the rules are followed. I don’t have to like it, though. It would not work out well for any proofreader if they started neatly circling punctuation marks with their trusty red pen and writing in the margin “Do you really need all these crazy little squiggles?”
But before we get back to the world of rules, here’s an extract from James Joyce’s Ulysses, to give you an inkling of just how exhilarating (and discombobulating) a world without punctuation might be:
Yes because he never did a thing like that before as ask to get his breakfast in bed with a couple of eggs since the City Arms hotel when he used to be pretending to be laid up with a sick voice doing his highness to make himself interesting to that old faggot Mrs Riordan that he thought he had a great leg of and she never left us a farthing all for masses for herself and her soul greatest miser ever was actually afraid to lay out 4d for her methylated spirit telling me all her ailments she had too much old chat in her about politics and earthquakes and the end of the world let us have a bit of fun first God help the world if all the women were her sort down on bathing suits and lownecks of course nobody wanted her to wear I suppose she was pious because no man would look at her twice I hope I'll never be like her a wonder she didnt want us to cover our faces but she was a welleducated woman certainly and her gabby talk about Mr Riordan here and Mr Riordan there I suppose he was glad to get shut of her and her dog smelling my fur and always edging to get up under my petticoats…
For those of you feeling a little queasy after that, don’t worry; normal service will be resumed next post, which is going to be a good, old-fashioned proofreading exercise, where poor punctuation will receive our full opprobrium! Mark my words!
If you haven't already, don't forget to take a look at my ludicrously affordable proofreading course!
The period, or full stop, marks the end of a declarative sentence. As a sign it has several other uses which will appear in the paragraphs following.
Rules for the Use of the Period
1. At the end of every sentence unless interrogative or exclamatory.
2. After abbreviations.
Nicknames, Sam, Tom, etc., are not regarded as abbreviations.
The metric symbols are treated as abbreviations but the chemical symbols are not. M. (metre) and mg. (milligram) but Na Cl or CO
Per cent is not regarded as an abbreviation.
The names of book sizes (12mo 16mo) are not regarded as abbreviations.
4. The period is now generally omitted in display matter after:
Box heads in tables,
Signatures at the end of letters.
5. The period is omitted:
After Roman numerals, even though they have the value of ordinals.
After MS and similar symbols.
In technical matter, after the recognized abbreviations for linguistic epochs. IE (Indo-European), MHG (Middle High German)
After titles of well-known publications indicated by initials such as AAAPS (Annals of the American Academy of Political Science).
6. When a parenthesis forms the end of a declarative sentence the period is placed outside the parenthesis, as in the preceding example. A period is placed inside a parenthesis only in two cases.
i. After an abbreviation.
This was 50 years ago (i.e. 1860 A.D.)
ii. At the end of an independent sentence lying entirely within the parenthesis.
Lincoln was at the height of his powers in 1860 (He was elected to the presidency at this time.)
7. When a sentence ends with a quotation, the period always goes inside the quotation marks.
I have just read DeVinne's "Practice of Typography."
The same rule applies to the use of the other low marks, comma, semicolon, and colon, in connection with quotation marks. Unlike most rules of grammar and punctuation, this rule does not rest on a logical
basis. It rests on purely typographic considerations, as the arrangement of points indicated by the rule gives a better looking line than can be secured by any other arrangement.
Other Uses of the Period
1. The period is used as a decimal point.
2. The period is used in groups, separated by spaces, to indicate an ellipsis.
He read as follows: "The gentleman said . . . he was there and saw . . . the act in question."
Apologies. I got a couple of steps ahead of myself. In this post, Frederick W. Hamilton will be telling us all about the colon. After that, we’ll be looking at the full stop (or period) and then we’ll be tackling that innocuous-looking little dash.
The colon marks the place of transition in a long sentence consisting of many members and involving a logical turn of the thought. Both the colon and semicolon are much less used now than formerly. The present tendency is toward short, simple, clear sentences, with consequent little punctuation, and that of the open style. Such sentences need little or no aid to tell their story.
Rules for the Use of the Colon
1. Before as, viz., that is, namely, etc., when these words introduce a series of particular terms in apposition with a general term.
The American flag has three colours: namely, red, white, and blue.
2. Between two members of a sentence when one or both are made up of two or more clauses divided by semicolons.
The Englishman was calm and self-possessed; his antagonist impulsive and self-confident: the Englishman was the product of a volunteer army of professional soldiers; his antagonist was the product of a drafted army of unwilling conscripts.
3. Before particular elements in a definite statement.
Bad: He asked what caused the accident?
Right: He asked, "What caused the accident?"
Napoleon said to his army at the battle of the Pyramids: "Soldiers, forty centuries are looking down upon you."
The duties of the superintendent are grouped under three heads: first, etc.
4. Before formal quotations.
Write a short essay on the following topic: "What is wrong with our industrial system?"
When the formal introduction is brief, a comma may be used.
St. Paul said, "Bear ye one another's burdens."
5. After the formal salutatory phrase at the opening of a letter.
My dear Sir:
When the letter is informal use a comma.
6. Between the chapter and verse in scriptural references.
John xix: 22.
7. Between the city of publication and the name of the publisher in literary references.
"The Practice of Typography." New York: Oswald Publishing Company.
The colon has been similarly employed in the imprints on the title pages of books.
New York: Harper & Brothers, 1880.
DeVinne remarks upon this use of the colon that it is traditional and cannot be explained.
The colon is sometimes used between the hours and minutes in indicating time, like: 11:42 a.m.
DeVinne does not approve of this, though other authorities give it as the rule. It is probably better to use the period in spite of its use as a decimal point, which use was probably the motive for seeking something else to use in writing time indications. In railroad printing the hour is often separated from the minutes by a simple space without any punctuation.
Welcome back. Here's part two of my serialisation of Frederick W. Hamilton's Punctuation. Today, it's the turn of the semicolon, probably the piece of punctuation that generates the most anxiety. But it's really pretty simple. Over to you, Frederick...
The semicolon is used to denote a degree of separation greater than that indicated by the comma, but less than that indicated by the colon. It prevents the repetition of the comma and keeps apart the more important members of the sentence. The semicolon is generally used in long sentences, but may sometimes be properly used in short ones.
Rules for the Use of the Semicolon
1. When the members of a compound sentence are complex or contain commas.
Franklin, like many others, was a printer; but, unlike the others, he was student, statesman, and publicist as well.
With ten per cent of this flour the bread acquired a slight flavor of rye; fifteen per cent gave it a dark color; a further addition made the baked crumb very hard.
The meeting was composed of representatives from the following districts: Newton, 4 delegates, 2 substitutes; Dorchester, 6 delegates, 3 substitutes; Quincy, 8 delegates, 4 substitutes; Brookline, 10 delegates, 5 substitutes.
2. When the members of a compound sentence contain statements distinct, but not sufficiently distinct to be thrown into separate sentences.
Sit thou a patient looker-on; Judge not the play before the play be done;
Her plot has many changes; every day
Speaks a new scene. The last act crowns the play.
3. When each of the members of a compound sentence makes a distinct statement and has some dependence on statements in the other member or members of the sentence.
Wisdom hath builded her house; she hath hewn out her seven pillars; she hath killed her beasts; she hath mingled her wine; she hath furnished her table.
Each member of this sentence is nearly complete. It is not quite a full and definite statement, but it is much more than a mere amplification such as we might get by leaving out she hath every time after the first. In the former case we should use periods. In the latter we should use commas.
4. A comma is ordinarily used between the clauses of a compound sentence that are connected by a simple conjunction, but a semicolon may be used between clauses connected by conjunctive adverbs. Compare the following examples:
The play was neither edifying nor interesting to him, and he decided to change his plans.
The play was neither edifying nor interesting to him; therefore he decided to change his plans.
5. To indicate the chapter references in scriptural citations.
Matt. i: 5, 7, 9; v: 1-10; xiv: 3, 8, 27.
The semicolon should always be put outside quotation marks unless it forms a part of the quotation itself.
"Take care of the cents and the dollars will take care of themselves"; a very wise old saying.
And that's it for the semicolon. Next, that innocent-looking, yet surprisingly tricksy piece of punctuation, the dash.
I’ve made no secret of my surprise that many proofreading courses have the audacity to actually sell grammar instruction as part of their course content, when said instruction can be found elsewhere free of charge. So, rather than just talk about this free grammar instruction, I’m going to actually provide it, by serialising a couple of books over the next few weeks. I’m going to start with Frederick W. Hamilton’s 1920 book, Punctuation, the first chapter of which describes the uses and abuses of the comma.
The comma is by far the most difficult of all the punctuation marks to use correctly. Usage varies greatly from time to time and among equally good writers and printers at the same time. Certain general rules may be stated and should be learned. Many cases, however, will arise in which the rules will be differently interpreted and differently applied by different people.
The comma is the least degree of separation possible of indication in print. Its business is to define the particles and minor clauses of a sentence. A progressive tendency may be seen in the printing of English for centuries toward the elimination of commas, and the substitution of the comma for the semicolon and of the semicolon for the colon. Compare a page of the King James version of the Bible, especially in one of its earlier printings, with a page of serious discourse of to-day and the effects of the tendency will be easily seen. It is part of the general tendency toward greater simplicity of expression which has developed the clear and simple English of the best contemporary writers out of the involved and ornate style of the period of Queen Elizabeth. An ornate and involved style needs a good deal of punctuation to make it intelligible, while a simple and direct style needs but very little help.
This progressive change in the need for punctuation and in the attitude of writers toward it accounts for the difference in usage and for the difficulty in fixing rules to cover all cases. The present attitude toward punctuation, especially the use of the comma, is one of aversion. The writer is always held to justification of the presence of a comma rather than of its absence. Nevertheless it is quite possible to go too far in the omission of commas in ordinary writing. It is quite possible to construct sentences in such a way as to avoid their use. The result is a harsh and awkward style, unwarranted by any necessity. Ordinary writing needs some use of commas to indicate the sense and to prevent ambiguity.
Always remember that the real business of the comma is just that of helping the meaning of the words and of preventing ambiguity by showing clearly the separation and connection of words and phrases. If there is possibility of misunderstanding without a comma, put one in. If the words tell their story beyond possibility of misunderstanding without a comma, there is no reason for its use. This rule will serve as a fairly dependable guide in the absence of any well recognized rule for a particular case, or where doubt exists as to the application of a rule.
Reversed, and usually in pairs, commas mark the beginning of a quotation.
In numerical statements the comma separates Arabic figures by triplets in classes of hundreds: $5,276,492.72.
The comma is placed between the words which it is intended to separate. When used in connection with quotation marks, it is always placed inside them.
“Honesty is the best policy,” as the proverb says.
Rules for the Use of the Comma
1. After each adjective or adverb in a series of two or more when not connected by conjunctions.
He was a tall, thin, dark man.
The rule holds when the last member of the series is preceded by a conjunction.
He was tall, thin, and dark.
The comma may be omitted when the words are combined into a single idea.
A still hot day.
An old black coat.
2. After each pair in a series of pairs of words or phrases not connected by conjunctions.
Sink or swim, live or die, survive or perish,
I give my hand and my heart to this vote.
Formerly the master printer, his journeymen,
even his apprentices, all lived in the same house.
3. To separate contrasted words.
We rule by love, not by force.
4. Between two independent clauses connected by a conjunction.
The press was out of order, but we managed to start it.
5. Before a conjunction when the word which preceded it is qualified by an expression which does not qualify the word which follows the conjunction.
He quickly looked up, and spoke.
6. Between relative clauses which explain the antecedent, or which introduce a new thought.
The type, which was badly worn, was not fit for the job.
If the relative clause limits the meaning of the antecedent, but does not explain it and does not add a new thought, the comma is not used.
He did only that which he was told to do.
7. To separate parenthetical or intermediate expressions from the context.
The school, you may be glad to know, is very successful.
The books, which I have read, are returned with gratitude.
He was pleased, I suppose, with his work.
If the connection of such expressions is so close as to form one connected idea the comma is not used.
The press nearest the south window is out of order.
If the connection of such expressions is remote, parentheses are used.
The Committee (appointed under vote of April 10, 1909) organized and proceeded with business.
8. To separate the co-ordinate clauses of compound sentences if such clauses are simple in construction and closely related.
He was kind, not indulgent, to his men; firm, but just, in discipline; courteous, but not familiar, to all.
9. To separate quotations, or similar brief expressions from the preceding part of the sentence.
Cæsar reported to the Senate, “I came, I saw, I conquered.”
The question is, What shall we do next?
10. To indicate the omission of the verb in compound sentences having a common verb in several clauses.
One man glories in his strength, another in his wealth, another in his learning.
11. To separate phrases containing the case absolute from the rest of the sentence.
The form having been locked up, a proof was taken.
12. Between words or phrases in apposition to each other.
I refer to DeVinne, the great authority on Printing.
The comma is omitted when such an apposition is used as a single phrase or a compound name.
The poet Longfellow was born in Portland.
The word patriotic is now in extensive use.
13. After phrases and clauses which are placed at the beginning of a sentence by inversion.
Worn out by hard wear, the type at last became unfit for use.
Ever since, he has been fond of celery.
The comma is omitted if the phrase thus used is very short.
Of success there could be no doubt.
14. Introductory phrases beginning with if, when, wherever,whenever, and the like should generally be separated from the rest of the sentence by a comma, even when the statement may appear to be direct.
When a plain query has not been answered, it is best to follow copy.
If the copy is hard to read, the compositor will set but few pages.
15. To separate introductory words and phrases and independent adverbs from the rest of the sentence.
Now, what are you going to do there?
I think, also, Franklin owed much of his success to his strong common sense.
This idea, however, had already been grasped by others.
Of course the comma is not used when these adverbs are used in the ordinary way.
They also serve who only stand and wait.
This must be done, however contrary to our inclinations.
16. To separate words or phrases of direct address from the context.
I submit, gentlemen, to your judgment.
From today, my son, your future is in your own hands.
17. Between the name of a person and his title or degree.
Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States.
Charles W. Eliot, LL.D.
18. Before the word of connecting a proper name with residence or position.
Senator Lodge, of Massachusetts.
Elihu B. Root, Senator from New York.
19. After the salutatory phrase at the beginning of a letter, when informal.
When the salutation is formal a colon should be used.
My dear Mr. Smith:
20. To separate the closing salutation of a formal letter from the rest of the sentence of which it forms a part.
Soliciting your continued patronage, I am,
Very sincerely yours,
John W. Smith.
21. To separate two numbers.
January 31, 1915.
By the end of 1914, 7062 had been built.
22. To indicate an ellipsis.
Subscription for the course, one dollar.
Exceptions to this rule are made in very brief sentences, especially in advertisements: Tickets 25 cents. Price one dollar.
The foregoing rules for the use of the comma have been compiled from those given by a considerable number of authorities. Further examination of authorities would probably have added to the number and to the complexity of these rules. No two sets of rules which have come under the writer’s observation are alike. Positive disagreements in modern treatises on the subject are few. The whole matter, however, turns so much on the use made of certain general principles and the field is so vast that different writers vary greatly in their statements and even in their ideas of what ought to be stated. It is very difficult to strike the right mean between a set of rules too fragmentary and too incomplete for any real guidance and a set of rules too long to be remembered and used.
After all possible has been done to indicate the best usage it remains true that the writer or the printer must, in the last resort, depend very largely on himself for the proper application of certain principles. The compositor may find himself helped, or restricted, by the established style of the office, or he may at times be held to strict following of copy. When left to himself he must be guided by the following general principles:
I. The comma is used to separate for the eye what is separate in thought.
The comma is not intended to break the matter up into lengths suited to the breath of one reading aloud.
The comma is not an æsthetic device to improve the appearance of the line.
II. The sole purpose of the comma is the unfolding of the sense of the words.
III. The comma cannot be correctly used without a thorough understanding of the sense of the words.
IV. In case of doubt, omit the comma.
And that’s it from Frederick W. Hamilton on the subject of the comma. Next, the semicolon.
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