Tuesday, January 28th, 2020...10:53 pm

Giving Pause to Punctuation: A Challenge to Prescriptivism

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Jonathan Bragg

Image by Ag Ku from Pixabay.

In the seventh century, English monks adopted the practice of putting dots between words in their copies of St. Jerome’s Latin Bible, the Vulgate (Mulvey 46). While the idea of separating words on a page may seem obvious to people today, the idea was revolutionary at the time. Latin texts were usually written in scriptura continua – an uninterrupted string of letters without any punctuation separating them. It was the Celtic monks in Ireland, struggling to understand the Latin of the Vulgate, who thought of separating every word from the words next to it (Mulvey 46). The introduction of word separation to England, which later became the word space, forever changed English writing. Once word spacing became standard practice, it was possible to introduce other punctuation marks within these spaces (Crystal 16).

At first, punctuating a text began as the reader’s job. Old English manuscripts included chapter and paragraph divisions, but it was the readers who inserted a variety of marks into the spaces between words (Crystal 15). As a result, punctuation in English was incredibly varied and stayed that way for the next eight hundred years (Crystal 21). English readers punctuated in whichever way made the most sense to them. This was the same approach St. Augustine recommended to Latin readers in the fourth century who were punctuating ambiguous religious texts: “Where … the ambiguity cannot be cleared up by the rule of faith or by the context, there is nothing to hinder us to point [i.e. punctuate] the sentence according to any method we choose” (Crystal 14). David Crystal writes, “This personal decision-making lies at the very heart of punctuation, and becomes a recurrent theme over the next 1600 years” (14).

In 1476, William Caxton brought German typeface to his English print shop, and a small, standard set of punctuation symbols along with it. However, these punctuation symbols were still not used in any standard way (Crystal 32-35). It was in the sixteenth century that people started trying to develop a set of rules for punctuation use, but there was still no agreement among authors upon a single, standard way of punctuating English writing (Crystal 38). It was during this period that two major perspectives on punctuation began to emerge: those who believed punctuation should demonstrate the grammatical structure of a sentence, and those who believed punctuation should illustrate its phonetics (Crystal 39). It was in the seventeenth century that the grammatical perspective of punctuation became the dominant one in academia and formed the basis for our modern standard for English punctuation (Crystal 55).

There is a strong emphasis today on punctuating according to the modern English standard. In her book Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Lynne Truss calls the punctuation systems of Western Europe from the ninth to fifteenth century “damned unsatisfactory” (77), and her subtitle describes her book as “The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.” This strong defense of the standard form of English punctuation is an example of the widespread prescriptivist approach to writing that identifies a clear “right” and “wrong” way to punctuate (with the “right” way being the standard). However, Crystal argues that punctuation has continued to vary and evolve despite the standard. He writes, “No two educated people will agree about everything in the world of punctuation” (343). Even Truss recounts an instance in her book of when a copy-editor added dozens of commas to a piece of Truss’s writing before Truss immediately removed them all again. She comments, “this comma contention was not a matter of right or wrong. It was just a matter of taste” (32). Crystal and Truss’s words are remarkably similar to those of Augustine sixteen hundred years before: “there is nothing to hinder us to point the sentence according to any method we choose” (Crystal, 14). As for the evolution of punctuation, the most obvious example is online and in instant messaging. In these contexts, asterisks are used for emphasis, angle brackets are used for an aside (Crystal gives the example <sigh>), a slash is used to abbreviate words or as a substitute for or, and, of course, emoticons, which were originally created using punctuation symbols and often still are (332-334). Crystal even notes a modern return to scriptura continua: website URLs, which are absent of word spaces and have few punctuation marks (6).

Truss and her counterparts may insist on a “Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation,” but this prescriptivism cannot prevent punctuation from continuing to vary or evolve after it has existed for over a millennium without a standard. Truss herself describes an instance of “comma contention” (32), and both online writing and instant messaging have developed new, widely-accepted norms for punctuation. This is not to say that the standard should be abandoned: as Yin Liu points out, it is necessary to have a collective understanding of what a punctation symbol means for it to have any meaning (“Re: Jonathan Bragg”). However, if writers believe they can punctuate a sentence more effectively by departing from the standard, they often will. It is time for prescriptivists to recognize the undefinable and ever-changing nature of English punctuation and accept that it will exist and evolve outside of a standard, as it has since its inception.

Works Cited and Consulted

Crystal, David. Making a point: the pernickety story of English punctuation. Profile Books: 2015.

Liu, Yin. “Re: Jonathan Bragg – ENG290 – Blog Post and Commentary for Paper 2.” Received by Jonathan Bragg, 14 Jan. 2020.

Mulvey, Christopher. “The English Project’s History of English Punctuation.” English Today, vol. 32, no. 3, September 2016, pp. 45-51. Cambridge Core, doi:10.1017/S0266078416000110.

Room, Adrian. “Axing the apostrophe.” English Today, vol. 5, no. 3, July 1989, pp. 21-23.

Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. Profile Books: 2003.

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