English As She Is Writ - part six

The full stop

Full power: the full stop

At last we begin to inspect, one by one, the punctuation marks widely used in written English, and we start with the most basic, the most useful, the oldest: the full stop.

To demonstrate the usefulness and the function of the full stop, I’ll resort to the passage of text that I stripped of all punctuation in the third instalment of this blog: the opening two paragraphs of The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain. This time I’ve sprinkled some full stops across the text at appropriate places.

They threw me off the hay truck about noon. I had swung on the night before down at the border and as soon as I got up there under the canvas I went to sleep. I needed plenty of that after three weeks in Tia Juana and I was still getting it when they pulled off to one side to let the engine cool. Then they saw a foot sticking out and threw me off. I tried some comical stuff but all I got was a dead pan so that gag was out. They gave me a cigarette though and I hiked down the road to find something to eat. That was when I hit this Twin Oaks Tavern. It was nothing but a roadside sandwich joint like a million others in California. There was a lunchroom part and over that the house part where they lived and off to one side a filling station and out back a half-dozen shacks that they called an auto court. I blew in there in a hurry and began looking down the road. When the Greek showed I asked if a guy had been by in a Cadillac. He was to pick me up here I said and we were to have lunch. Not today said the Greek. He laid a place at one of the tables and asked me what I was going to have. I said orange juice corn flakes fried eggs and bacon enchilada flapjacks and coffee. Pretty soon he came out with the orange juice and the corn flakes.

I hope you’ll agree that this passage is now considerably easier to read. It still lacks a few commas, and punctuation to indicate speech, but other than that it has all the punctuation it needs. Such is the power of the full stop.

Let’s examine what those full stops have done. They have split the continuous text into sections, each section consisting of several words, each section providing a discrete parcel of information. We might call those parcels of information ‘sentences’.

At this point we are confronted by a paradox, in that the definitions of the full stop and the sentence are reciprocal. A sentence may be defined as a word or group of words that begins with a capital letter and ends with a full stop; while a full stop is defined as the punctuation mark that indicates the end of a sentence.

I’ll have to take a short detour in order to destroy a commonly held misconception about sentences. Grammar lawyers may insist that in order for a sentence to exist it must contain at least a verb and (even if merely implied) the subject of the verb. No. I disagree. The final sentence in the novel Double Indemnity is this:

     The moon.

And if a no-verb sentence is good enough for James M Cain it’s good enough for me.

Here, for example, are groups of words that by the grammarian’s definition are sentences:

  • The butterscotch chattered.
  • The hummingbird exfoliated.
  • Toast up the harbinger!

It seems clear to me that the one-word sentence (No.) in the paragraph above makes for a much more reasonable and comprehensible sentence than any of these. (As does The moon, in the context of the story.)

Therefore I maintain that the definition of a sentence is this: a word or group of words that begins with a capital letter and ends with a full stop and which conveys a discrete parcel of information. (I must also confess that a sentence of more than a few words will be much more comprehensible if constructed according to the conventions of grammar.)

The definition of a full stop is, therefore: the punctuation mark that is used to end a sentence.

I averred at the start of this instalment that the full stop is the oldest punctuation mark, and I should provide more information on that point. The use of a symbol to separate text into sentences arose at much the same time – 250 to 200 BC – in China and Greece. In alphabetic writing systems (for instance Greek or Phoenician) at this time text was written continuously, without spaces between words. It can be seen therefore that a mark indicating the end of a sentence was considered more useful than one indicating separate words. The full stop is truly the oldest, most useful and most powerful punctuation mark.

Therefore in writing, when in doubt, use a full stop and bring that sentence to an end. You can always start another one. Short sentences are easy to read. Long sentences, burdened as they often are with subordinate clauses, weighed down with asides and parenthetical musings, seem sometimes to meander aimlessly towards no discernible conclusion, so that by the time you reach the end you have forgotten the subject matter that was proposed at the beginning and, in truth, you have begun to lose the will to live. You see what I mean? Bung in some full stops and keep those sentences short.

The full stop is also wonderfully simple: it is used to indicate the end of a sentence, and that’s all.

Historically the full stop was used to indicate abbreviations, but this usage is increasingly obsolete and I would eschew it. For instance N.A.T.O. is now usually written as NATO (or even Nato, as it is an acronym); a vicar named Anderson might once have been written as Rev. Anderson, but now Rev Anderson; Mr. Smith is now written Mr Smith. If you’re tempted to place a full stop anywhere other than at the end of a sentence, stop.

In the next part I’ll deal with the comma, a punctuation mark much more promiscuous than the full stop.  

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.