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).

Editor. Harmless drudge?

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? Whether we understand such textual minutiae like punctuation among those so-called accidentals of text which we can brush under the carpet in our close-reading as vulnerable to unauthorial loss or addition (hence not intended hence not important), or whether we embrace that texts issue into the world as an amalgamation of intention, motivation, care, and carelessness, touched by many hands and minds, whether we think text is social or not – that is a question of politics.

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?

Well, the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics is quite hands-off inconclusive: punctuation is a ‘system of nonalphabetical signs that express meaning through implied pause, pitch shifts, and other intonational features’ (4th edition, 2012, p.1131). I was at first a bit put off, because it sounds quite vague, but it’s actually really smart. They hedge their bets. Punctuation, according to this definition, is what you think it is.

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.

Bracket Spotting

Yesterday, I chatted to a friend via text, trying to find a day to take a walk together, and touch base. We hadn’t seen each other for a very long time, although we live in the same town (entirely my fault!). Sunday, I said to her, would be best, as on all the other days of the week I “had to work in the library, looking at manuscripts”. She, ever the scholar, replied thus:

had to –> get to <3

She’s right of course. What a great privilege to play with old books! I’m currently looking at MS e.Mus.37, a copy of the Old Arcadia, not Feuillerat’s base text. Luckily not, since this one’s hardly got any brackets at all.

Poring over the beautiful secretary hand, I tried to spot the bracket. An early modern where is Waldo. Progress was slow, and the work draining. I wondered why, and then suddenly realized that the habits, that is, the script, of secretary hand makes it hard for the eye to tell when exactly the inky curves are parts of letters and when not.

Mostly, what tripped me up by posing like half a bracket is the form of the ampersand with a belly curving to the left, like so:

(This photo is from MS Jesus 150 in the Bodleian Library.)

Then the ascending hook of the spurred ‘a’, a slightly old-fashioned form, indicating that the scribe must have learnt to write in the middle of the sixteenth-century, rather than towards its end.

The infralinear lobes of ‘h’, ‘g’, and ‘y’ also routinely make me look twice, biting into the lines below them as they do.

Notice the ‘g’ of ‘grew’ on the top line, and ‘h’ of ‘hew’ below.
Notice the ‘y’ of ‘my’ on the top line, and ‘sely’ just below.

Sometimes the bracket is incredibly thin, like an eye-lash having floated onto the page, or a slender piece of fibre having swum to the surface of the paper during its production. This is owing to the angle of the quill’s nib, which could scratch the paper, and not release as much ink.

And sometimes, brackets were plainly, and simply forgotten. In this particular manuscript, there are orphaned brackets a-plenty, suggesting either a certain carelessness in copying, or haste, or lack of attention. Presumably, the first is the case, since there are not many brackets at all in this Arcadia copy (though that might be owing to its copy-text). Perhaps, an already bracket-weak text, then, was further de-bracketted by the cavalier attitude towards brackets by the scribe of e.Mus.37, resulting in a handsome and clean, but very lightly punctuated piece.

The question remains whether we should consider punctuation, and the bracket as most visible sign, most squarely present, whether we should think of it as accidental and thus negligible in terms of editing and interpreting, or whether we should give attention to what seems part of the minutiae of the work, what seems, and maybe is, vulnerable to change upon transmission. Part of my project also means doing exactly that, making a case for taking those small not-so-small elements of a text like punctuation seriously. Especially when it’s systematic. Especially when in- and exclusion might tell us something about the line of origin of manuscripts.

Punctuation does make a difference. Like Harold Pinter says, ‘you can’t fool the critics for long. They can tell a dot form a dash a mile off.’ And the readers, too.