Why punctuation is not just for pedants

Caroline Taggart, author of The Accidental Apostrophe, on why punctuation can be subtle, fun and A Good Thing!

One of the difficulties about punctuation is that a lot of it is down to personal preference or “style”. And that isn’t just a recent thing, to be blamed on textspeak and the belief that the world is going to hell in a handcart. Here’s what an anonymous Short Introduction to English Grammar said in 1791:

“…the doctrine of Punctuation must needs by very imperfect: few precise rules can be given which will hold without exception in all cases; but much must be left to the judgment and taste of the writer.”

We’re not always helped by the example of published writers, either. The Portuguese Nobel Prize winner José Saramago ignored a lot of the “rules” in his novel Blindness: most of his paragraphs are two pages long and there are no new paragraphs for dialogue. It’s his privilege, but it doesn’t make the book any easier to read. The same applies to James Joyce, who disdained the apostrophes conventionally used in words such as Ill, Ive and Id. He wasn’t hot on hyphens either: knockkneed, allimportant and his own creations bullockbefriending and gigglegold are just a few of the weird and wonderful words that make Ulysses what it is.

Joyce also referred to inverted commas (quotation marks) as “perverted commas”; he chose to introduce dialogue with a dash instead. Other novelists have been known to use no punctuation at all to distinguish dialogue from narrative. I think this is not so much perverted as perverse: there is, surely, a world of difference between The police said the accused had thrown the first punch and “The police,” said the accused, “had thrown the first punch.”


Which brings me to the main reasons I think punctuation still has a place: it makes what you have written easier to read and it can change the tone of what you’re writing. Sometimes it can even change meaning. When you’re speaking to someone, you can pause, speak louder or softer, smile or grimace, shrug your shoulders… With the written word, you can’t do any of these things. But you can use punctuation. If you’re talking to someone and they look blank, you can rephrase what you’ve just said or fall back on that time-worn excuse, “Well, you know what I mean.” In writing, you can’t do that. You put in the punctuation so that your readers do know what you mean.

For example: in The doctor, who looked like George Clooney, looked after me, “who looked like George Clooney” is a by-the-way piece of information, added for interest only; the important statement is that the doctor looked after you. Take out the commas and you have something completely different: The doctor who looked like George Clooney looked after me suggests that the doctor who looked like Peter Capaldi was not assigned to your case.

As for tone and nuance, the punctuation makes quite a difference in these sentences:

It’s my birthday is a mere statement of fact.

It’s my birthday! is an excuse for starting drinking at 10 in the morning.

I’d like to but I can’t has no particular emotion to it.

I’d like to but I can’t… suggests that you can’t bear to, that you’re too upset even to finish what you are trying to say.

His attitudes are old-fashioned can be taken at face value.

His attitudes are…old-fashioned gives the implication of “How shall I put this? I don’t want to come right out and call him a bigot.”

Yes, you can say it’s pedantic. I prefer to say that it’s subtle, and that it can be a lot of fun. If you’re old enough to remember the mock-history 1066 and All That (first published in 1930 but still hilarious), you’ll probably also remember that the authors used capital letters for Good Things, Good Kings, Bad Kings, Olden Days and much more. Somehow, the capital letters make you laugh. It’s entirely in keeping with a book that refers to Queen Victoria’s Jamboree and maintains that King Arthur was married to Lady Windermere.

More recently I read an article about scaremongering journalism that reported that Bird flu is going to Invade Our Country and Kill Us All. The writer could have written Bird flu is going to invade our country and kill us all – a plain, unvarnished statement. Or she could have put the words in inverted commas – Bird flu is “going to invade our country and kill us all”, indicating that she was quoting someone else’s view, not confirming it. But the out-of-place capitals make it funny, drawing scathing attention to the shock-horror nature of the original reports.

To be effective, though, punctuation should be used sparingly. If you’re replying to text message that has given you startling news, it’s perfectly OK to write as many exclamation marks as you like, with no words at all – it’s shorthand for “OMG! I hadn’t heard that! How exciting!” But in more formal writing, you undermine the power of the exclamation mark if you use it too often. Plus it is exhausting, and faintly annoying, to read.

It was the holiday of a lifetime! We saw eight leopards in six days! Imagine that!! Eight leopards!!!

If you’re a wildlife lover who has been less fortunate with your safari sightings, reading this is just going to irritate you; if you don’t know or care if leopards are the ones with stripes or the ones with spots, your indifference is not going to be lessened by exuberant punctuation.

Emoticons and emojis? Why not? They're the modern version of those whimsical illustrations medieval monks indulged in, adding a personal touch, even if it is electronic. Someone in the US has translated all of Moby-Dick into emojis, published it and archived it in the Library of Congress. Why? Because he can. Is it any dafter than climbing Everest "because it was there"? I don't think so. It's certainly a lot less dangerous. I'm inclined to celebrate this sort of creativity, and even to describe it as a Good Thing. With perhaps one – just one – exclamation mark at the end!
The Accidental Apostrophe… and other misadventures in punctuation by Caroline Taggart is published by Michael O'Mara Books