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The orbit of the Earth being what it is, September 24th has come around again.  September 24th, for those of you who don’t have a copy of Chase’s Calendar of Events lying around, is National Punctuation Day.  But can I be honest with you?  I just can’t bring myself to care.

Don’t get me wrong, punctuation is great.  I use it all the time, I think it’s a great invention.  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 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 either mark timing or serve as syntactic separators, 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 ones 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.

So to return to my original point, the 600-odd words above notwithstanding, a day for punctuation just doesn’t excite me much.  As Vampire Weekend so deftly put it, “Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?”

[By the way, goofy over at bradshaw of the future always brings out his A-game for National Punctuation Day, and this year is no exception.  Go read it.  Now.]


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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.

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