Why punctuate?

 

Punctuation Cookies For National Punctuation Day
Punctuation Cookies For National Punctuation Day (Photo credit: DavidErickson)

Why should anyone bother to use punctuation? It’s such a hassle. What difference does it make?  Well, compare the following:

 

“Come and eat people.”

 

“Come and eat, people.”

 

One little comma makes the difference between an invitation to cannibalism and a simple call to dinner.

 

Have you noticed that someone out there has decided voice actors should pause at arbitrary intervals when reading parts in scripted ads that are supposed to represent ordinary people talking about the advantages of the product? I suppose they think it will sound more natural that way; it doesn’t. It sounds wrong, and whenever I hear it, I know the part is scripted.

Ordinary people speaking naturally do not pause at arbitrary intervals. They do, however, pause. They pause for three reasons that I can think of:

  1. To catch their breath
  2. To work out some hitch in their train of thought
  3. To punctuate what they are saying

None of those pauses is random or arbitrary, and a listener can usually tell which one is happening. The first two can potentially interfere with understanding. The third, however, is often essential to it.

Yes, punctuation is a natural animal.

In addition to the words themselves, we use inflection, stress patterns, and pauses of various lengths to convey meaning. The pauses are perhaps less dramatic than the rising inflection of the question or the emphatic stress of the exclamation, but they are no less important. Pauses group words together and separate the groups from other groups based on relationships of meaning.  Most of the time we do this without thinking about it or even being aware we are doing it.  Sometimes we do it very consciously to make sure we are not misunderstood.

Most of the punctuation marks we use in writing ( . , : ; – ) stand for pauses – for modulations in the spacing between words – and they function to clarify meaning. Writing without punctuation is like talking in a monotone with exactly equal spacing between all the words, not pausing between sentences, clauses, other units of thought. Speech like that would sound like a robot (a poorly programmed robot), not like a human being. It would also be hard to follow, hard to understand. It would not, in fact, be at all natural.

So why would anyone want to leave the punctuation out of their writing?

Okay, I understand about text messages and twitter tweets where you only have 140 characters/spaces to work with. Texting on an old-fashioned cell phone like mine, you have to go to some real effort to find and enter those punctuation marks – it’s a hassle.  I understand being in a hurry. I can also understand that some people don’t like all the rules of punctuation. Maybe they can’t remember when they’re supposed to use a comma or a semicolon. Rules may seem arbitrary, fussy, confusing.

So why not just declare our independence and do without punctuation altogether?

Well, ah, because it’s an abandonment of a major tool in the clarity-in-writing arsenal.

It’s tantamount to saying, “I don’t care whether people understand me or not,” or at least, “I don’t care how hard I make my readers work to figure out what I’m trying to say.” I consider that a bit rude. So, while I understand the impulses that lead people in that direction, I personally have no desire to go there. I value clarity and I respect my readers too much to do that.

The truth is that the rules of punctuation, like the rules of grammar, have their limitations. They can get a bit involved, especially if you try to get fancy. Also, the “experts” don’t all agree, and the rules don’t remain constant over time. I think most people get into trouble with punctuation because they focus too much on the rules (which they understandably have trouble remembering) instead of focusing on what punctuation is for. If you keep your sentences fairly simple, remember that a comma is a pause and a period is a full stop, and then just think about what you’re doing when you write, it’s really not so very hard.

For a really clear and very entertaining explanation of punctuation, I highly recommend Lynne Truss’s little book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves.

9 Comments

  • crubin

    July 6, 2012 at 9:35 pm Reply

    I’m a stickler for punctuation. Even when I read tweets on Twitter, I notice their absence. Talk about being Type A! That being said, I probably overuse commas, as I know there’s a tendency away from that now, but I still follow the old rules, and they’re hard to break. For example: “For the moment, I’ll put a comment after moment.” I learned that after an introductory phrase like that, a comma is needed. But now it seems understood that if the phrase is short, as it is in this case (“for the moment”), a comma isn’t necessary. Yet I still notice it’s absence when I read.

    Great post. 🙂

  • jmmcdowell

    July 7, 2012 at 9:03 am Reply

    I’m an Oxford comma girl, so you know I believe in the importance of punctuation. Two of the things I like about the Chicago Manual of Style are 1) its stress on consistency over any particular rule, and 2) its view that clarity takes precedence over a rule. So even if a writer prefers a “minimal” style of punctuation, it should be used if leaving it out would cause confusion for a reader.

    Some people are lazy or indifferent when it comes to punctuation. But I don’t think writers should be in that group.

    • Carol Wuenschell

      July 9, 2012 at 10:57 pm Reply

      I like those principles too. Scientific writers in general seem to favor the Oxford comma (the serial comma), because leaving it gout can cause confusion whereas putting it in never does.

  • kindredspirit23

    July 7, 2012 at 6:25 pm Reply

    I love punctuation. You know even in texting, it’s a must. Consider:
    1) You are a huge idiot
    2) You are, a huge idiot (the one who sent the message)
    Like yours, confusion ensues.
    Scott

    • Carol Wuenschell

      July 10, 2012 at 6:10 pm Reply

      What a great example!

      (Your comment ended up in spam for some reason, but I rescued it.)

  • 4amWriter

    July 9, 2012 at 5:31 am Reply

    Punctuation is crucial to clear communication. We make it harder on ourselves because there are several ways to use various marks. Sometimes I wonder if we all just followed the same rules would we have fewer errors across the board?

  • Cara Olsen

    July 10, 2012 at 11:44 am Reply

    Lovely post. I, for one, adore punctuation, perhaps using it like sugar in tea: the more the sweeter.

    ~ Cara

    • Carol Wuenschell

      July 10, 2012 at 6:12 pm Reply

      Well, it can possibly be overused, but lately that’s rare. It’s much more often underused. thanks for stopping by.

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