Most people don’t know that there are two different philosophical camps that differ about how to do correct punctuation in English. This has been on my mind lately because of some questions I have been asked by non-native speakers on the Battle for Wesnoth development list, where I am the resident English pedant.
The rules we’re taught in school are the syntactic ones; in these, punctuation is a part of the grammar of written English and the rules for where you put it are derived from grammatical phrase structure and pretty strict. Lynne Truss of Eats, Shoots & Leaves fame is an exponent of this school. But there is another…
Punctuation marks originated from notations used to mark pauses for breath in oral recitations, but 17-to-19th-century grammarians tied them ever more tightly to grammar. There remains a minority position that language pedants call “elocutionary” – that punctuation is properly viewed as markers of speech cadence and intonation. Top-flight copy editors know this: the best one I ever worked with was a syntactic punctuationist on her own hook who noted that I’m an elocutionary punctuationist and then copy-edited in my preferred style rather than hers. (That, my friends, is real professionalism.)
And why am I an elocutionary punctuationist? Because I pay careful attention to speech rhythm and try to convey it in my prose. Not all skilled writers do this, but elocutionary punctuation survives in English because it keeps getting rediscovered for stylistic reasons. Consider Rudyard Kipling or Damon Runyon – two masters of conveying the cadences of spoken English in written form; both used elocutionary punctuation, though perhaps not as a conscious choice.
To an elocutionary punctuationist, the common marks represent speech pauses of increasing length in roughly this order: comma, semicolon, colon, dash, ellipsis, period. Parentheses suggest a vocal aside at lower volume; exclamation point is a volume/emphasis indicator, and question mark means rising tone.
In normal usage, most of the differences between the schools show up in comma placement. But in less usual circumstances, elocutionary punctuationists will cheerfully countenance written utterances that a grammarian would consider technically ill-formed. Here’s an example: “Stop – right – now!” The dashes don’t correspond to phrase boundaries, they’re purely vocal pause markers.
I haven’t written this mini-rant to argue that syntactic punctuation is wrong and should be abolished, but I do think more writers and editors should be aware that the elocutionary style exists, has a sound historical pedigree, and remains a valid choice, at least in English (my Wesnoth informants tell me there is no analog of it in German or Russian). Personally, I think it is more supple and expressive than the syntactic style.