Friday, April 04, 2008

The Great Punctuation Debate

Here's something you probably wouldn't find in an American newspaper: a debate about punctuation.

From the "pro" side:
Both sides in the punctuation debate have an irritating tendency to miss the point.

Libertarians, who believe there is no point in instructing anyone in its uses, fail to acknowledge that there are certainly wrong ways to use any mark of punctuation.

Sticklers, who believe that there are simple right and wrong ways to apply these things, fail to acknowledge that many marks of punctuation don't have a single correct usage, and that different good writers find ways of exploiting the potential effects of, for instance, a colon or a dash.

Of the two, the libertarian is the more deplorable and irresponsible figure. No writer ever came to his own individual and effective usage of a piece of punctuation by being deprived of an explanation of how it is customarily used, and how it has, in the past, been used. To say that there are wrong usages is not incompatible with the understanding that there is also a range of right usages. An imposition of the libertarian model will only lead to confusion, or the disappearance of useful and sensitive markers.
From the "con" side:

Punctuation. Do we need it and what difference does it make to our ability to understand what people say? Well, judging by the first sentence that I wrote (and, indeed, this one) I would have to say – it depends. Punctuation is just one word, and a noun at that, and has no business forming a complete sentence, which is of course what I did.

But I have many more notable compatriots in my use of single-word sentences. Dickens for starters. And there I go again, a sentence without a verb – twice within one paragraph – as well as the use of "and" and "but" to begin two of them.

(Read the full debate.)

SPOGG is with the "pro" side all the way. The main argument made by Dr. Bethan Marshall, isn't really a case against following the rules of punctuation. Dr. Marshall punctuates her essay throughout--if she really thought punctuation didn't matter, she wouldn't have used it, or wouldn't have taken care to do it correctly.

What she argues for are incomplete sentences. Fine. Used well, those are a great artistic tool. You still can't end an incomplete sentence with a comma, a semicolon, an apostrophe or a hyphen. That's against the rules--and for good reason.

She mentions that punctuation was originally meant to tell readers where to breathe as they read texts out loud. True, but irrelevant. There are widely accepted rules that not only represent convention, they help us write clearly. The day most of our texts are meant to be read out loud is the day we can go back to this historical function.

Dr. Marshall at least doesn't argue that apostrophes are useless, as other professors of English have done. Anyone who thinks apostrophes don't make a difference in meaning is in denial. He'll and hell are entirely different concepts. Hell, to us, is a place without thoughtful punctuation.

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