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Writers Talk About Writing

The Laws of English Punctuation

Here's an SAT-type question for you.

People who ask, "Where does the comma go?" do so because they are convinced that incorrect punctuation represents which of the following linguistic problems:

a. carelessness
b. the failure of education
c. the decline of grammar
d. the end of civilization
e. all of the above

However you answer this question, you're likely to think that punctuation errors need to be corrected, the sooner the better, and that they represent some bigger problem that surely warrants attention too, but fix the punctuation first. Punctuation is certainly useful to help readers deal with long or difficult texts and to make up for features of spoken discourse like intonation or emotion that don't transfer well to the page. But if you spend a lot of time correcting other people's punctuation, and you're not a copyeditor by profession, then maybe you need to get a life.

Few people get as exercised over punctuation errors as Grammar Man, a caped crusader who roams Chatham and nearby English cities correcting the spelling and punctuation of urban graffiti with more graffiti. His logo is an exclamation point. 

Roaming the cities of Kent, in England, Grammar Man corrects graffiti with more graffiti.
He's been accused of unnecessary capitalization, but even his critics have missed the point
that Grammar Man is a misnomer, because spelling and punctuation are not actually grammar.

But recent commentaries in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times confirm the view that punctuation represents the bright but fragile line that separates us from the abyss. The Journal suggests that our punctuation system is on the brink of collapse, as evidenced by the growing number of hand-lettered signs like "Apple's, $1.59/lb.," and the Times warns that the universe of punctuation is expanding uncontrollably thanks to smiley-laden texts and tweets.

Those who place so much store in punctuation should remember that for most of the 5,000-year history of writing, punctuation was either nonexistent or it played a minor, unsystematic role. As Noah Webster wrote in his definition of punctuation, "The ancients were unacquainted with punctuation." For most of recorded history, writers and readers just didn't care where the comma went. 

Even during the 18th century, the great age of English standardization that produced Dr. Johnson's Dictionary, Bishop Lowth's grammar, Noah Webster's blue-backed speller, and, ultimately, the SATs, punctuation didn't warrant much attention from the language regulators. What Lowth tells us is not very encouraging to sticklers convinced that punctuation is an exact science: "The doctrine of punctuation must needs be very imperfect: few precise rules can be given, which will hold without exception in all cases; but much must be left to the judgement and taste of the writer" (A Short Introduction to English Grammar, 1762).

The variability of punctuation is easy to demonstrate. In Art. I, sec. 10, of the U.S. Constitution, the framers wrote the possessive it's (not quite the greengrocer's apostrophe): "No state shall, without the consent of the Congress, lay any imposts or duties on imports or exports, except what may be absolutely necessary for executing it's inspection laws" (emphasis added). A student writing it's for its today would be marked wrong. 

Since that time, a conglomeration of punctuation rules has become more central to our understanding of what makes good writing, yet punctuation itself remains variable, not just in grocery signs, but also in more carefully-edited prose: how we punctuate items in a series (hither, thither and yon or hither, thither, and yon); how we indicate possessives (master's degree or masters degree); the interchangeability of commas and semicolons.

The influx of smileys (they're sometimes called emoticons) could signal just another stage in punctuation's brief and chaotic history, which brings us not just commas, semicolons, and periods, but also the index, ☞,the hashtag, #, and the universal symbol for an email address, @. So why not add ☺ and its frowny opposite, ☹, to the writer's bag of tricks? 

Maybe punctuation rose from peripheral reading aid to major indicator of writing success because it's easier to put your finger, or your can of spray paint, on a punctuation error than it is to identify why an argument is faulty or explain why a text is just not very interesting. But the common assumption today is that if punctuation is flawed, then the rest of the writing, and the thinking behind it, must be flawed as well. And so the reaction to emoticons making their way from informal to more self-conscious kinds of writing, business communications, for example, tends to be horror at what one critic cited by the Times called the general "degradation of writing skills" that is attributable to digital technology: everything from poor grammar to bad handwriting.

But punctuation, like most everything in life, is only temporary, and so even if you condemn the rise of the emoticon you should consider that popular punctuation marks once included the now-obsolete paragraphos, represented by one of several symbols, the paragraphos, to indicate a paragraph break. That, in turn, was replaced by another mark that was later discarded, the pilcrow: ¶. And don't forget the hedera, ❧, which served a similar purpose. Today we don't signal paragraph breaks with punctuation but through line breaks and indents.

And this brings me back to the question I started with: "Where does the comma go?" My response to this frequently asked question is, "Why is this important to you?" But seekers of practical advice don't tend to pick up on my invitation to reflect on linguistic complexity, and that in turn leads me to the eleventh of Baron's laws of English (you can read about the others here and here; you can read my earlier commentaries on commas here and here). It's called the Principle of Recurring Punctuation, and it states,

No matter how often I try to duck the issue and get on to topics that are really interesting, most people still want to know where the comma goes.

But I suspect that by now you don't really want me to tell you where to put your commas. Which reminds me there's another use for punctuation we're not going to give up any time soon: #*&%!, without these useful little symbols, we'd never be able to euphemize dirty words in print.

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Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and writes regularly on linguistic issues at The Web of Language. He is the author of A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. You can follow him on Twitter @DrGrammar. Click here to read more articles by Dennis Baron.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday October 25th 2011, 4:20 AM
Comment by: Andrew
So then, why are all of your commas in exactly the right place?
Tuesday October 25th 2011, 5:27 AM
Comment by: Sue B.
You fail to address the very real changes in meaning that can be effected by the placement (or misplacement) of commas.

While I agree that the comma before "and" in a series is purely stylistic, and many commas dictated by rule can be omitted without damaging meaning, I suspect that one of the reasons people get so worked up about comma placement revolves around exactly this point. I have not actually heard it proposed that improper (meaningful) comma placement obviates the argument being expressed, but a writer that doesn't pay attention to how something "reads" is, at the very least, playing fast and loose with his message. And what does it say about that message if the writer doesn't care how it's interpreted by his readers?

(You also seem to imply that the difference between indicating a possessive, as in "master's", and a plural, as in "masters", is silly. Using errors in historical documents, even one as noble as the United States' Constitution, as precedent is at least as silly, if not downright Luddite-like: the development of a more sophisticated sensibility for clear communication should be applauded rather than derided, it would seem to me.)
Tuesday October 25th 2011, 6:55 AM
Comment by: Henryk W. (Roedovre Denmark)
Being a computer programmer - and myself, not least - I tend to be a stickler for details in most things language, but what a beautiful article this is :-). It really made me stop and think. And smile.

There is, of course, much going for pointing out how and where punctuation can make one's writing clearer. But, I see the good point of trying to keep one's head cool and not to go overboard with it.

There is just one thing the article may have all but ruined for me now: boy, will I miss wearing my Grammar-Man cape while pounding my fellow human misspellers on their heads with their commas!
Tuesday October 25th 2011, 7:14 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for this. Or should I say "Thank's for this"? :-) The amount of excitement that punctuation and its perceived misuse generates is, to my mind, way out of proportion to the problems this supposedly represents. As Sue B notes, there are certainly times when punctuation can change meaning ... but that's true only for people who already have a very fixed idea of how punctuation is used. Among people who have an unclear notion about the current state of comma rules (or apostrophes) -- and as you point out, those rules change anyway -- the inclusion or exclusion of a comma is going to have considerably less impact that it might among the uber-trained. (Every editor I know has commented on the the idiosyncratic use of commas in legal documents such as contracts.)

The rules are difficult to formulate; the longest section in the Chicago Manual of Style to do with punctuation is about the comma. Similarly, rules for apostrophes come down to memorization, since apostrophe usage for possessives is contradictory between nouns and pronouns. The fact is, most people simply cannot be bothered to master every last detail. Moreover, they have little incentive to try, since in the overwhelming majority of cases, it doesn't really make any difference. They get their point (haha) across.

Where this really gets silly is when punctuation errors are then used as evidence of educational failure, moral laxity, or cultural decline. But at that point the discussion is no longer really about punctuation anyway.
Tuesday October 25th 2011, 7:23 AM
Comment by: John R. (Gibson Island, MD)
John R - I agree the comma is over worked but it is important in communicating thought.
Tuesday October 25th 2011, 7:32 AM
Comment by: Gordon W. (Jonesboro, GA)
Dennis another good article:)

The problem for Sue is that in context "it's" as a possessive does clearly communicate to the intended meaning. If one is writing about the attributes of an automobile and refers to "it's engine" who would take this to mean "it is engine" or "it has engine"? Of course this does irritate the #*&%! out of grammar Nazi's:)
Tuesday October 25th 2011, 7:35 AM
Comment by: Sue B.
Well, I see that Mike P. has handily dismissed my comments as being from one who is "uber-trained", without knowing anything about my "training" level. He, too, addresses the issues by a simple wave of the hand and "oh, why bother?"
Tuesday October 25th 2011, 8:17 AM
Comment by: Kenneth P.
The proper use of punctuation, commas in particular, is best learned in the oral reading class. When I was in lower grades at school, the kids who read straight through in a monotone, until they ran out of breath, were not very apt to hold the attention of the rest of us. Commas, exclamation points, and question marks are the writers way of putting oral expression into the material.

A good story teller puts emotion and inflection into their spiel. A good writer of stories must do that with puntuation.
Tuesday October 25th 2011, 8:51 AM
Comment by: Florence A.
Ah, yes!!! Kenneth P.. I love to use commas when I write...because, that's the way I speak.... with emotion, hesitation, etc,! Thanks for permission to do so, without condemnation.
Tuesday October 25th 2011, 10:30 AM
Comment by: William C. (Carbondale, IL)
Commas in series are, occasionally, more than a mere trifle. If I write, "My dinner guests will be Lisa's parents, John and Mary," how many meals should I plan for? And Gordon, its Bolshevik's like you who make life just a little more unpleasant.
Tuesday October 25th 2011, 10:38 AM
Comment by: Susan C.
Without prescriptivism in grammar, we can all sigh a little sigh of either relief or dispair, depending on your perspective. I used to add in the series (Oxford) comma almost religiously to the work I edited, which was technical content. Now that I work in marketing and communications and have become less prescriptive, I see it as extraneous and remove it. Other commas for clarity, I find, are often missing instead, replaced by a plethora of elipses and dashes or run-on phrases, leaving readers to make their own way through the words.

A well-placed comma is a glorious thing. Funny how adding it in a text message requires so many extra steps; that's what will ensure its ultimate fading in common usage, along with a lot of other punctuation marks. We're living in a stripped-down world, language-wise.

P.S. It's absolutely true, I swear, that I woke up this morning from a dream featuring a Bizarro cartoon about series commas. They were represented by three identical gentlemen in plaid wearing black hats. Unfortunately, I can't remember the punch line!

Do only editors dream about commas?
Tuesday October 25th 2011, 12:03 PM
Comment by: Stephanie S. (Noblesville, IN)
Thanks for giving me permission to let go of comma obsession. It fits nicely with my Paleo (also known as Primal) lifestyle, which also suggests reverting to the habits of our ancestors.

How about the em-dash. That feels like a relatively new and, perhaps, misunderstood punctuation mark. Any history to share on that?
Tuesday October 25th 2011, 1:46 PM
Comment by: Westy (Paris, OH)
"Bacon and eggs" changes from breakfast to a shopping list by the addition of a comma.
Tuesday October 25th 2011, 1:46 PM
Comment by: Dr. Don (Brentwood, CA)Top 10 Commenter
Great article! And I enjoyed reading the comments! I am editor-in-chief of two lifestyle magazines. The proof-reader, our team of copy-editors, and I run into issues like this with every issue.

@Stephanie — the em dash and semicolons are two of the most important tools in my writing for ensuring the smooth and compelling flow of information; my writing would be diminished in their absence.
Tuesday October 25th 2011, 6:30 PM
Why "Here's an SAT-type question for you" and not "Here's a SAT-type question for you"

Should not be "a" and not "an" before a consonant?
Tuesday October 25th 2011, 10:24 PM
Comment by: Kenneth P.
Hector L., it depends on whether you pronounce SAT as a word or if you pronounce the letters. Try it and you will feel the difference. Do most people pronounce the word or do most people spell out the letters? Is one or the other correct? The rule about when to use 'a' and when to use 'an' is not a hard and fast rule.
Tuesday October 25th 2011, 10:24 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Hector: "SAT" is usually pronounced by its initials, as "ess ay tee," so there is in fact a vowel sound at the beginning of it.
Wednesday October 26th 2011, 11:13 AM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
Superb article and great debate. Thank you!
Friday October 28th 2011, 11:31 AM
Comment by: Debra B. (Oakdale, CA)
"Maybe punctuation rose from peripheral reading aid to major indicator of writing success because it's easier to put your finger, or your can of spray paint, on a punctuation error THAN IT IS TO IDENTIFY WHY AN ARGUMENT IS FAULTY or explain why a text is just not very interesting (emphasis added)."
From the k-12 world of education, I think this is the kernel of the problem. I see teachers spending so much class time on mundane rules out of context, and then complaining that they don't have time to really teach writing. Burn the Warners!
Friday October 28th 2011, 4:09 PM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Sue B, let me clarify; I certainly didn't intend to simply dismiss the notion of guidelines for commas. I work at a software company that's staffed by a lot of extremely smart people. But they're not uniformly skilled at writing, and many don't produce text that adheres to our standards for published materials. I read emails every day that include apostrophe errors and that show some dubious understanding of how to use a comma. For example, I read long run-on sentences all the time. Or an issue I see all the time is a sentence with a complex subject separated from the verb by a comma. Like this hypothetical (but realistic) example of something we might get from Facilities:

People who are parked in the Building 12 garage and who will be here after 5:00 pm, must move their cars due to construction.

No fooling: I see this stuff _all the time_.

I've been at the company a long time, where I'm an editor, but I've been obliged to come to two (well, three) conclusions that are counter-intuitive for the editorial mindset:

There is little correlation between a person's intelligence and their mastery of (e.g.) comma rules. People I work with have skills that are far beyond my imaginings and that moreover can be mapped right to the company's bottom line. Against these skills, my better understanding of comma rules seems somewhat puny.

In the flood of emails (etc.) that we get, the number of times that a comma error or apostrophe error has resulted in ambiguity is vanishingly small. (See example above.) In virtually all cases, context is sufficient to clarify the intention. Westy points out above that a comma can change "bacon and eggs" to a list. That's true in the abstract; however, if you go to a restaurant and the whiteboard says "Today's special: Bacon, and eggs", no one is going to mistake that for a list.

My point two-and-a-half is this: my experience is that most people simply don't care. I speak of both writers and readers. If I were to correct emails from the Facilities folks, I think their reaction would not be gratitude, but "Who cares?" Many times I have edited copy where I sorted out punctuation, and the writer does not understand the difference between his version and mine, tho he can see the changes. Fortunately, they're typically willing to accept my corrections, albeit sometimes with a "Whatever!"

In our greater world of communication (documentation), there are many higher and more stubborn barriers to comprehension than a stray or missing comma. As evidence, and altho I am surprised every time I see this, programmers who are not native speakers of English publish blog posts or articles that are rife with fundamental grammatical issues and "interesting" vocabulary choices. Yet the articles are rated high by readers as long as the technical content itself is valuable.

To be clear, I agree fully that well-wielded punctuation is an aid to comprehension, and one of my jobs is to help writers do this. However, I don't think that punctuation mistakes represent a particularly big problem, broadly speaking. In fact, I will maintain that punctuation errors are so small a barrier to comprehension that errors that result in true ambiguity for the intended reader (as opposed to for editors) are remarkable enough to be passed around like heirlooms.

And as Dennis points out in his article, punctuation is in any event something of a moving target. I consider myself reasonably adept in the rules for how to use a comma in a) the year 2011 in b) American English. Were I to be writing for a British (or German) audience, or had I been Melville's editor, I imagine I would have a somewhat different understanding the role of commas in a sentence.

Anyway, whew, went on a bit there. Hope I have clarified sufficiently my POV. Hope I haven't offended anyone along the way.:-)
Friday October 28th 2011, 4:50 PM
Comment by: Kenneth P.
There are standard rules for when, where, and how punctuation and diacritical marks will be effective. Students need to learn these rules and then learn how to incorporate them in their own writing.

Excessive punctuation can be distracting just like the ahs, uhs, you know what I means, etc. in verbal communication. The intended audience and context of material has a great deal to do with style.

We learn to talk by listening to others talk. We learn to write by reading what others have written. Experience helps us develop our audio skills, by observing the reactions of our listeners. Observing the reactions of our readers will teach us better writing skills. Proper grammar and punctuation are important, but being experts in either of those fields will not guarantee success in the everyday real world.
Saturday October 29th 2011, 2:22 AM
Comment by: Sue B.
Mike P., you and I are in complete agreement, and you've presented all these points in a clear and complete fashion. (With excellent punctuation, I might add! :D )

Thanks for your response, and I fully retract my huffiness!
Tuesday November 1st 2011, 6:53 PM
Comment by: OldFox (Smoky Mountains, TN)
I don't know whether you will agree with me or not, but generally "The Times" refers to the Times of London, not the New York Times. The American Spectator is similarly not to be confused with The Spectator of the UK.

Thanks for the article.
Wednesday November 2nd 2011, 1:16 PM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I just ran across this quote today on Mike Swaine's blog, which I thought seemed like it was somehow related to this discussion. :-)

"[T]he good news is that you only have to worry about those two things when you write: am I communicating what I want to communicate, and am I communicating only what I want to communicate? You don’t have to worry about rules of punctuation, spelling, grammar, or usage. It’s not that they aren’t useful, and you ignore them at the risk of impairing your communication. I’m just saying keep them in their place: so far as you as a writer are concerned, those things are just possibly helpful heuristics to help you say what you mean to say, and not say what you don’t mean to say.

Writing is communication. Don’t lose sight of that fact and you’ll be all right."

Wednesday November 2nd 2011, 2:37 PM
Comment by: OldFox (Smoky Mountains, TN)
I wasn't looking for a spanking. I just told the copy editor to "Strike my colon!"
Wednesday November 2nd 2011, 4:31 PM
Comment by: Sue B.
Here's another thought from another sphere of knowledge:

As an application developer, I'm often stumped by problems for which I need the assistance of my peers. Most of the time I submit my problem and the various solutions I've tried to an "expert forum", which means I have to, clearly and completely, convey my question in writing.

The curious thing is that, in the attempt to be precise and clear (i.e., to communicate in widely understood form), I have to re-read my submission to make sure I'm making myself clear. Often, by the time I have not only all the technical information but all the commas in place, I've figured out the solution to my problem.

So, my experience that the attempt to follow conventional communication rules clarifies things not only to my readers, but to my own brain.

Take that to mean what you will.
Wednesday February 15th 2017, 3:16 PM
Comment by: Juwan Parker
Nice article, even though it is a BIT late on my side.
Wednesday February 15th 2017, 3:16 PM
Comment by: Juwan Parker
Late comments do matter right? No? Ok thanks.
Wednesday February 15th 2017, 9:24 PM
Comment by: Kenneth P.
My goodness, how time does fly! And, yes, Juan, late comments matter. It teaches us that what we say or write can live beyond our imaginations.

Teachers and Editors please don't give up. There is hope. Perhaps if our President had learned to communicate beyond twitting, he could express sensible ideas and ambitions.

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