ERIC Identifier: ED347553
Publication Date: 1992-00-00
Author: Dawkins, John
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Reading and Communication Skills Bloomington IN.
Punctuation: Less Is More? ERIC Digest.
The original purpose of punctuation was elocutionary; oral reading, after
all, was the medium for communicating written discourse. But as silent reading
became common (after the invention of the printing press) a syntactic purpose
evolved. These different--and mixed--purposes existed side by side for some
time. The elocutionary purpose was illustrated by Elizabethan drama and
PILGRIM'S PROGRESS, and the syntactic purpose was illustrated by Bacon's essays.
Although the latter purpose became predominant by the eighteenth century,
prosodic purposes were always evident (Lupton, 1988). Indeed, the effort to
specify prosodic-punctuational correspondences continues into the present
(Webster's Dictionary; Chafe, 1988). Our century, however, has seen the
institutionalization of grammar-based rules in handbooks (in the educational
industry) and style manuals (in the print industry) (Cronnell, 1980). These
basic resources refer to prosody rarely, and then only as a minor aid to the
learner or an incidental guide to the practitioner.
At this century's end we are seeing, perhaps, the culmination of an evolution
from "heavy" to "light" punctuation, a trend that began in earnest at the start
of the century (with Fowler's THE KING'S ENGLISH, according to ENCYCLOPEDIA
BRITANNICA). The difference between the two can be seen by contrasting
appropriate writers only half a century apart (Henry Adams and Ernest Hemingway
or Robert Louis Stevenson and George Orwell). Present practice does not show all
the "rests" and "pauses," as Bishop Lowth's 1762 grammar proposed; it proscribes
the comma between subject and verb, and tolerates lighter punctuation between
clauses. But contemporary writers who lean on punctuation for rhetorical effects
(like Annie Dillard, for example) run counter to this trend.
Punctuation rules deal with all the marks, of
course, but punctuation studies are concerned with the "functional" marks. And
statistical studies tell us that over 90% of the marks are periods and commas
(slightly more commas than periods). So the comma requires more rules, and leads
to more problems for the writer (Meyer, 1989). Though great numbers of handbooks
and manuals have been printed in this century, the rules in all are essentially
the same, and familiar to readers of this digest: rules for commas with words,
phrases, and clauses (subordinating, coordinating, modifying) that typically are
based on grammatical description but are often dependent on semantic
Because of the great similarity among rule books, one might assume that
punctuation has become standardized. Consider, however, that even experienced
copy editors will not reach consensus on the application of certain rules (some
uses of the dash, for example, or commas with independent clauses) (Cronnell,
1980). Moreover, differences among writers and genres (fiction and technical
writing, for example) indicate that punctuation has not been completely
WHAT WRITERS DO
The masses of daily and weekly publications
are based on the prescriptions and proscriptions in such style manuals as WORDS
INTO TYPE and A MANUAL OF STYLE. So violations of the rules, which are not
uncommon, are doubtless attributable more to the qualities of the copy editing
than to stylistic decisions. Excepted from this generalization, naturally, are
those few columnists who practice a unique writing style.
Learned writing--the nonfiction found in scholarly journals and periodicals
such as HARPER'S and THE NEW YORKER--is characterized by adherence to the rules.
This can be attributed to copy editors' conscientious use of style manuals (most
"learned" writers are not, after all, English teachers). So the punctuation
found in this genre--if indeed it is one--suggests that punctuation norms are
institutionalized wherever copy editors control the final copy.
Fiction is another matter, especially "quality" fiction. Such deliberate
stylists as the "early" James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, E. M. Forster, Eudora
Welty, and John Updike violate rules according to their needs or purposes. In
DUBLINERS Joyce rarely uses a comma after an introductory word, phrase, or
clause; Hemingway (chapter one of A FAREWELL TO ARMS) uses a comma between
coordinate clauses only four of thirteen opportunities; Welty's clean sentences
prompt fewer comma possibilities than, say Updike's, but clearly she is guided
by more than mere adherence to the rules (Chafe, 1987). Updike, though
conservative in his nonfiction, bends the rules to his needs in his fiction with
fragments, comma splices, coordinate clauses without commas, ellipted coordinate
clauses with commas, and more.
The punctuation in "literary" nonfiction appears to be much like the
punctuation in fiction, a conclusion based on studying the writing of Americans
like Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, Loren Eiseley, Tom Wolfe, and, somewhat
earlier, H. L. Mencken and E. B. White; and studying the British, like Forster,
Orwell, Evelyn Waugh, and Virginia Woolf, who are even more lax with the rules
than the Americans (Partridge, 1953).
Two propositions suggest themselves: (1) punctuation practices vary from
genre to genre, and (2) the "best" writers punctuate according to their needs,
not according to the rules. Can we, then, generalize about such broad topics as
"American" punctuation or "nonfiction" punctuation? And don't we need to ask
which genres provide the needed models of "good" punctuation? Mass market
publications? Literary nonfiction? Learned writing? Perhaps learners should be
exposed to all?
THEORY AND ISSUES
Studies of punctuation are "product"
based or "process" based. If product based, one can examine texts for data that
support generalizations (rules and principles) to account for the data; or one
can evaluate the data according to given criteria (rules and principles). The
latter is the traditional task of English teachers. The former is the method of
most students of punctuation; however, because the rules are a given in such
studies (Summey, 1949; Carey, 1958; Quirk, et al., 1985; Meyer, 1987), the
generalizations amount to qualifications of the rules.
Meyer (1987), for example, concludes his descriptive study with a chart
specifying "positions where rules of punctuation dictate that marks of
punctuation be placed." These rules are supplemented by seven "principles"
(three syntactic, two semantic, two prosodic) that provide a guide for
application of the rules. But these principles are essentially a systematization
of the qualifications in the standard studies.
In the most comprehensive examination of modern English, Quirk, et al. (1985)
examine the statistical data on commas with AND and BUT between coordinate
clauses and conclude: "These results show we are dealing with tendencies which,
while clear enough, are by no means rules.... (I)t is probable that the general
truth that punctuation conforms to grammatical rather than rhetorical
considerations is in fact overridden."
Two studies suggest that there is more promise, both theoretical and
pedagogical, in an approach that downplays the rules and emphasizes, in their
stead, principles. Limaye (1983) proposes a simpler systematization of
punctuation by identifying three principles underlying the given rules and
adding two more ("non-canonical" word order and a hierarchy of four marks).
Dawkins' (1992) approach is even simpler. He assumes that writers have an
intuitive sense of the independent clause and of a hierarchy of six marks. And
he suggests that semantic intent, not the rules, is the actual basis for the
punctuation of the "best" writers.
If punctuation is looked at as process rather than as product--that is,
looked at as a matter as writer's intent--only two principles are needed to
explain the data: (1) punctuate only to achieve clarity and/or effectiveness,
and (2) use the hierarchy of six marks (these include "zero") to show the nature
and degree of separation.
Except in concocted workbook
exercises, it is often difficult, and sometimes impossible, to clearly match
one's sentence with a rule (especially if one is a student). Moreover, the
punctuation decision in a given context may depend on considerations that cross
sentence boundaries--where rules don't go (Dawkins, 1992).
It is obvious, too, that studying "unrelated rules" leads to "rote learning,"
as Limaye (1983) says, and worse, perhaps, to the right/wrong attitude about
punctuation that exists among students (indeed, among most people who write
anything at all). This negative attitude leads to writing behavior whose purpose
is to avoid "bad" writing, not to create "good" writing. Systematizing the rules
and emphasizing principles promises to make punctuation easier to learn, partly
because this approach appeals to one's reason, semantic intentions, and sense of
rhetorical effectiveness rather than to one's need to be "right" according to a
set of unsystematized rules.
Carey, C. V. (1958). Mind the Stop. Second
Edition. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Chafe, Wallace (1987). What Good Is Punctuation? Occasional Paper No. 2.
Berkeley, CA: Center for the Study of Writing. [ED 292 120]
Chafe, Wallace (1988). "Punctuation and the Prosody of Written Language."
Written Communication, 5(4), 395-426. [EJ 369 828]
Cronnell, Bruce (1980). Punctuation and Capitalization: A Review of the
Literature. Los Alamitos, CA: Southwest Regional Laboratory for Educational
Research and Development. [ED 208 404]
Dawkins, John (1992). Rethinking Punctuation. [ED 340 048]
Encyclopedia Britannica. Vol. 29, Fifteenth Edition.
Limaye, Mohan (1983). "Approaching Punctuation as a System." ABCA Bulletin,
46(1), 28-33. [EJ 277 966]
Lupton, Ellen (1988). "Period Styles: A Punctuated History." TEACHERS AND
WRITERS MAGAZINE, (20)1, 7-11. [EJ 377 467]
Meyer, Charles F. (1987). A Linguistic Study of American Punctuation. New
York: Peter Lang.
Meyer, Charles F. (1989). "Functional Grammar and Its Application in the
Composition Classroom." Journal of Teaching Writing, 8(2), 147-67. [EJ 410 113]
Partridge, Eric (1953). You Have a Point There. London: Routledge and Kegan
Quirk, Randolph, et al. (1985). A Comprehensive Grammar of the English
Language. London: Longman.
Summey, George (1949). American Punctuation. New York: Ronald.
Webster's New International Dictionary. Third Edition (1961).