“To the memory of the striking Bolshevik printers of St Petersburg who, in 1905, demanded to be paid the same rate for punctuation marks as for letters, and thereby directly precipitated the first Russian Revolution” – Eats, Shoots & Leaves dedication
In the world of grammar and language, perhaps none is quite misunderstood—and misused and abused—as punctuation. Daily, we are faced with emails (casual or business) that break every form of grammatical conformity. Advertisements and shop signs are littered with punctuational and literary blunders of all types: CD’s for Sale, Bobs’ Motor Shop (or heaven’s sake, even worse: Bob,s Motor Shop), Maw and Paws Swing’s, Open New Years Day, A Better Amercia, and on and on. And, needless to say, plenty of memes are downright too grammatically embarrassing to share.
I, myself, am a proud Stickler too… a self-proclaimed grammar enthusiast, punctuation perambulator, and word nerd all rolled into one. It’s a solitary charge of safekeeping at its best: one that comes with little to no accolade, and in which suggestion is often daftly swept under a dusty rug.
Lynne Truss gathers us together in a common bond over the necessity to be understood and exclaiming the proper use of the tools given us to do so. In Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Truss hails punctuation as art. “Just look at those glamourous punctuation marks twirling in the lights from the glitter-ball: are they not beautiful? Are they not graceful?”
Punctuation, indeed, provides purpose, meaning, and tone. Commas serves as a breath of air between thoughts, a divider in lists, a separator that determines which thoughts should socialize together and which should not, and a coraller of subordinate clauses that may preempt semantic escape. However, “Commas, if you don’t whistle at them to calm down, are unstoppably enthusiastic at this job.”
Think about how the placement of punctuation changes the entire meaning of these popular examples:
Let’s eat Grandma!
Let’s eat, Grandma!
(The second sentence works out much better for Grandma, we can all agree.)
A woman, without her man, is nothing.
A woman: without her, man is nothing.
And of course, there’s always the age-old debate of whether to Oxford comma or not. Theoretically, a comma is said to stand in place of the word and or or before the last item in a list. Hence, the final comma is not necessary to place before the final conjunction (as is standard practice in Britain as well as American journalism). However, guides such as The Chicago Manual of Style and The King’s English by H.W. Fowler call for the final comma in a list along with the words and or or. Still yet, individual corporations may subscribe to one or the other particular style. So, the use is still highly argued in both grammatical and social circles.
Colons and Semicolons
We often think of the colon and semicolon as newly instated soldiers of the English language. However, Truss notes that the first printed semi-colon appeared in 1494 (“a balanced dot on top of a comma”)—a mere two years after Columbus sailed to the new world. The semicolon was printed by none other than Venetian printer Aldus Manutius the Elder (also the inventor of italic typeface) during the rise of printing in the 14th and 15th centuries, whose work was subsequently continued by Aldus Manutius the Younger.
“…the semicolon lightly propels you in any direction related to the
foregoing…the colon nudges you along lines already subtly laid down”
and according to H.W. Fowler, the colon “delivers the goods that have
been invoiced in the preceding words.”
And while it’s true that language is ever evolving, so, too, is punctuation; however, it does change in a less fluid way. In the words of Lynne Truss,
“…we have a way of expressing ourselves that is often complex and
allusive, poetic and modulated; all our thoughts can be rendered
with absolute clarity if we bother to put the right dots and squiggles
between the words in the right places. Proper punctuation is both
the sign and the cause of clear thinking. If it goes, the degree of
intellectual impoverishment we face is unimaginable.”
Whether you are a steadfast grammarian, playfully curious about punctuation history or even mildly interested in the role of punctuation in communication, Truss will leave you with mountains of wisdom and insight into the purpose and behavior of those marks between words.
Want to know more about punctuation? Check out these articles:
What are your thoughts on the use or overuse of punctuation, the Oxford comma, communication, this book or life in general? Comment below.
Nikki Corbett is owner of Precise and
Be Smarter Now, wordsmith, writer,
editor, poet, and mom. She developed
a love of writing and the English language
early in life and has been writing stories
since she could pick up a pencil. She
holds degrees in Communications/
Journalism as well as Creative
Writing and Business Administration.