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Punctuation, Past and Present

Today we will look at – be still, my beating heart – the history of punctuation. Yes, punctuation has a history, and yes, it is more interesting than watching paint dry.

We have talked in this blog about the death of the apostrophe (unless you consider 's to be a proper plural for a noun – the apostrophe is finding new life in this twisted, ugly role), and have mentioned punctuation in passing when we discussed how grammar changes. I have told you of my fondness for the semi-colon, which, when used sparingly, is an elegant addition to the more plebian punctuation marks; the semi-colon is, however, fading from use (see what I did there?).

We all learned the rules of punctuation in school. End a sentence with a period; don’t string sentences together with endless commas (ooh, another semi-colon). Don't overuse the exclamation mark! Etcetera. Poets who play with punctuation do so because they know the rules, and can therefore have fun bending them. e e cummings is the most famous example of this. He used punctuation as a poetic device, as he did capitalization:

dying is fine)but Death ?o baby i wouldn't like Death if Death were good:for when(instead of stopping to think)you begin to feel of it, dying 's miraculous why? be cause dying is perfectly natural; perfectly putting it mildly lively(but Death is strictly scientific & artificial & evil & legal)

Emily Dickinson, as well as capitalizing for emphasis, frequently used dashes in her poems, rather than employing commas or periods:

Because I could not stop for Death— He kindly stopped for me— The Carriage held but just Ourselves— And Immortality.

We slowly drove—He knew no haste And I had put away My labor and my leisure too, For His Civility—

We passed the School, where Children strove At Recess—in the Ring— We passed the fields of Gazing Grain— We passed the Setting Sun—

Or rather—He passed Us— The Dews drew quivering and chill— For only Gossamer, my Gown— My Tippet—only Tulle—

We paused before a House that seemed A Swelling of the Ground— The Roof was scarcely visible— The Cornice—in the Ground—

Since then—'tis Centuries—and yet Feels shorter than the Day I first surmised the Horses' Heads Were toward Eternity—

It is not clear why Dickinson did this, but one possible explanation is that she meant for the dashes to mimic pauses that a speaker would employ when reading a poem aloud.

As Emily Dickinson intuited, punctuation helps writing to mimic speech. Punctuation researchers ("Mummy, when I grow up I want to be a punctuation researcher") have traced the intimate connection between punctuation and writing back to Aristophanes, around 200 BCE, and identified its purpose at that time to be assisting a reader to recreate an original oral rendition of a text. While human speech began to develop sometime between 50,000 and 2,000,000 years ago, writing stretches back only about 5,000 years. Only about 2,000 years ago did a system of small marks or points emerge in writing, small marks that slowly developed into modern punctuation. The word itself derives from the Latin 'punctus,' meaning point. Until the 18th century the subject was known in English as 'pointing.' The word punctuation was first recorded in the 16th century, and was reserved for the insertion of vowel markings in Hebrew text. The two words, pointing and punctuation, became one around the beginning of the 18th century.

Modern punctuation serves two purposes: to help writing make grammatical sense, and to mimic speech. The rules exist but they are not written in stone, which perhaps is why punctuation can be confusing. Punctuation has been called an art as well as a science.

While punctuation marks are an integral part of written language, they are, as Roi Tartakovsky writes in his article, "Punctuation as Poetic Device," semantically fuzzy. Unlike words, they have no content, and are thus "amenable to appropriation, exploitation and projection." Gertrude Stein renounced almost all punctuation in her writing. A question is clearly a question, she said, so who needs a question mark? Stein considered commas to be "servile," and colons and semi-colons to be pretentious.

There are generally considered to be fourteen English punctuation marks: period, comma, colon, semi-colon, question mark, exclamation mark, quotation marks, the dash and the hyphen, brackets [ ] braces { } and parentheses ( ), the apostrophe, and the ellipsis… Check out your computer keyboard. They're all there.

Finally, considering that this blog aims to be both informative and fun – could there be a sentence containing all fourteen punctuation marks? No, because three of them mark the end of a sentence. But I did find this creative example from someone who tried:

While he [Mr. Smith] was writing his book, Magic: the little known world! he stated, “I always… wanted to ask a magician, ‘How do you do it?’”; he luckily got the chance while he was living above a math-based magic shop (where he lived from 1993 — 1997) called 2{1+[23-3]}=x.

Till next time; till we meet again!

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Jun 10, 2022


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One of the strangest comments I have received... wide ranging, full of passion, somewhat intelligible, and devoid of punctuation except at the end. Thank you, dear Shimshon. You are a delight.

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