Okay, it’s National Punctuation Day again, everyone’s favorite registered trademark of a holiday. (Its inventor really trademarked it, and carefully repeats the ® symbol after each mention of the day.) These manufactured holidays are rubbish, and this one’s just an excuse for people to get up in arms about misplaced apostrophes or commas, or to start a pointless argument about whether periods go inside of quotation marks and whether the Oxford comma is a boon or a bane. I guess it’s also a chance for people to trot out the old pair “Let’s eat, Grandpa!” and “Let’s eat Grandpa!” and make a borderline joke about how punctuation saves lives.
I can’t say exactly why, but National Punctuation Day fills me with a profound lethargy that kills my interest in even writing a post about it. I hope you won’t think it lazy, but I’m just going to repost what I said about it last year. I hope to make up for this repetitious post by updating it with links to the much better posts I’m sure you’ve all done for today.
Punctuation is great. I use it all the time, like rechargeable batteries. But, like rechargeable batteries, I just can’t get too excited about punctuation. I’ve tried to, I really have. I had a copy of Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West shipped down to UCSD via Inter-Library Loan, which was supposed to be the definitive academic history of punctuation in English and related languages. I hoped it would reveal to me the history of punctuation, the evolution of its different forms and purposes. It very well might have, if it weren’t so incredibly dense and disorganized. I tried to read it in bed one night. I fell asleep around page 3. So I took it on vacation, the only book I’d packed in my carry-on at the airport. I ended up sitting at the gate for an hour and a half, staring out the window at a unchanging hillside for an hour, because after reading a chapter of the book on my lap, I just couldn’t take anymore. I’d put together one quarter-page of notes on the book by the time that the library asked for it back. I obliged them immediately.
I did get one point out of the book, though: punctuation arose as a means of marking where an orator would pause in delivering a speech. Different marks could be used to indicate differing pause lengths, which generally corresponded to differing logical divisions. Short pauses, like those indicated by the modern comma, usually divided segments that were still closely related to a core idea. Longer pauses, like those of the modern semi-colon, indicated somewhat more independent segments, and still longer pauses, now periods, indicated still more independent segments.
This is the trouble with punctuation: it started out as an indicator of pauses, but due to the correlation with syntax, it has become common for punctuation to mark syntactic divisions instead. Now we have hybrid punctuation that can mark either timing or syntax, and this has created a somewhat imprecise punctuation system in English. Furthermore, punctuation is mostly silent. Is there a difference in pronunciation between high definition and high-definition? If there is, it’s very slight. So too with you’re and your, or even:
(1a) It seems we’ve failed, all is lost.
(1b) It seems we’ve failed; all is lost.
Yes, there are certainly rules about punctuation, but they’re mostly boring and uncontroversial. “Put a comma after an interjection.” Okay, fine. The rules that are controversial, like whether to put periods inside or outside of quotation marks, or the Oxford comma, aren’t interestingly controversial. One person says “I put the period inside the quotes.” Another says, “Oh, I put it outside”. The former is more standard American style, the latter more standard British. What is there to argue? I like to wear shorts, and my friend likes to wear long pants. Who’s wrong?
All the interesting punctuation debates I have are internal, as I debate whether or not a comma is necessary in a given spot, or whether two clauses are sufficiently related to be separated by a mere semi-colon. Punctuating your writing is, I think, intensely personal, and you have to practice it to get your voice down. Whenever I edit a friend’s work, I always find instances where I’d change their punctuation (usually by adding a comma), but then it wouldn’t sound like them anymore. I always found this especially difficult when I’d look at my mom’s writing; she writes more directly than I do, and is much more frugal with her commas than I am, so my inner editor would be distracted noticing all the perfect nesting spots for commas in her sentences. Arguing about how to best punctuate is often like trying to convince someone that liking chocolate milkshakes is bad because strawberry milkshakes are good. The trick lies in realizing that there’s more than one good way to do it.