back to basics: what is punctuation?
I’ve been working on an encyclopaedia entry on punctuation in literature in the past couple of days, and it’s been a lot of fun, thinking about – well, so many things:
With punctuation, you need to unpick its relationship between rhetoric and grammar, that it has a perpetual foot in both camps, no matter what the punctuation system is. That makes a lot of sense, since punctuation is a phenomenon of language – written language, it’s true, but language nonetheless, and we experience that in speech and writing. Is punctuation only that when you can see it? Or does it guide oral performance? What about the silent oral, when we read silently with a voice in our head?
With punctuation, you need to unpick standardization, convention, and custom. The differences are subtle, but they are.
With punctuation, you need to think about genre expectations, the imagined readership or audience, how they will encounter the text, what it’s supposed to do. What they think it ought to do.
You need to think about the technology of writing (is it a digital document or an actual book? Printed or manuscript?). This goes hand in hand with the most vexing of issues surrounding editing: who put that punctuation there? The author, secretary, copyist, editor, typesetter, proof-reader? What is their level of education, what’s the house style like? Did the author care, or not? Does it matter? Should we care who put punctuation there, or can be still say something about it, even though it might not be “original” (whatever that means).
As a parenthesis: I’ve always been a proponent of the caring about punctuation regardless who put it “there”; even if it was a typesetter that put a bracket into a sentence by Philip Sidney rather than Sidney himself, that typesetter from the 1590s was definitely closer to the mindset of the author than anyone today reading or editing; he may have made an educated guess, or made the text consistent with conventions of the time. Why should that then not be note-worthy?
It’s tricky to hold together so many threads, although it’s also nice to realize just how enmeshed punctuation is in all the stuff of writing, and in all the stuff of living, too. But before I came to ponder the things punctuation engages with in the first place, I thought I’d have to give some suggestions for future encyclopaedia readers on what punctuation actually is.
It’s both totally clear what punctuation is. And not at all.
What do the reference works say?
If you think an asterisk means you pause and look at the bottom of the page for a comment, then that’s punctuation. If you think a hashtag does not add an intonational feature through the now-common meta-commentary (#weird), then it’s not. It’s not punctuation. It’s something else (what?). I think Princeton’s is a smart definition of punctuation, precisely because it’s so open, so based on effect, the end-result, but it’s not really useful. It’s like saying a dog is an animal that some people are afraid of, rather than a dog looks like xyz and was domesticated from wolves in order to protect property, which is why they bark and make some people afraid. Not sure if that analogy is working. But I, for one, think we can allow ourselves to be a little more definite in our definitions.
The OED thinks punctuation is 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 (2.a ‘punctuation’).
That’s a bit more focussed than the Princeton definition. Now we have ‘small marks’, which I think is better than nothing, but still vague (numbers? Letters? Pictures?). In any case, typography such as italics or bold isn’t included. What does interpretation here refer to, though? And shouldn’t they make clearer just what kind of divisions we’re talking about? That is, grammar and rhetoric. There’s nothing here about the effect of punctuation, its emotional value, performance aspects.
Princeton 1: Oxford 1.
‘Punctuation, the use of spacing, conventional signs, and certain typographical devices as aids to the understanding and correct reading, both silently and aloud, of handwritten and printed texts.’ (Encylopedia Britannica)
Lots to like here! We’ve got marks and typography covered, we’ve got the oral/written aspect, we’ve got rhetoric and grammar (I think), and we’ve got ‘convention’ for the first time. Punctuation, as in the OED, is a helpmate, the catalyst for understanding. That’s absent from the Princeton, which I appreciate, although we might want to think about punctuation as clarifier before we look at its potential to create ambiguity.
Just how essential is punctuation to writing? How does it (un)confuse?
I think it’s exciting to consider punctuation in the broadest way possible: I remember an undergrad supervision with the god of all marks, John Lennard, who asked us to retrieve all punctuation from a poem by John Clare he had handed out. Of course, we only took out your run-of-the-mill marks like commas and full stops, bungling fools that we were. He returned the paper to us. ‘Do it again.’ We came back taking out the line spaces between stanzas. ‘Again.’ And so on.
He told us, if pushed to the extreme, we should have returned…nothing. Apart from all the usual marks and spaces, one could say any kind of text punctuates a page. And a page (or book) punctuates space, so…nothing.
I think that’s a valid thought experiment. That’s exactly what university is supposed to do. Challenge us, make us stop and think. Attend.
I also think zooming in on a certain set of marks which negotiate syntactic relationships between grammatical units, and give information for pausing and tone in silent and loud reading is also valid.
That’s where I perched my own definition of punctuation, followed by hundreds of words of unravelling. Never too much of a good thing!
I guess, David Crystal’s approach of pragmatic enthusiasm and curiosity is truest to the subject: punctuation cannot be understood in isolation of other aspects of language such as spelling, capitalization, lay-out, and typography. Performance, I’d add. What reader and writer want, need, expect. A lot of fun, and so many things.
[last updated 31 August 2022]