THE PHILOSOPHY OF PUNCTUATION

 

The beginning of punctuation is the beginning of speech.

BEER ON TAP

requires no punctuation; nor does this:

BAR

And what of a sign from God?

THOU SHALT NOT KILL

Signs have authority, but no human speech.  Speech begins with:

BAR!

Or:

THOU SHALT NOT KILL?

As soon we add a little punctuation, we have speech.

When I asked my freshmen English Composition students to define a comma, they said, “a pause…a stop,” but I said, “no, no, no!  Commas are not traffic cops; commas flow; punctuation is not about stopping any more than dancing is about stopping!”

We might think of a comma as an aside. 

We could think of punctuation in terms of Shakespearean drama.  Commas set aside what is ostensibly less important:  “Here comes Mrs. Fiddlefaddle, and she’s wearing that silly flowered hat!”  The part of the sentence after the comma—and she’s wearing that silly flowered hat—is whispered directly to the audience. 

Edgar Poe said a “treatise” was desperately needed on the topic of punctuation, and he wrote: “If not anticipated, I shall, hereafter, make an attempt at a magazine paper on ‘The Philosophy of Point.’”  

“That punctuation is important all agree; but how few comprehend the extent of its importance!  The writer who neglects punctuation, or mis-punctuates, is liable to be misunderstood—this, according to the popular idea, is the sum of the evils arising from heedlessness or ignorance.  It does not seem to be known that, even where the sense is perfectly clear, a sentence may be deprived of half its force—its spirit—its point—by improper punctuation.  For the want of merely a comma, it often occurs than an axiom appears a paradox, or that a sarcasm is converted into a sermonoid.”  —E. Poe,  from “Marginalia”

A book I must get my hands on is A Dash of Style: The Art and Mystery of Punctuation by Noah Luckeman, W.W. Norton, 2007.  I saw it advertised on-line today, as I was searching for Poe’s mini-treatise on the dash.

The gloss on the book says, “Why did Poe and Melville rely on the semicolon?  Why did Hemingway embrace the period?” 

I can’t wait to read what Mr. Lukeman says, but I already have a theory on Hemingway: Papa was a combination of God and bar sign.  Hemingway’s writing is often characterized as plain, and his writing’s lack of commas and semicolons is probably what makes it seem plain, more than anything else. 

As for the semicolon, it’s a wonderful tool, especially in the hands of someone who knows how to use it;  adept use of the semicolon can take my breath away!

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4 Comments

  1. September 18, 2010 at 5:22 pm

    I had noticed that in Hemingway. Near the very beginning The Sun Also Rises (every young man’s favorite Hemingway book), there are two lines – “…not only remember Robert Cohn. He had often wondered what had become of him.”

    And, of course, those should technically have been in one sentence, separated by a comma! But it’s beautiful how it is not.

  2. Noochinator said,

    September 18, 2010 at 8:54 pm

    To show the importance of a comma, compare these two quotes about Woody Allen from critic John Simon. The first quote is what Simon said, the second how he was quoted:

    “He was desperate to have it both ways, the little Jewish schmuck who was the epitome of a loser and yet comes out on top.”

    “He was desperate to have it both ways, the little Jewish schmuck, who was the epitome of a loser and yet comes out on top.”

  3. Marcus Bales said,

    September 22, 2010 at 7:32 pm

    Triolet
    “Oh no, don’t stop,”
    Was what she said.
    I thought I’d pop.
    “Oh no, don’t stop.”
    But then the flop,
    And hope was dead:
    “Oh! No! Don’t! Stop!”
    Was what she said.

  4. Noochness said,

    September 22, 2010 at 11:58 pm

    There’s a famous quote
    From an execution note
    Without proper punctuation.

    The order given there
    Was to kill or to spare
    According to the reader’s interpretation.

    If anyone remembers the wording
    Please post it, it’s disturbing
    Not to find it in this age of Google Nation.


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