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?

No.

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.

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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.