English as she is writ

The purpose and function of punctuation

At last! We start on punctuation.

At the end of the previous instalment of this blog I promised this: having dealt with spelling, I will turn next to punctuation – which, you will not be surprised to learn, also has nothing to do with speech.

I think it’s advisable to define at an early stage what punctuation is and what it is for; and before doing so I’ll explain what it is not.

It is a common misconception that the purpose of punctuation is to reflect the rhythms and pauses of speech. I have heard otherwise exemplary educators tell their students something along the lines of ‘put a comma anywhere you think there should be a pause; for a longer pause use a full stop’. This is wrong in all respects. Commas, and full stops, have specific functions, not one of which is to record a pause in speech. On a higher level, and as argued in my previous instalment, writing and speech are two separate systems of communication, and writing is not a transcription of spoken words. And finally to suggest that a pause in speech should mandate a comma is to put the cart before the horse: it’s the other way round – a comma, or other punctuation mark, in a passage of text may be a useful indicator of where a reader might insert a pause when reading aloud.

The other thing that punctuation is not is a set of unbreakable rules that govern all writing. There is no such thing as correct punctuation, any more than there are such things as correct grammar or spelling. There are, however, punctuation conventions. These, again like the conventions of spelling and grammar, vary from one English-speaking country to another, and within each country there are variations along lines of class and region.

One might question, therefore, why it is worth bothering to learn any of these conventional systems of punctuation. In order to answer this question it is necessary to consider what punctuation is for.

The primary function of punctuation is to make written language easier to understand. Punctuation is a recent innovation that has been bolted on to writing. As stated previously, writing began about 5000 years ago. In most writing systems, whether logographic, syllabic or alphabetic, a few marks were introduced into texts in order to indicate where pauses should be placed when reading aloud. However the first comprehensive system of punctuation, with a complete panoply of marks, did not appear until some decades after the invention of the printing press and moveable type – a matter of only a few hundred years ago.

It remains the case that well-written text hardly needs to be punctuated: it can be understood even when written without punctuation. As an example, here are the opening two paragraphs of The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain.

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

James M Cain’s writing style is straightforward and uses fairly basic vocabulary. The meaning can be discerned even when the text has no punctuation at all. Nonetheless even this passage would be understood more easily if punctuated.

Badly written, complex or ambiguous text is easier to understand if it’s punctuated. This is a fatuous example, but consider this string of words:

          Smith where Jones had had had had had had had had had had had the teachers approval

It is meaningless. However even this nonsense can be rendered comprehensible when punctuated:

          Smith, where Jones had had ‘had’, had had ‘had had’. ‘Had had’ had had the teacher’s approval.

Having established that the primary function of punctuation is to make text easier to understand, I will, in the next instalment, discuss conventional punctuation and why it is useful. 

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