The Function of Punctuation:
History and the Debate on Authorial Orality
Paper originally submitted by Kelly Thomas-Cutshaw for Structure of the English Language taught by Dr. Gail Nash on 5 December 2014
“A panda walks into a bar, then he eats shoots and leaves.” This is the literal, punctuation-free punchline of a commonly told joke that the author Lynne Truss even uses as an illustration in her writing on the importance of punctuation. Anyone who tells the joke, however, usually delivers the punch line as, “A panda walks into a bar, then he eats, shoots, and leaves.” What is the difference between the two statements? To a reader, the answer is obvious: the punctuation is altered, making use of commas in a series within the second statement. A punctuation difference between the two has more than a visual effect, though. The first statement leaves a reader with the impression of a panda nibbling on a few bamboo shoots and leaves at a bar – a comical enough concept, but not the object of a joke. The second statement allows the reader to conceptualize a panda swaggering into a bar with a gun, eating food like a villain, shooting the place up, and leaving without paying – a much more bizarre mental image, but still not the humorous object of the joke. Indeed, it is the juxtaposition of the two statements’ meanings that causes an audience to appreciate the wit of the joke. Such a vast conceptual difference as a result of punctuation, however, is far from being a laughable concept. In more serious matters punctuation variations can cause legal disputes, and even lead to misinterpretations of ancient texts of Christian scripture. Standard punctuation, then, is very useful in conveying the meaning of the written word.
Nevertheless, some punctuation details are so disturbingly confusing that it would almost be better to leave out punctuation altogether! The possessive form of last names already ending with an ‘s’ make for a fine example of baffling punctuation. Does the apostrophe belong after the ‘s’ of the name, or before? Does another ‘s’ need to be added to make the name possessive? How would one say the plural form? What about when the speaker is referring to more than one member of that family with possession of an object? All of these confusing and minute details leave a writer to decide that an apostrophe is really just a useless mark on paper, and one ‘s’ is one too many. A prescriptivist would probably argue that the apostrophe has a definite place in any given situation, and that the punctuation is necessary for “proper” grammar. This begs the question: what is the purpose of punctuation, and when is it necessary? Historically, author orality determined the use of punctuation, and should continue to dictate punctuation in modern writing, guided by a limited framework for grammatical cohesion.
The Mesha Stele, also known as the Moabite stone, is thought to be the oldest known document that makes use of punctuation. According to Lemaire, the stone dates somewhere around the “last quarter of the ninth century B.C.E.” The Moabite language of the Mesha Stele contains “word dividers in the inscription” on the stone (Rollston 54) — an indication of the stone’s purpose as a publicly viewed and observed stele, as the punctuation divided words that would be read aloud.
The “word dividers” of the Moabite stone distinguish the text inscribed on it from almost all other written forms of the time that employed a style of writing known as scriptio continua (Omanson) Scriptio continua is characterized by a constant stream of letters written “without any breaks between words, sentences and paragraphs” (Omanson) and free from all punctuation. Even after the ninth century B.C.E. the ancestor forms of English writing (Ancient Greek, for example) did not apply punctuation, but continued writing in the style of scriptio continua.
For centuries after the creation of the Moabite stone writing simply aided the oral reading of various written languages: “in antiquity the written word was regarded as a record of the spoken word” (Parkes 1). As a record, “ancient reading was usually oral, either aloud in groups, or individually in a muffled voice” (Saenger 2), as is specifically seen in Greek and Latin cultures. Slowly, fifth century B.C.E. Greek playwrights, such as Euripides (480 – 406 B.C.E.) and Aristophanes (446 – 386), began using punctuation to assist in the delivery of lines in the play. The following example, line 65 of Aristophanes’ “Acharnians”, displays some of the scattered punctuation that playwrights used:
eireixipaO^ rfp^ds ojs ^acnXea rov p^eyav,
jxiadov (f)€povTas Bvo Spaxp^dg rrjs rjpepas
eV ^vdvfjievovs dp)(ovros’. (Aristophanes 10)
Such punctuation conveyed the intent of the writer to the actors for more efficient practices and performances. This idea is conveyed by Jenkins’s single statement conclusion of Percy Simpson’s claim: “when a playwright of the period punctuates he is endeavouring to direct the enunciation of his words by the actor” (Jenkins 152).
Around the sixth century the general attitude towards the function of punctuation within written language changed. According to Parkes, writing became observed as “conveying information directly to the mind through the eye” (1). This altered view meant that silent reading “became established as the norm” (1). Newer forms of punctuation were developed to assist silent reading, the first arising in the early Middle Ages for writing Latin. Latin spread throughout the ages as the “language of scholarship and diplomacy” (1), which is no surprise, considering the printing and spread of the Christian Bible.
The time in which Christianity spread represents a duality in the purpose of punctuation. Much like the function of punctuation in Greek plays, punctuation in the Bible allowed for easier recitation in the “intended” manner. However, scholastic dependence on the Bible also demanded that the Bible contain punctuation that would assist scholars in the silent reading that the Latin “attitude” had grown to prefer. Latin, as it emerged as a scholarly language in Europe, was not a primary language for most learners. Therefore, a “convention” was needed to make Latin texts comprehensible to non-native readers (Parkes 1). Indeed, written English was on its way to becoming a standard language in England and would eventually need its own conventions to “maintain a comprehensible official idiom for communication” (Fisher 872).
The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries saw a rise in printed materials, particularly in English, due to the printing press introduced to Europe by Johaness Gutenberg (Gutenberg). AS printed materials became more commonly available, quick, silent reading increased, and the need for punctuation in English grew more demanding. Not only did readers need punctuation notations for ease of reading, a standard of punctuation was necessary for the a common understanding of punctuation. The issue of non-standard English punctuation carried on into the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Archives of the fifteenth century used a wide variety of punctuation marks, sometimes as a “final flourish” at the end of a paragraph (Jenkins 153). Jenkins describes the variety of fifteenth-century Archiver writers’ commas (the purpose of which was to “mark a pause in the sense”), noting that the markings ranged from “a curved line, something like the modern symbol,” to a straight line, “the typical virgula” (153). The variety of punctuation, much like the example commas, in the fifteenth century presented the lack of a punctuation standard that would later make it difficult for readers to understand the writings of the Archives. Jenkins attribute this “lax” system to the Archiver writer attitude that arose due to the fact that the documents an Archive writer prepared were intended “only for himself and his colleagues and successors in the office” (153). The sixteenth century Archive writers followed a similarly confusing system of punctuation vomit, “treating all symbols as practically interchangeable” (153). However, we finally see the Archive writers fall into writing with some sort of system of punctuation due to the introduction of informal letters (man to man, not alphabetical) and the common Italic style of writing.
The Italic type was a particularly important step towards the culmination of a punctuation standard. Italian Aldus Manutius the Elder introduced this condensed style of writing as a means of decreasing page size and making books more portable (Aldus). However, with the introduction of portable books and a writing style that utilized punctuation, Manutius inevitably established a sort of standard of punctuation within the italic typeface printed in the books he printed. In fact, several modern punctuations stem from the work of Manutius, and his grandson, Aldus Manutius the Younger (Parkes) The forms of punctuation “given us by Aldus” through his texts were “all used with some appearance, at least, of reason” (Jenkins 155). According to Lynne Truss the most significant aspect of the punctuation employed by Manutius was its disregard of “ the old marks that aided the reader-aloud” (77). The books introduced by Manutius’s printing press were designed for reading and comprehension, not for oral recitation. The function of punctuation in print transitioned greatly between the time of the introduction of the Italic type and the life of Aldus Manutius the Younger. This change was so remarkable that Aldus the Younger “was able to state that the main object of punctuation was the clarification of syntax” (Truss 77). Over the following centuries, a standard of punctuation in English would develope, and a debate on the functions and purpose of punctuation would follow.
Aldus Manutius the Younger made, in many scholarly opinions, an appropriate statement; written English necessitates punctuation for syntactical clarification because written word doesn’t convey many vocal inflections, topoi and word meanings.1 C.S. Lewis remarked in the Introduction to Mere Christianity on the distinction between written and oral language: “A talker ought to use variations of voice for emphasis because his medium naturally lends itself to that method: but a writer ought not to use italics for the same purpose. He has his own, different, means of bringing out the key words and ought to use them” (Lewis ###). While Lewis mostly addressed the necessity of italics, the same concept applies to punctuation.
Punctuation is obviously a necessary tool for English writing, and a standard of that punctuation is absolutely necessary to convey the concepts of written language in a manner that every reader will understand. Consider, if modern English punctuation was still the
1 Topoi is “the analogy between hesitation in the reading process and pauses in spoken discourse; the assignation of arbitrary time values to these pauses, graded in relation to each other; and the relationship conceived between punctuation and accentuation.
massive web of sixteenth century archive styles, current readers would never comprehend
printed materials because all of the punctuation would be different, with different intentions. Samson states that “punctuation helps readers derive meaning from sentences by providing visible clues to sentence structure and emphasis” (Samson 2). Without a common punctuation style and usage meanings would not be clear, and English written communication much too convoluted for realistic application.
Instruction of punctuation attempts to clarify the use of punctuation. Many modernly established English instruction manuals employ the Edited American English writing standard to aid students in understanding the “rules” of punctuation. These punctuation rules describe punctuation as it is defined by grammar. The “strictness” of the instruction of punctuation as described in this way depends on the intensity of the instructor’s prescriptive opinions. Kolln and Funk provide excellent cases for the comparison of punctuations defined by grammar, and the relative “strictness” of each rule. For example, “some opening adverbials are set off by commas and some are not. Their punctuation is sometimes a matter of choice, especially in the case of phrases” (Kolln 130). Adverbial phrases, in this case, do not adhere to strict rules of punctuation, but rather a general rule of equally correct options. However, when punctuating clauses that modify, if the “modifier cannot restrict the noun’s meaning any further” the clause is a non-restrictive modifier, and thus will be set off by commas (Kolln 130). In this instance, the grammaticized clause determines the usage of punctuation more strictly.
A debate on the “use of symbols” (punctuation) has existed for almost the same length of history as punctuation (Parkes 4). Primarily, the opposing view points are those who think punctuation should be defined by grammar — as English textbook standards usually show — and those who think the oral rhetorical implications of the author should determine punctuation. According to Parkes, the dispute between rhetoricians and grammarians stems from their differing “attitudes” of analysis. Grammarians are more concerned with the “application of punctuation to identify the boundaries of the sentences and the units of grammatical constituents within them. Rhetoricians focus more on the “ways in which punctuation reflects the periodic structure of a discourse, and indicates the [period] and its parts” (Parkes 4). The rhetorical analysis of punctuation emphasizes “pauses for breath” indicating the rhetorician “preoccupation with bringing out correspondences between the written medium and the spoken word” (Parkes 4). Scholars who argue from the standpoint of a grammarian make a reasonable case for the dictation of punctuation based on grammatical structure and word function. If punctuation did not follow the pattern of grammatical structure, it would undermine the very functions of English grammar. On the other hand, scholars who think more along rhetorical lines recognize that punctuation, as developed through much of history, has been used, by original intent, to signal the prosody the author willed when writing and ought to continue to do so. According to Parkes these two seemingly opposed viewpoints usually reach “some agreement” on what “constitutes complete and incomplete sentences” which indicates a potential for a ‘natural’ application of punctuation in written English (Parkes 4).
“Down-style” one possible style of writing both combines the ideas of original intent and grammar defined punctuation brings it’s own criteria to the academic table: lesser punctuation (Parkes 2). This style is preferred by many modern writers and readers, as it brings ease of writing to the author, and ease of silent reading to the reader, while maintaining communication of the author’s intended orality. Goldstein, a scholar in support of downstyle argues that “punctuation is to make clear the thought being expressed; if punctuation does not help make clear what is being said, it should not be there” (322). Down-style, while a sound solution to many questions on the function of punctuation, may not be the most ideal solution to a standard method of punctuation.
A compromise between a strict grammatical standard of punctuation and orally influenced punctuation would be the ideal method of punctuating writing. Again, author orality historically determined the use of punctuation and should continue to dictate punctuation in modern writing. However, a framework or standard of punctuation applied to the authorial orality of a piece is necessary for grammatical cohesion. Without a basic structure, punctuation wouldn’t be consistent, nor would the concept be consistently conveyed from one person to the next. For example, every reader ought to know what a period’s purpose is in relation to the grammatical structure of a sentence. But, because writing is often the textual communication of concepts that would otherwise be spoken a reader “hears” a little voice in his/her head when reading that conveys the vocal inflections as commonly noted by punctuation. The punctuation should therefore indicate to the reader’s “little voice” what the author’s voice intends. Furthermore, The limitation of a standard is also necessary for the reduction of confusion for both readers and writers. Thus, I believe punctuation should be firstly determined by the author’s intent, then by a limited boundary of grammatical correctness.
All in all, Punctuation’s main purpose is the clarification of written language. In the case of English punctuation, it originally determined the prosody of written words, such as the many “stops” created by sixteenth century archive writers. Later, as writing became more and more common, publishers and writers recognized a need for a standard of punctuation. Through the following centuries grammarians and rhetoricians defined and redefined punctuation based on criteria of grammatical structure and rhetoric. Often times, punctuation has been overused, defined by rather prescriptive grammar limitations, or misplaced altogether. However, in the spirit of furthering communication between English speakers, making the written language more effective and efficient, compromise of traditional orality and prescriptive grammar ought to be fashioned. Thus, as author orality has historically determined the use of punctuation, it should continue to dictate punctuation in modern writing, guided by a limited standard framework for efficient communication and grammatical cohesion.
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