In chapter four of The Copyeditor’s Handbook, Amy Einsohn names three common practices of punctuation. Aural punctuation is the first of these, which is used by writers who “hear punctuation, and they use commas, semicolons, and colons to speed or slow the pace and rhythm of their prose.” [1] This method, sometimes called the elocutionary approach, was arguably the initial purpose for punctuation at a time when texts required notation to be performed effectively. For example, the number of pauses delegated to commas, semicolons, colons, and periods dates back to around 1589, when an Elizabethan critic named George Puttenham published a treatise that year called The Arte of English Poesie. Puttenham sought to organize the chaotic use of punctuation, and advise writers when these marks logically apply for coherence and meter. [2]

In the second approach that Einsohn describes, a writer carefully balances punctuation so that sentences, paragraphs, and pages appear orderly and visually appealing. This writer may still use all the available punctuation, but he or she is careful not to overpopulate the page with distracting marks. The third approach is one that abides by style and usage guides for the primary purpose of syntactical and grammatical correctness. All of these practices are often mingled, as Einsohn notes, but historically speaking, they came about in phases, and for particular reasons.

Of course punctuation has not always been a standardized system. Prior to the eighteenth century, when the subject was known as “pointing,” punctuation marks were generally used to indicate appropriate pauses or breaths for the reader, who, more often than not, would be reading the text aloud. [3] The punctuation marks we recognize today––periods, colons, semicolons, and commas––were developed by two Venetian printers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries named Aldus Manutius (grandfather and grandson). [4] Not until printing became common practice, however, did these punctuation marks become a way to clarify the grammar of a text.

Before the seventeenth century, punctuation was more or less erratic, and had little to do with syntax or grammar, which is one reason we sometimes find older texts demanding reads. Writers like Ben Jonson, however, began to advocate for a syntactic regulation of punctuation––that is, a system based on grammatical and syntactical rules. His efforts, which were described in The English Grammar (1640), were influenced by humanist contemporaries on continental Europe. These humanists held that the written word was its own unique language apart from the oral tradition; therefore, a heavily notated manuscript was important for rhetorical, logical, and hermeneutic signposting. [5]

From the Restoration onwards syntactic punctuation was common practice, but grew to be what some might consider heavy or excessive punctuation, especially with commas. It seems to me that learned systems of grammar and syntax, together with the intuitive connection between writing and speech, cause this unsparing use of punctuation. Because we are not entirely aware of when we use punctuation for aural or syntactic purposes, we use both to be safe.

With this in mind, it can become easy to punctuate based on what we think are the hard-and-fast rules; that, or we use only the most basic marks to avoid pretension and admitting bafflement. [6] The Frankfurt School theorist Theodor Adorno states it simply: “The writer is in a permanent predicament when it comes to punctuation marks; if one were fully aware while writing, one would sense the impossibility of ever using a mark of punctuation correctly and would give up writing altogether.” [7] Rules have been developed for good reasons, of course, but I also want to stress that creative and intentional punctuation can add tonal and visual uniqueness to one’s writing. Neither should we be afraid to learn techniques from the early modern and neoclassical writers. Their punctuation may seem archaic and overblown, but it is sometimes used effectively to signal emotion, speed, and contemplation. Consider this sentence by Robert Burton: “’Tis not to be denied, the world alters every day; cities fall, kingdoms are transferred, fashions change, laws are altered, as Petrarch observes, we change language, habits, laws, customs, manners, but not vices, not diseases, not the symptoms of folly and madness, they are still the same.” [8] The punctuation here is rather arbitrary and excessive, but a reader is meant to stumble over this breathless parataxis, cut to pieces by fourteen punctuation marks. It is constructed in a way that we understand the content by way of the form; therefore, we can bypass issues of grammatical structure and explosive punctuation, which are relatively insignificant in this context. [9]

Burton can energize by punctuating profusely, but Nabokov can lull with nothing more than a final period: “An inexperienced heraldist resembles a medieval traveler who brings back from the East the faunal fantasies influenced by the domestic bestiary he possessed all along rather than by the results of direct zoological exploration.” [10] In this case, there is no need for punctuation. Nabokov has his reader by the tongue, pacing his sentence phonologically, with all the sibilant consonants, assonance, and dactylic feet.

All of this is to say that punctuation is much too abstract to trust whole-heartedly––neither can it be ignored. The point is to learn the rules without pedantry, and to break them with practice and discipline. This is what I might call tactful sensitivity.

Adorno writes that “every act of punctuation, as in every such musical cadence, one can tell whether there is an intention or whether it is pure sloppiness.” [11] That being said, it is most often the case that fewer punctuation marks are better than more. When punctuation marks are used sparingly and with confidence, they will carry more meaning, and avoid the risk of performing their task inadequately.

I have mostly discussed the aural significance of punctuation, but the visual aspect should not be snubbed. Punctuation has become an important part of public texts (chemical warning labels, billboards) that exclamation points and quotation marks, for instance, will trigger a sense of warning or suspicion. These marks carry weight simply by the way they look. Quoting Karl Kraus, Adorno asserts the particular strength of a colon: “[it] opens its mouth wide: woe to the writer who does not fill it with something nourishing.” [12] Adorno compares this notion to physiognomy, or the belief that physical features are indicative of one’s character.

Einsohn makes it sound as if the visual punctuator is simply anally retentive in trying to declutter their page. This may be true for some, but not if we view punctuation as a close relative of musical notation, as Adorno did. He writes, “Exclamation points are like silent cymbal clashes, question marks like musical upbeats, colons dominant seventh chords; and only a person who can perceive the different weights of strong and weak phrasings in musical form can really feel the distinction between the comma and the semicolon.” [13] Even those who are unfamiliar with the inner-workings of music, can still categorize punctuation in terms of tonality, dynamics, and phrasing. We might look to music, then, as well as great writing, for instances of effective and ineffective punctuation.

A final thought might as well be a question directed outwards. At a point in Adorno’s essay, he commends the dash for understanding the fragmentary nature of language and thought––[14] a trait which might also be extended to the ellipsis. We do see the the play of the poet’s dash, and embrace the fragmented yearning: “I’m Nobody! Who are you? / Are you––Nobody––Too?” [15] But as academic writers, who are often trying to explain ideas and make firm connections, How do we utilize language and punctuation in a way that addresses the reader’s inquiry, yet maintains an awareness of incompletion?


[1] Amy Einsohn, The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications, 3rd ed. (Berkeley: UCP, 2011), 72.

[2] Tom McArthur, “Punctuation,” in Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language (OUP,1998), http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780192800619.001.0001/acref-9780192800619-e-1005.

[3] Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. “punctuation”, accessed February 26, 2015, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/483473/punctuation.

[4] McArthur, Oxford Companion to the English Language.

[5] Sara van den Berg, “Marking his Place: Ben Jonson’s Punctuation,” Early Modern Literary Studies 1.3 (1995): 1-25.

[6] Writers like James Joyce and Cormac McCarthy use minimal punctuation, but for very deliberate effects.

[7] Theodor W. Adorno, “Punctuation Marks,” The Antioch Review 48.3 (1990): 300-305.

[8] Robert Burton 1577-1640, The Anatomy of Melancholy (New York: NYRB Classics, 2001), 53.

[9] This type of punctuation, though effective for Burton, should be avoided by the common writer.

[10] Vladimir Nabokov, Speak Memory (New York: Vintage, 1989), 51.

[11] Adorno, “Punctuation Marks,” 304.

[12] Ibid., 300.

[13] Ibid., 300-301.

[14] Ibid., 302.

[15] Emily Dickinson, “288,” Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1976), 133.



Add yours →

  1. Mark,
    Your thoughts on punctuation are fascinating, and I particularly enjoyed your claim that “creative and intentional punctuation can add tonal and visual uniqueness to one’s writing.” I often see this creative use of punctuation emphasized in poetry writing courses, where instructors stress not only the importance of every word chosen for the poem but also every punctuation mark. Certainly academic writing encourages a meaningful use of punctuation, but punctuation’s creative capacity is often neglected in that context. Rather than teach punctuation as a prescriptive set of need-to-memorize rules, it might be more helpful for the academic world to present punctuation (and maybe grammar as a whole) as a set of rhetorical tools that can help the writer convey a particular message. I suppose context is important when writers decide which “kind” of punctuation they want to employ (aural, syntactical, etc.), but I think that your post does a great job advocating for the often forgotten possibilities writers have when choosing their punctuation marks.
    An interesting paper topic (albeit an incredibly extensive and long-winded paper topic) would be to analyze a particular author’s use of punctuation in all of his or her writings from a particular century. In light of what you’ve written about concerning each century’s evolving ideas about punctuation, I wonder which authors upheld their era’s punctuation “rules” and which authors detracted from those rules and why….just a thought!
    Thanks Mark!


  2. Your final thought brings up an interesting issue in the field of editing. It is sometimes easy to forget that like our language, our system of punctuation is an amalgamation of multiple approaches, whether it be following a visual, aural, or syntactical system. While in our own writing we have our preferred style and know what we are trying to convey, the editor has the job of deciding whether or not the author intentionally broke conventions for punctuation or if he or she is simply “incorrect.” I don’t devalue writers like McCarthy, Faulkner, or Joyce for their writing techniques, but I imagine being the editor in the position of saying, “This style of punctuation is really confusing,” and the author answering, “I know. That’s the point.” No matter the explanation or argument given for breaking the rules, the next thought is, “How will readers respond?” As much as an editor likes the work and wants it to be accepted in the author’s voice, part of his or her job is making sure that the work can be understood and well-received by readers.

    While I don’t have a good answer to the question you posit regarding this issue, especially since I am thinking mainly of creative writing,I do have some thoughts on how the editing process works to solve this dilemma. One is an editor’s focus on the different approaches, thinking of how the work is perceived visually and aurally (excluding any glaring errors that may be intentional). Taking it further, it may be up to the editor to say, “This is the meaning I am getting from your work. Is this what you meant?” To some extent, I believe editors already do these two things, but I think it is important to highlight the role of the editor as a reader. He or she can say whether or not the work was engaging or made absolutely no sense, with or without an explanation. It also goes to say that if a work requires a lengthy explanation on the punctuation choices for it to make sense, then it seems like the author is just making excuses and the work probably isn’t doing its job. Though working with “unconventional” works involves objectivity and risk, there seems to be a system in place so far that works for editors and allows a variety of works to be published and not just the syntactically punctuated.


  3. Andrea Stewart March 9, 2015 — 9:17 pm

    Having just researched the methodologies and practices behind the development of Microsoft’s Grammar Check, I am fascinated by the point that this post brings up regarding Ben Jonson’s desire to regulate the system of punctuation in writing. I read Sara van den Berg’s article “Marking his Place: Ben Jonson’s Punctuation,” and I noted that in her very first paragraph she suggests that Jonson had an agenda behind introducing regulations to punctuation. She writes that Jonson was “eager to introduce into English the new punctuation marks developed by continental Humanist writers, editors and publishers. Among these were the question mark, the exclamation point, and the double punctus [colon].” According to van den Berg, Jonson desired to introduce this variety of different marks into our repertoire as early as he did so that “punctuation [could signify] the nuances of the human voice at once preserved and suppressed in written language.” This quote reminded me of the fact that while we often treat rules of grammar or punctuation as absolutes, there is always a human origin and a human decision behind the founding of these systems.

    As with the person behind the founding of the Grammar Check system, Jonson’s desire for regulation of punctuation seems to stem from a desire for the creation of a tool that will aid in the creation of clearer writing. Yet, unlike Grammar Check, we seem to be less trusting of this particular tool. Especially in “academic” writing, we seem to be afraid to use all the varieties of punctuation that are at our disposal. As you note, Mark, we “use only the most basic marks to avoid pretension and admitting bafflement” in our writing. As editors, if we find an exclamation point or an question mark, I feel that we often pause and wonder why an author chose to use this mark, instead of the more common period, and feel the inclination to strike such an emotionally laden mark from the page. This tendency for neutrality in academic writing makes me wonder how Jonson would feel if he were to read an academic journal today, and wonder why he fought to introduce a variety of punctuation into writing when we seem to be afraid to use them. I would agree with you, Grace, that the academic world should present punctuation as a set of rhetorical tools, and that each individual “mark” can be taken out of the tool set and be used when appropriate. If a writer wants to question something, why not let them? If an author wishes to show their audience their passion for a subject, I say let them! Overuse is always a danger, but I think underuse of the range of punctuation at a writer’s disposal is a danger as well.


  4. Mark,
    Thank you for sharing your insightful research regarding the history of English punctuation and the different ways in which punctuation can be applied. Beginning as a way of indicating pauses in verbal readings, and through much time and labor, we now have a structured system that allows readers to make some reasonable expectations based on punctuation found in writings.

    The rules around syntactical and grammatical correctness seem so cut and dry. And yet there really seems to be an art that is applied to the rules to produce individual style among writers. It’s almost like each author’s trademark or fingerprint. Some writers choose a closed punctuation style, attempting to help readers note where breathing and special consideration should take place. I appreciated the article found in the New Yorker about punctuation and enjoyed the author’s candid statements about its usage. (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/02/23/holy-writ)

    One of the newsletters I am often asked to proof is written by a fellow who staunchly follows the Associated Press style. Very few commas are employed; anything needing special consideration is set apart using dashes. His preference is to keep punctuation to an absolute minimum in order to offer facts and allow the readers to draw their own conclusions.

    While we have such flexibility in writing style and punctuation, I appreciate the question posed in your concluding paragraph. Academic writers do assume a very knowledgeable tone; and yet, there are so many questions. You have provided so much excellent information in your blog post, I am confident that you will find a suitable answer to your well-posed question.


  5. This is so fascinating!

    You mention that people began to believe that “the written word was its own unique language apart from the oral tradition,” which led them to increasing the systematic nature of punctuation. However, when moving into your description of more poetic language, you develop that theory into “it is sometimes used effectively to signal emotion, speed, and contemplation.” I think that this idea significantly changes our perception of what the written language is. Is it a language unique and apart from oral language? Or, is it a system of symbols and signifiers that attempts to reconstruct the experience of oral language? Although I have a special place in my heart for the correct use of semicolons, commas, colons, etc., I think it’s more accurate to view written language as an attempt to recreate oral language. In that, aural punctuation is a wonderful tool because it can express an author’s sense of rhythm, power, meaning, structure, or chaos. I think, though, there are even further subdivisions underneath the two main divisions of oral and written language. Within written language, we then find creative writing and academic writing, which function in distinctly different ways. Does it matter in academic language to capture the rhythm, power, structure, and chaos of an author’s ideas? I would argue that it does, and even though some standards of punctuation and formality should be retained for reader’s comprehension, academic writing would flourish– both in the academic world and outside of it– if writers were given more flexibility with which to communicate their thoughts.


  6. Selena Efthimiou March 12, 2015 — 10:25 pm

    I thoroughly enjoyed the fact that you chose to write about punctuation. The historical background that you provide seems to clarify some of the questions I had in the past about “why.” However, “some” is the key word when saying that it clarified questions. Your article got me thinking about the same question I had asked in class last week when Bruce Gleason came. I find myself questioning the purpose of “the rules” of punctuation all the time. When we teach specific rules to students it transforms their writing (hopefully for the better). Although we aim to enhance their writing, we are also limiting them to how they want to write. Instead we are conforming to these societal rights and wrongs of writing. It bothers me. Who made these ideas into rules? Why have we decided to keep listening to them? Also, don’t the rules of punctuation limit and change meaning? For example, When editing ESL student writing, or professional writers’ writing (ESL writers), how much do we edit? There are beautiful idiosyncrasies from other languages that convey meaning and thought in a much better way that English allows. And when translating these idiosyncrasies into English, emphasis changes. Furthermore, when editing the idiosyncrasies, the entire meaning can be changed. So why bother? We have a freedom of speech in this country, why can’t we have a freedom of writing? Free from rules, grammar—restrictions.


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