No one ever tells me anything. Today, apparently, is National Punctuation Day, which you would think someone would have noticed and informed me of, given that I consume commas like some sort of giant comma-consuming machine — or an eighteenth-century writer. But no, it seems that my friends have “more important” things to discuss, like Wall Street bailouts or North Korea deciding to restart their nuclear program. I had to find out about it through Google Trends. The good news about finding out through Google Trends is that I noticed that the top hit for “national punctuation day” under blogs is none other than goofy over at bradshaw of the future — so all those people out there looking for advice about how to most condescendingly correct others’ punctuation will be given far better guidance than any prescriptivist would prescribe.
goofy posted a quote from Dennis Baron, and there’s one important part I’d like to comment on:
“[N]o one ever agrees what punctuation is for. Sometimes it indicates pauses, sometimes syntactic units.”
YES! It’s so true! In elementary school, I was taught that the comma indicated that you were supposed to pause when reading aloud. But this doesn’t always work; I often don’t pause on the comma in “According to my friend, there was a big explosion at the balloon factory.” In that situation, it’s solely to mark the edges of a syntactic unit. This is a problem for a lot of punctuation: ill-defined usages. The lifespan of punctuation is much shorter than that of words, and punctuation is much more esoteric than other issues of grammar. You don’t pronounce punctuation, so it’s awfully hard to determine where it ought to go. And more so than other aspects of writing, punctuation has the visual aesthetic to address; what other reason is there to choose between the hyphen, the en-dash, and the em-dash? This makes it difficult for a usage consensus to emerge.
In my opinion, punctuation is similar to religion. Everyone thinks they’ve got it right, an awful lot of people go about trying to convince you to agree with them on it, and in the end you have to make a personal choice about it. Yes, there are some general rules about punctuation, and here’s a few I can come up with:
(1) Commas are weaker than dashes, which are in turn weaker than parentheses.
(2) Commas are weaker than semicolons, which are weaker than colons, which are weaker than periods.
(3) The British are weird and call periods “full stops”.
But in general, punctuation is a matter of taste, especially on the tough questions. We saw that with the Oxford comma, and it’s true in most cases. Punctuation, as Dennis Baron noted above, serves two purposes: to indicate syntactic structure, and to let your voice come through. Because these two purposes are sometimes in conflict, it’s difficult to create punctuation rules. But this is the beauty of punctuation. Like word choice and syntax, punctation is a chance for the writer to infuse their style into their writing.
My advice for celebrating National Punctuation Day? Read some poetry. A good poet has to have an ear for punctuation, determining what sort of a pause is needed to maintain the meter, and what kind is necessary to make a convoluted sentence clear. Alexander Pope is especially good at this. His poems are also a lesson that all the punctuation in the world can’t make heroic couplets worthwhile. (Or, if you’ll excuse my vanity in putting in a plug for some of my earlier work, you could read about the issues affecting apostrophe usage.)