MARK VAN DUSSELDORP
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.”  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. 
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.  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).  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. 
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.  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.”  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.”  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. 
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.”  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.”  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.”  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.”  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–– 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?”  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?
 Amy Einsohn, The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications, 3rd ed. (Berkeley: UCP, 2011), 72.
 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.
 Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. “punctuation”, accessed February 26, 2015, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/483473/punctuation.
 McArthur, Oxford Companion to the English Language.
 Sara van den Berg, “Marking his Place: Ben Jonson’s Punctuation,” Early Modern Literary Studies 1.3 (1995): 1-25.
 Writers like James Joyce and Cormac McCarthy use minimal punctuation, but for very deliberate effects.
 Theodor W. Adorno, “Punctuation Marks,” The Antioch Review 48.3 (1990): 300-305.
 Robert Burton 1577-1640, The Anatomy of Melancholy (New York: NYRB Classics, 2001), 53.
 This type of punctuation, though effective for Burton, should be avoided by the common writer.
 Vladimir Nabokov, Speak Memory (New York: Vintage, 1989), 51.
 Adorno, “Punctuation Marks,” 304.
 Ibid., 300.
 Ibid., 300-301.
 Ibid., 302.
 Emily Dickinson, “288,” Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1976), 133.