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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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