Punctuation Matters Redux

The title of this post can be read two ways – that it deals with matters or topics about punctuation, or it deals with why punctuation is a matter of concern, or of importance.

Most people would include period, commas, semicolons, and question or exclamation marks in this section, relegating parentheses, quotation marks and capitals, for instance, to an area called mechanics, the conventions governing the technical aspects of writing.

This section should more properly be called graphics, since the term means the devices that are used only writing, not speech. And this brings us to the second topic of concern – does punctuation matter?

In speech, punctuation does not matter because punctuation and all graphics deal with the rules of written language. Thus, it is not possible to make a mistake in punctuation, capitalization, or quotation marks when speaking.

The conventions of graphics developed slowly and unsystematically. As Alberto Manguel says in a piece on the period or full stop: “For ages, punctuation had been a desperately erratic affair.”

Prior to the development of printing, punctuation was light and haphazard. By the seventeenth century, there was increased efforts to standardize the use of certain marks of punctuation. As usual, handbooks of grammar and punctuation, one of the earliest being written by the playwright Ben Jonson (1572-1637), put forth recommendations and rules for punctuating prose. Styles and fashions varied, with heavy or excessive punctuation being favored in the 18th century, and later trends favoring a light punctuation (www.britannica.com).

Writing handbooks and manuals of style generally follow the same rules, though they can differ on certain ones, such as the use of the Oxford comma or the capitalization of proper nouns; for example, New York State (Gregg Reference Manual) or as New York state (Associated Press Stylebook). And as discussed in the post on punctuation with quotation marks, the conventions can differ between American and British usage, two main styles of English punctuation. (The American or North American Style is followed in the United States and Canada, while the UK, Australia, and New Zealand follow the British Style.)

Both students and experienced writers can struggle have problems with graphics usage. Sometimes these problems arise because they were encouraged to memorize the rules, rather than to understand the concepts behind the rules. In English Grammar, Mark S. LeTourneau proposes a useful approach in learning and teaching punctuation: to show how punctuation marks set off syntactical constituents. Martha Kolln in Rhetorical Grammar agrees: “It’s important to remember the purpose of punctuation: to give the reader information about the kind of structure that follows” (84). Even in the 18th century, some grammarians recognized that “[c]ertain parts of speech are kept together, and others are divided by stops, according to their grammatical construction, often without reference to the pauses in discourse” (Thomas Sheridan qtd in LeTourneau 481).

Taking the time to understand the concepts and constituent parts of sentences is valuable enterprise for writers. As LeTourneau asserts, “The connection between grammar and punctuation is one of the most direct ways that grammar can support writers” (English Grammar 475).

(Resources: Manguel, “Point of Order”; English 3200; Britannica.com on punctuation; proofthatblog.com; LeTourneau, English Grammar; Martha Kolln, Rhetorical Grammar.)

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