Hear ye, hear ye, Greengrocer’s, breathe a sigh of relief

August saw a lot of things the world did not need, such as anti-corona-mask protests everywhere, the Trumpian banshee Kimberley Guilfoyle screaming her head off about the best which was yet to come, and her husband’s self-published 29,99 dollar book on the apocalyptic plans of commie candidate Sleepy Joe and the Democrat’s Defense of the Indefensible. We need to put a [sic] there: the Democrat’s [sic] Defense of the Indefensible. Yes, it’s sickening. There’s either one single Platonic ur-democrat from whom all the policies flow, or Don Junior needs to mind his possessive apostrophes a little more. [I’m italicizing quotations to avoid apostrophe-quotation-mark-confusion.]

Alas, it’s now corrected…

But –’s  -s’ woes also trouble politicians this side of the pond: when Bojo sent the then EU-president Tusk a letter, asking for yet another Brexit extension, he, too, struggled with placing the possessive apostrophe correctly:

“We must bring this process to a conclusion so that we can move to the next phase and build our new relationship on the foundations of our long history as neighbours and friends in this continent our people’s [sic] share.”

That’s surely our peoples’ share, as in all the 28 peoples (or rather nations) of the EU. But this would mean understanding share as noun. Then, there’d be a comma missing, as in this continent, our peoples’ share. Bit clumsy, but hey ho. Most probably, though, Boris intended no apostrophe at all, and yet it crept in. Is that a problem?

Yes and no.

It depends, among others, what we want our institutions to do and represent, and it depends if we buy into the idea of standardization.

Most written languages nowadays will have a degree of standardization of spelling and grammar. This makes a lot of sense since it would take quite a while to rid a tekst if evriuan wrout it the wai thei thot wes rait, no? Forgive me, this was a bad attempt at idiosyncratic phonetic spelling!  Punctuation, like orthography and grammar, does its part in supporting standardization for the sake of readability.

Then there’s the question of official uses of language, or rather, language used by officials. Ideally, you’d want your institutions and representatives to seem (if not be, hopefully?) credible, and one way of projecting that trust is through using language in a way that most people, over many centuries, have somehow or other agreed on. Conventions. Not talking here about poets, and meme-creators having fun wiz cheezeburgers. We’re talking about a kind of reference point in the general confusion of life.

Obviously, it’s not a big deal if St Andrews Street in Cambridge has lost its possessive apostrophe over the years it’s been there. We still understand. But punctuation, an apostrophe – that tiny mini footprint of an ant – if we take care over it or not, and in which contexts – that does say something about who we are, doesn’t it. It’s not perfectionism. It’s not unquestioning dogma-worship. It’s not patronizing pedantry.

It’s care.

It’s paying attention.

It’s attending to something beyond the necessity and functionality of communicating a message.

Should it worry us if the leader of a society does not make really seriously sure he pays attention in a message of such import?

I think it should.

Should it worry if someone misplaces an apostrophe in an agitated text message?

I don’t think so.

But where did it come from at all? The apostrophe, possessive and otherwise. Here followeth a potted history of the little mark, leaving a big imprint on our ways of relating to each other.

I am *no* grammar guru, nor a particular grammar fan, but here’s what I understand about the two main uses of the apostrophe in English:



Elision is pretty straightforward (or so one thinks, but more on that later): usually, the apostrophe flags up that one letter has been omitted somewhere in the word, like so: ever –> e’er

If it’s in connection to a verbal expression of whatever kind, you mush the words after the personal pronoun together:  I have not –> I haven’t    I should have –> I should’ve

As you see, the apostrophe can also stand for two omitted letters. It can actually stand for a whole lot, but that’s a treasure I am keeping for later on in this post. Hang in there, it gets so exciting!

[Note well, the apostrophe is not an abbreviation, as in Mr –> Master  or    Co. –> Company (for some thoughts on abbreviations & dots, come back later…at some point.]

So. We’ve got our elisions, and now we need our possessives, and here it gets sticky: a singular owner of something is easy, that’s the dog’s bones. When you have several, it’s the dogs’ bones.

Social Distancing When Not Done During Covid | Garfieldhug's Blog
Watch the distance between the possessive pronoun and letter elision.

If you have a singular noun ending on -s or -x, the rule applies, but the pronunciation changes, as in Bridget Jones’s Diary pronounced as /Joneses/. If you have a name with a double -s like Lynn Truss’s book, it’s preferred to rephrase as the book by Lynn Truss.

Hey, F.R. Leavis, have you met Miss Jones?

I learnt that if the noun is a classical name, you treat it as if it was plural, like Aristophanes’ punctuation. This rule is not accepted everywhere, and the (in)famous Apostrophe Protection Society which will appear again later makes no kind of exception at all. Not even for Jesus and Jesus’s disciplines. Rad.

According to linguist David Crystal, the possessive s stems not from the kind of early modern post-positioned possessive pronoun (the king his book morphing to the kingis book and eventually the king’s book), but rather from the Old English case system, signalling the genitive case through -es or -ys- or -is. Over the centuries, the vowel would fall away, leaving only the apostrophized-s behind.

There are more apostrophe uses such as marking plural when there is potential for confusion (the 1990’s; dot your i’s), and of course there’s the rhetorical figure of the apostrophe: when a speaker addresses an absent person or object or entity, such as Stella, the moon, or death. Or love, as in this sonnet by Lady Mary Wroth in which the speaker laments falling prey to over-whelming love thus losing her peace of mind. She apostrophizes Cupid (‘Thy babish tricks’):

Why should we not love’s purblind charms resist?

    Must we be servile, doing what he list?

    No, seek some host to harbour thee: I fly

Thy babish tricks, and freedom do profess.

    But O my hurt makes my lost heart confess

    I love, and must: so farewell liberty. (Pamphilia to Amphilanthus, 16)

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first use of the word with this meaning is 1533, just basically taken over from classical style manuals without any kind of Englishing. The first record of apostrophe as the little hovering sign marking elision or possession is from 1598. And from Shakespeare. But let’s have a look at its inception in the first place.

The apostrophe as we know it springs, of course, from the mind of Punctuation Super Star & Bestest Printer Genius of his age Aldo Manuzio, and it first appears in the ground-breaking publication of 1496 that also features the invention of italics, the semi-colon, and the hook-shaped comma we use today: it’s Pietro Bembo’s De aetna. Always the classicist, Aldo imports accents (that’s diacritical marks) from Greek into Latin, as well as the marking of vowel elision.

In 1529, the apostrophe occurs in France for the first time, squeezing between the collision of two vowels for ease of pronunciation. Its earliest English appearance is in William Cunningham’s Cosmographical Glasse printed by John Day in 1559. It’s to mark elision, not possession (David Crystal from whom I take this information offers two telling examples: the partes of th’earthe as opposed to the Anglo-Saxon legacy of the moones age). Crystal writes how it took around half a century for the apostrophe to settle enough to be widely used, though confusion quite how persists.

In his early 17th-century English grammar, Ben Jonson complains about the printers omitting his marks for laziness (or for saving space? for setting type faster?), but, Crystal suggests, ‘genuine uncertainty’ persists. And that’s perhaps why there is so much variation over the title of Shakespeare’s play which records the apostrophe’s first use as something other than the rhetorical figure. And that’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. Or should that be Love’s Labours Lost? Or even Loves Labours Lost? If we’re not sure, they sure weren’t sure.

Alright, reader, if you thought there was anything technical in the above, you’re in for the deep ride now. But we can take the technical hurdle step by step. And of course, getting up close and cosy with punctuation means slowing down and looking!

Branagh’s early Shax.

So, when a play was printed in Shakespeare’s time, it would most of the time be printed as a thin pamphlet sort of thing, a booklet, which you’d pick up from a publisher/printer/book seller himself or herself (yes, there were women), and have them bound at a book binder’s, and only if you were collecting. You’d probably bind them with other plays, probably with a whole bunch of other kinds of texts that you wanted to preserve. These publications – relatively cheap, relatively vulnerable to time and use – are called quartos, because they were printed on big sheets that were folded four times (hence the name).

Quartos are a common enough size for the time; there was also octavo (folded eight times, so smaller, cheaper, easier to tuck away in your pocket), and folio (folded just once, so quite big, more expensive, for special kinds of books like a church Bible, theological or classical works, histories, maps).

When a text or author got the folio-treatment, that meant they did it in the publishing world of the Renaissance. The collected plays of Shakespeare came out post-humously in 1623 in what’s called the First Folio (there were two more in the 17th century). There is not a single authorial manuscript for those plays which are in the folio, so we can’t tell what spelling or punctuation or stage direction or or or Shakespeare intended – and indeed if he cared. That doesn’t mean one shouldn’t be thinking about those things, as the people who did make those publication choices were his contemporaries, after all, and most of the time sensitive to a whole lot of contextual conditions we’re not sensitive to.

There’s so much more to say, but the quarto/folio distinction is the most important bit to remember. I’m going to call the play LLL, because that’s least confusing, apostrophe-wise. So, the first individual publication of LLL was a quarto in 1598. Title page titles of both quarto and folio are always in roman, running titles (the title on the top of the page) and table of content titles always italicized. It doesn’t really matter for the point in question, so I just italicize all of them here.

On the title page of quarto, then, the play is called Loues labors lost. The ‘u’ of Loues just means ‘v’, don’t worry about it. The running title, however, is Loues Labor’s lost. Does that make any difference? Well, the title without apostrophe is less clear about the plural, for one. Are we to imagine a pause between the words? Something like LOVES     LABOURS    LOST

The play, after all, is about lots of kinds of love, and lots of people being in it. Love. But that’s maybe straining it a bit. The editor of Arden (third series) says it means ‘the lost labours of love’, perhaps suggesting there are also the successfully accomplished labours of love? Love won? An apostrophe somewhere or other would make sense, one feels.

In the running title, then, it’s clear that Labor is singular, so the labour of love is lost (though that meaning becomes clearer if there’s another earlier apostrophe). Or, more evidently, the labour of many loves is lost.

The signature, fittingly, is L1v-L2r.

The first folio follows quarto’s running title for its title on the title page and its running title (I hope this makes sense! all those titles…), but not for the table of contents of the whole volume which keeps quarto’s apostrophe-free title, and even offers the unique occurrence of Loues Labour lost: should we imagine a dramatic pause here? Loves/Love’s Labour  [drumroll]  Lost!

The second folio of 1632 has Loves Labour’s lost for all three places. And it’s only with the third folio of 1664 that we finally have the title under which the play is now known: Love’s Labour’s Lost. Two apostrophes, two capital L. Mind you, the table of contents title has none at all. Perhaps the typesetters used them all up. This sounds like a joke, but isn’t! Available page space and available type have produced many an interesting variation that seems intended, but is accidental (though not any the less worthy of study therefore!).

One might also take into account Love’s Labour’s Won (or any of its apostrophe versions), a potential lost sequel or misnamed other (Shakespeare?) play. Its first mention is in Francis Meres’s 1598 printed list of Shakespeare plays as Loue labours wonne, following Loue labors lost. This is interesting because ‘love’ is singular, so ‘love labours’ make way more sense as one word (making any apostrophe redundant) than ‘loves labours’.

Francis Meres’s record. /Merses/!

It’s all confusing. Here’s a witty improvisation of a Twitter friend on the topic, when I asked if anyone had thoughts on the play titles: ‘I know a Lib Dem who isn’t happy the Tories have won but loves Labour’s lost’.

All of the above also assumes the typesetters definitely thought about the apostrophe in the way we do today. As possessive, not as marking plural, for example (that famous greengrocer’s’ apostrophe).

Does any of this matter?

Yes and no. As before.

We understand the gist of it: when one is in love, one labours to woo the other, but that’s often labour lost; and after one has watched the play, one knows that Love’s or Cupid’s efforts to ennoble people through the feeling just sometimes run up against realities of lust. We understand the wit and humour, so the number and placing of apostrophes is unlikely to change our overall grasp of the title which is instantaneous enough, and vague enough for this vaguely-ending play.

But then, this is Shakespeare’s play most interested in language, and all its pitfalls and promises, notably represented by the insufferable tutor Holofernes. The title perfectly encapsulates the play’s teasing (of) wit in its three monosyllabic words, initial alliteration followed by assonance, strung together by the final s, regardless of plural or possessive. Aurally speaking, the title is swift, crispy, rolls trippingly off the tongue, and is just so suitable to the energetic repartee-laden dynamic between the couples, and actually everyone to everyone else, servant to mistress, man to woman.

So even though I am hesitant to make a big case about the title variations, they do deserve discussing, especially in relation to the play’s language concerns as a whole.

There’s one person in the play who pushes a love for language to the extreme, and that’s the Pedant, or teacher, Holofernes, who peppers his speeches with inkhorn terms (that’s Latinate English terms), spinning interminable synonym after synonym, for example ‘caelo’, ‘the sky’, ‘the welkin’, ‘the heaven’.

Holofernes and Sir Nathaniel | Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive
The first-mentioned-apostrophe is coming! A Victorian engraving of Holofernes glancing over poetry.

That’s funny, and we can laugh about the caricature of the teacher we all had when we were young (I mean, we the humanist school students in the audience), but it’s a gentle sort of poking fun at the serious business of creating a national language worthy to write great literature in. On a par with Latin and Greek, and Homer, and Virgil. English was thought poor at the beginning of the sixteenth century, and in need of words to express depth of thought, so humanists would import classical terms, either wholesale or slightly adapted into English. That often resulted in convoluted unpronounceable terms like ‘exsufflicate’ in Othello which is supposed to mean empty, hence frivolous, and which Othello uses to refer to Iago’s ‘surmises’ of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness. He’s still hanging in there, rejecting the idea of becoming jealous. Some inkhorn terms we kept such as ‘to impede’; some were quickly discarded, and indeed mocked.

Because people were unsure about how to translate certain terms, they would often offer two, or even three English words for one Latin, resulting in massively blown up texts. The widespread habit of keeping notebooks with quotations and elegant expressions for all sorts of thematic occasions when writing a letter or speech also meant people had several alternative phrasings at their disposal, and would pop them all in rather than choose. Never too much of a good thing! That Tudor volubility, then, comes from various sources: the mixed Germanic and Romance nature of English, humanist language teaching, the project of a rich national language, and sheer joy and excitement of playing with words.

So, although we can laugh at someone like Holofernes who’s so over the top prolix, I think he’s also a witness to the one hundred years of profound development of the English language, and attitudes towards it. And love. Of it.

Holofernes’ (or should that be Holofernes’s?) is also the first use of apostrophe as a word referring to the mark for elision. The play has several likely and unlikely couplings, and lots of love poetry passed around. In Act 4, scene 2 a sonnet from Biron to Rosalynd goes astray, and a character reads out what Holofernes calls ‘a staff, a stanza, a verse’ – basically, just a poem. When his friend bungles the metre, Holofernes comments ‘You finde not the apostraphas, and so misse the accent.’

This puzzles me, because there are no necessary elisions at all in this sonnet. It’s alexandrines all the way except for two lines which are hypermetrical, that is they have 13 instead of 12 syllables, but you wouldn’t be able to elide any syllable within those lines in order to force it to fit, and anyway, the rhyme words ‘thunder’ and ‘wonder’ stand out nicely. So, I’m thinking that’s perhaps a typically pedantic Holofernian remark, showing that he doesn’t actually get it, and is throwing around unfamiliar terms from classical rhetoric in order to seem oh-so smart. I tried to find a performance but some YouTube-recorded stagings or readings just cut the lines!

I think the apostraphas in the title (and the single, potentially incorrect, mention by Holofernes) attest to the unfixed notions people had of its use. It’s only slowly that apostrophe conventions (and indeed those of a whole host of other punctuation marks) were standardized in the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, only then to fall out of favour in the 20th: after a perhaps over-use of punctuation during the 19th century, people preferred what they considered an uncluttered look on the page. That certainly was in the zeitgeist with all the modernist sleekness and straight lines and block features of the Bauhaus design. Think ‘form follows function’. Think simple design. Think sans-serif type (horrible, I know). So, it’s no surprise people will want to re-think if they really need that many marks, and among those the apostrophe which, oftentimes, is not exactly necessary for comprehension.

Vitra Design Museum The Bauhaus #allesistdesign
Vitra-Design Museum, southern Germany.
Looks a bit like Moulin Rouge if you ask me.

Take the high-end store Harrods, for example. It started as Harrod’s Stores in 1849, then the Stores fell away, and it became Harrod’s, and sometimes Harrods. By the early 20th century, there were hardly any apostrophe version of the name around anymore, and none at all after 1920 when the shop officially Ldropped the Stores. We recognize the brand when we see it, and we sort of know that the person giving it its name wasn’t really called Harrods, but Harrod. I think we do, at least. But we’re just not really bothered. The same goes with Boots, and Sainsbury’s (the apostrophe hanging in there), and Waterstone’s which has become Waterstones.

If we generally understand what’s said well enough without the apostrophe, why still keep it? That’s what plenty of thinkers and writers have asked. It’s ‘largely decorative’ and ‘rarely clarifies meaning’ (Peter Brodie), ‘unnecessary’ because ‘context will resolve any ambiguity’ (Adrian Room), and a ‘waste of time’ (John Wells), and even compared to ‘metastatic cancers [and] narcissistic con men’ of which the world will at some point be rid (Anu Garg).

The apostrophe – spreading everywhere, selfish, showy-offy. A fake.

In 1902, George Bernard Shaw already affirms he has been writing cant, wont, havent, whats, and lets with impunity for 20 years. That’s his way of signalling colloquial dialogue. He only makes exceptions for he’ll and hell. Anything else makes the page look ‘ugly’. Here’s what he says in full:

“There is not the faintest reason for persisting in the ugly and silly trick of peppering pages with these uncouth bacilli.”

Karte (Kartografie) - Apostrophe Island - MAP[N]ALL.COM
There’s no apostrophe-named bacillus, but here’s apostrophe island in the Antactric.

If Shaw says it, if English professors suggest it, if urban planners, prime ministers, and greengrocers happily omit and misplace the apostrophe (that famous veg seller association is from 1991, by the way, from a book on English by Keith Waterhouse) – if all those treat the poor apostrophe in a cavalier way, why do we get all huffy and puffy and grammar-nazi, correcting rogue bacilli on billboards and street names?

We evidently care.

Else, there’d be no Apostrophe Protection Society with the aim of ‘preserving the correct use of this currently much abused punctuation mark’. The website of the society founded by John Richards in 2001, is charmingly old-school, and offers little surfing delight except images of apostrophe misdemeanour, and a handful of concise commandments (see Jesus above). Because of Richards advanced age (97 by now), the society closed down in December 2019 – only to see a many hundred-fold increase of clicks. Either through hitting the news with its vanishing quaintness, or because people genuinely Googled apostrophe. There’s a new feature showing monthly page views (ca 2,500 in August), and a world map. It gives me an exquisite sort of joy to see multiple visits from places as vastly different as Honolulu and Iran. That’s the past 9 months. We might be coping with a global pandemic of a century, but we still care.

And we still care although it takes an effort to type an apostrophe on the keyboard of the computer or the phone. It would be so much faster to write without apostrophe, and easier on the old opposable thumbs for those of us who are not exactly digital natives. So the care we do take over punctuation, and particularly apostrophes, becomes a proof for how highly we value the person receiving our message, and a proof that what is being  written is not a dashed off piece of information, but an actual Message.

Enter Double (and Triple and) Contractions in One Word.

We know ’twouldn’t from Shakespearean language. And we also know should’ve, and even shouldn’t’ve. At least in spoken language. The written form does look a bit clumsy. That’s the apostrophe eliding one letter (the n of the negation), and two letters (the ha- of the auxiliary verb), sucking up the space between words into one mega word.

Shouldn’t’ve is not mega, enough, though. Not for the internet.

I found people discussing ‘y’all’ld’ve (you all woudl have), and the formidable y’all’ll’nt’ve’d’s, meaning you all will not have had us. This is in answer to “what’s the longest contraction in English still making sense” from a 2017 Reddit subthread in the category NoStupidQuestions. A possible sentence containing this beauty was ‘Y’all’ll’nt’ve’d’s scared to death if you didn’t jump off that bridge!”. I’m no sure I understand, but maybe you do.

Another minor digital ripple was in 2016 when someone invented whomst:

And the spin-off whom’stn’t’ve (who must not have).

I’m sure I’ve already said (though not written) shouldn’t’ve, but I only know one person who uses multiple contractions with joy and confidence, so I asked him the why and wherefore. He says it started when he was a teenager, he had a penchant for small things, and would journal in short-hand in small notebooks, trying to use minimal resources to maximum effect.

Then, with the coming of the mobile phone, he tried to press every drop of expressive meaning from the limited number of characters an SMS would allow. Gone are the days! Whatsapp and free unlimited character provision have killed the full stop (maybe), as I’ll write about in another entry.

My friend also says he actually likes how the apostrophe (and the multiple contractions) look like, and that it’s supposed to replicate the spoken, hence create intimacy. Perhaps that’s why university colleagues didn’t appreciate it! But he concurred that going to the length of including multiple contractions means lavishing attention on your writing, and so intimating that you spend time on this person. He also calls those constructions ‘a bit less mundane’ in a world of ‘self-rightously silly’ writing, and a good way ‘to queer the pitch a bit’. Isn’t that wonderfully put? Let’s hope the authorities that be catch up with what’s happening out there in the digital ether: the Oxford English Dictionary has shoulda, but not should’ve, let alone shouldn’t’ve. I think we should use them big time, so that there’s pressure to change.

This has been a long history of a tiny smudge of a mark – that yet like none other is capable of ruffling feathers over a missing or misplaced one.

But the more I work on punctuation, the more relaxed have I become. I think it’s nice to have it, and I think it’s necessary, especially in official correspondence, and perhaps also in public spaces. And perhaps also in private letters. But what punctuation is not is a tool for patronizing and bullying. It just cant be. It’s too wayward and independent for that.

So, before you correct a greengrocers sign next time you see a possessive-looking-plural, think again: if the likes of Shaw and Shakespeare had fun taking it out or putting it back in, why should not we?

I’m going to take a couple of weeks of blog-pause now. If I write such long entries on such minuscule marks, I might as well write the entire book, and you can read it there in a much more comfortable old-school fashion. So, until further notice, I’ll take my leave with a formidable bang of a contraction:

Crassly Stupid: Welcome to the World of Grammar (and Rhetoric)

A while ago, at the end of May or beginning of June, I wrote an encyclopedia entry on the role of punctuation in literature (and not a cameo appearance at that!), and was thrown back to the basics – or so I thought: the basics are actually not basic at all, but quite hard to wrap your head around. I was grappling with the relationship of punctuation between grammar and rhetoric, roughly, between syntactical sense based units of language, and pause and rhythm in performance, that is, reading out loud. I’m re-reading Parkes’ magisterial work, uncovering punctuation in the West from Antiquity onwards (wait for the Big Review of it shortly), and I find myself wondering again: just what is the difference? What is the difference between rhetorical punctuation and grammatical punctuation? In the classical sense, I guess.

I mean, what is a period? And a colon, and a comma. For Shakespeare, Jonson, Erasmus, and Cicero.

A period (I think) is a unit of words that is complete in terms of grammar and of meaning (sententium).

A period is made of at least two colons which are themselves made of at least two commata. Those terms don’t refer to the marks as such (since the Romans didn’t really have punctuation marks at all), but the verbal units within the marks, and it’s only with time that the names also migrated to refer to the marks themselves. Since Isidore of Sevilla was still describing the ancient Greek dot system in the 7th century, but Renaissance scholars like Aldus and Erasmus speak of colons to refer to the mark as well, that conflation between sign and verbal unit must have occurred in between, during the Middle Ages, while the dots moved up and down the line, acquired little hooks and became commas, and or twinned themselves to a colon. In any case, in the classical framework, the terms refer to the verbal unit as a whole. So, a sentence could look like this:

       Xxx , xxx : xxx , xxx.

Or:  Comma, comma : comma, comma.

Or:   C  O  L  O  N    :  C  O  L  O  N.

Or:   P         E        R         I        O    D.

One sentence, two colons, four commata. Right? I hope it’s right!

The comma seems most straightforward: a unit that is incomplete in both sense and grammar.

A colon is a grammatically complete unit which, however, lacks somewhat in sense. It is complete in sense too, but not in meaning (the overall meaning gathered through the entire sentence). It’s understandable on its own, but not really, not ideally. As it were. I guess it’s a grey zone.

Why, then, should there be any difference at all between punctuation marking grammatical boundaries, and boundaries of pause and rhythm? It seems to me that they co-incide pretty much all the time.

However, my classical training is on the small side (little Latin, and less Greek); I loved Latin at school, and took some Greek at uni, but not enough to get “it”. Then again, I also don’t quite get it when the sentences are in English, and the typesetter’s punctuation periodic. Or the Shakespearean composition? Perhaps both. Let’s have a look at punctuation in the wild:

At This 'Tempest,' Digital Wizardry Makes 'Rough Magic' - The New ...
Ariel in the high-tech RSC production of The Tempest in 2017.

The Tempest memorably starts with a shipwreck from Milan, the frightened passengers scrambling for something to hold onto, while the mariners attempt to get the ship under control. Consider the Boatswain’s speech, peppered with colons and commata (the marks) in a way that we are quite unused to today (I’m italicizing quotations rather than use quotation marks, hoping it’ll be easier on the eyes).

In the Boatswain’s second speech, there are nine commata, five colons, and one period, expressing the entire “meaning” of the Boatswain cheering his mariners on and shouting orders. So far so good, that’s not hard to identify thanks to the punctuation. The grammar and punctuation marks make sense together: the Boatswain’s indistinct shouts and encouragements to the others form the first colon (from Heigh to harts), with three internal commata, incomplete units of grammar that can’t stand on their own (they don’t have a subject and verb is what I mean, I guess).

In the last colon you have one independent and one dependent clause (beginning with the if) which necessitates a comma in between. The if-clause couldn’t stand on its own, it’s not a colon. It’s a comma, and it makes of the previous clause a comma, too. The three imperatives (Take…, Tend…, Blow) are, or could be, colons, because they are grammatically complete. The clauses starting Take and Tend are indeed colons. All three of them are patterned in an isocolic manner, they’re grammatically parallel, so it’s natural they can be grouped together as colons.

What puzzles me is the second colon (yare, yare).

As far as I know, yare is a synonym of ‘ready’; but then, two adjectives do not make a colon, no? If the adverb cheerely in the first colon only makes a comma for itself, and indeed ‘yare’ used as adverb (yarely) in the Master’s speech just before the Boatswain’s – why yare, yare as a colon, and not two commas either attached to the first colon, or introducing the second?

Perhaps it’s a question of rhythm. The first colon has a nice chiastic ring to it (my heartscheerilycheerilymy harts); the third, fourth, and fifth colon are beautifully lined up in isocolic imperative structure (plus the if-clause gentling us as coda out of the period). This is an incredibly dense scaffold where every single part talks to every other in their environment; breaking that up through two loose commata as tail or head to the previous or subsequent colon would make for a baggy rhythm of an otherwise taught period whose bones would be quite effaced. (Also, might it be that an imperative “Be yare”, be ready, is just ellided, so that the phrase is an implied imperative, just like those others around it?)

That yare, yare colon, then, might not be a grammatically correct colon, but a rhetorically effective one, working as brief respite between the highly-formal beginning and end of the speech – which doesn’t come across as highly rhetorical at all! Sure, the semantically meaningless shouts [h]eigh and yare, yare encouragements one would expect from a boatswain in a shipwreck, make for an ambience of urgency and dangerous excitement; but the tightly formal elements don’t intrude as formal. They contribute to the up and down back and forth forward and forward rhythm of the period.

I mean the monosyllabic stress of [h]eigh and yare, after which there follows a pause, creating an up and down rhythm (somehow? Is it just me?) – then the chiasmus, circling back onto itself – then the three imperatives, pounding monosyllables that push the beat of the period forward. That seems to be an awful lot of sonic movement in a scene of watery turmoil. We can hear the sea heaving up and down and all around, and, if we are in the theatre, we can see the Boatswain pointing to different mariners when he shouts his orders, and we hear how he manages to say his speech in exactly one big breath.

Consummate art, dissembling that it is.

Still. Consider this:

Here is one long colon, stretching from yare to Maine-course. But could it not also have been yare, lower, lower : bring her to Try with Maine-course ?

Perhaps the long sequence expresses a now more urgent hurry compared to the beginning. She’s not going up and down anymore, she’s going down. There’s no time to breathe.

I love the very long dash, maybe hiding some expletive (which could be added by the actor in the production! It’s prose so nobody can mess up the rhythm through some insulting creativity); the dash is a visual and aural shock of brevity and interruption, a wordless black line, after the longish wordish colon.

Yes, perhaps it makes sense like this. Then again, whose is the punctuation? Shakespeare’s? The typesetter’s? Set like this out of pragmatic necessity or true intent? Or custom and convention, according to the setter’s or author’s education? Perhaps nothing matters except for what’s there, however it got there.

Based on my analysis, The Tempest’s punctuation here is both grammatical and rhetorical. It’s based on the concept of the period, but also on a strongly aural way of thinking.

But it’s also rhetorical, and very much so, this being a play that was and can be performed. Consider also the presence of non-periodic punctuation marks: Heigh my hearts, cheerely, cheerely my harts isn’t actually a colon, no? It is, rhetorically speaking, but not grammatically. It doesn’t have a verb. It’s just like yare, yare, but it’s longer so you kind of don’t realize, I guess. So, the punctuation of the beginning of the speech is based on effective pausing in performance, while the second part converges grammatical and rhetorical punctuation. Phew. I’m still not sure.

So, was punctuation in early modern plays just an aid to performance? With three gradations of pausing?


Here’s the first dialogue between Prospero and Miranda as they watch the ship sink, she anxious for the lives seemingly lost, he excited to have his revenge finally initiated. It’s when he finally tells her who she is:

So, here’s Prospero saying (in a round-about way that just suits that long imposed exile, from his dukedom, and hence himself): I’m the real Duke of Milan, you’re my only heir. We’re royals.

It’s about family relationships, so it’s suitable there shouldn’t be a full stop anywhere except the end. If there was the pause of finality inherent in a period after daughter, for example, that’d be too much. It’d be too much of a cut-off. So would a colon.

A comma is decidedly too little of a distinction between mother and father.

A semicolon is perfect.

5 Great Island Books That Reimagine The Tempest | Literary Hub
John William Waterhouse’s Miranda, watching the ship in distress.

The semicolon is a bump small enough to not disrupt the flow of speaking (and Prospero is excited), while pause enough to mark off two different (though related) things. The mother and the father. The comma between father and daughter, then, figures their proximity: he is the Duke of Millaine, she is his onely heire. Note the lack of space after the comma – a common occurrence (also elsewhere in the dialogue) which may or may not contribute to that communication of closeness between parent and child. Punctuation is contingent (I’ll come back to that below).

The punctuation in this section functions in a way of seeing, not hearing. You need to see where the marks are, and which ones. You need to see the pauses. You can’t hear the difference between a semicolon or colon pause (I don’t think so, at least). The semicolon is a very nice pause, in the sense of subtle. It’s more to do with a certain kind of free flowy thought when one doesn’t quite want to end, but also needs to mark a pause of sorts; here, punctuation gains bodies; hands; sentences grasping each other across the void of the new clause. So the punctuation in The Tempest is both for the performer, the playgoer/listener, and the reader. At least, that’s how it looks like to me.

And what about that questionable status of punctuation? Did the typesetters work from Shakespeare’s original manuscript? Would they even have cared about his punctuation, if so? Did he care? Punctuation in the early modern printing shop is such a paradoxical controversial creature, it deserves its own entry (soon! I’ve got a couple of articles to read first). But basically, it all depends on

(a) the papers from which the typesetters worked;

(b) how they worked (e.g. was there someone reading the text out, or did they sit and work on it individually);

(c) the experience of the typesetters or layout planners (would they need to squeeze out spaces after commas for lack of space? Would they need to put really long dashes, because they happened to have too much of it?);

(d) the corrector (rarely authors themselves);

(e) available type;

(f) correct dis-assembling of type after printing so as to avoid messing up the “purity” of the cases;

(g) the education of typesetters. Someone with a bit of a humanist education or familiarity with reading might very well be able to recognize periodic style. Someone familiar with the play at the theatre might punctuate in a more oral/aural way.

And probably lots of issues more. The question is should we care? Should be care who put the mark in? Should we care about the marks at all?

I think we should care. But we also shouldn’t over-care.

I personally don’t mind at all if someone trashes my analysis of the semicolon, for example, by pointing out those contingencies of early modern punctuation. I know my case is hypothetical, and perhaps a bit too enthusiastic about really close close-reading. Maybe all that stuff is totally co-incidental. That still doesn’t mean it’s *not* worthwhile thinking about. Only because an experiment is nor replicable doesn’t mean it’s garbage. A case well made is one that I shall always engage with, no?

In any case, I had come up against this somehow-yes-but-also-not coincidence of rhetorical and grammatical punctuation time and again, and I just don’t understand. Parkes says periodic punctuation is a feature of rhetoric, meaning oratory, meaning performance. Which surprised me, as I thought it was the other way around, that colons, and commata signalled grammatical sectioning rather.

This blue is intentional.

So, I read a few grammar books in the hope of finding out the difference, but wasn’t successful at all. I read The Blue Book of Grammar which is a good enough introduction, with some quirky stuff to say about punctuation: while there is exactly *one* rule for the full stop (‘The End’), there are 16 for the comma, many of them with several sub-points down the alphabet. The semi-colon is an ‘audible pause’ between a comma and a full stop – which I found curious for two reasons: are there inaudible pauses? And is a semi-colon not rather a pause between a comma and, well, a colon? For the history of the semi-colon, see the next entry in a week!

Hyphens ‘notify readers’ (40) which words glue together and which don’t. I love the author’s free-for-all permission to be overly punctuatie: ‘Never hesitate to add a hyphen if it solves a possible problem,’ (42).

Ellipses, like always (and like brackets), get paradoxical good and bad press as ‘useful in getting right to the point’ when they represent deletion of irrelevant material, but a sign of weak brain capacity when used otherwise (they show ‘a wavering in an otherwise straightforward sentence’). There’s a fantastic monograph on ellipses by Anne Henry which I still have to read and review (but am apprehensive about, because she’s just so very good, and it’s going to take all my dwarf-on-the-shoulders-of-giants courage to dig in).

I finally also read through the famous You Have a Point There: A Guide to Punctuation and Its Allies by Eric Partridge from 1953. He doesn’t really talk about grammar much, nor about any theoretical or historical concept of punctuation. He just pushes his controversially made opinion, and offers plenty of examples. It was fun reading Partridge; he doesn’t apologize for the way he puts things, which is refreshing: the semi-colon is ‘clear-cut’, for example, the parentheses ‘smooth’ and the colon ‘cultured’ (11).

Partridge is definitely a fellow-enthusiast, arguing for punctuation’s intrinsic belonging to written language, because it participates in structure. Plentifully abound the flowery metaphors and similes: ‘punctuation is not something that, like a best suit of clothes, you put on for special occasions’ (11).

He’s also nice in his definitions about the glyphs: ‘true points’ are only points, that is, characters telling you about pausing. ? and ! are ‘marks’, and not really punctuation at all but elocutionary signs (82). In the first section, there are also ‘supernumeraries’ (dashes, parentheses, and ellipses). You can leave them out, but they kind of still belong.

The second section describes allies and accessories, among the which the capitals, italics, apostrophes, hyphens, quotation marks and more.

I appreciate this specificity. I had a bone to pick with too broad understandings of punctuation before (here), and I myself am guilty of it. (I’ve discussed hyphens before, for example, but really they’re not punctuation, they’re morphology of language, no?)

In any case, Partridge does short shrift of those pernickety petty language policers who want hard borders between grammatical and rhetorical punctuation: he likens a text to a country, grammar being the elected parliament, logic the head-of-state, and common-sense the people.

Got it?

Me neither.

I’m not entirely sure if Partridge intends for us to unpick his metaphor at all…I think it’s more a case of ‘grasp its drift immediately but don’t ask further’ kind of thing.

He does speak truth, though, and beautifully so, and worth quoting in full:

‘[T]o insist upon the dichotomy dramatic-grammatical would be both pedantic and inept. For much of the time, as is inevitable, the two coincide: a speaker tends to pause wherever either logic or grammar makes a pause; and even the most ‘logical’ or ‘grammatical’ of punctuators tends, when he is writing dialogue, to point what is clearly an elocutionary or dramatic pause’ (5).

Speaking of the comma, he goes on to say that to ‘attempt a rigid dichotomy’ between grammatical and rhetorical punctuation ‘would be crassly stupid’ (13). And so, perhaps, it is.

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.