Extreme punctuation pedantry

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.

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65 thoughts on “Extreme punctuation pedantry

  1. More pedantry, I’m sure, but you probably mean:

    “Stop—right—now!”

    You were using hyphens, which are surely the wrong choice here.

  2. As I write exclusively in elocutionary style, I can’t help but agree.

    Honestly, has everyone (excepting of course fellow elocutionists) forgotten the semicolon; that paragon of punctuation of speech?

    It seems almost gone from syntactic punctuation; replaced by the serial comma, inappropriate use of parenthetical statements, and the creation of “stub sentences”; with subjects only implied by their relationship to the previous sentence inappropriately and prematurely terminated by a wayward period.

  3. Yes and absolutely.

    Do you speak, write and think exactly the same? I do. Learnt that one early.

    Hazard of moving from Australia to the UK: my writing (and thinking and speech) became more elaborate and digressive. Less short, punchy sentences; more precision at the expense of impact.

    Must. Punch. Home. Make mind viruses. Infect.

  4. @Avi – did you use a Mac in the late ’80s/early ’90s? I’m one of the few DTPers I know to have bothered with getting ligatures right.

  5. Eric, I hadn’t noticed your writing deviating from syntactic punctuation rules enough to give it a second thought.

    Using elocutionary punctuation well is the exception.

    As a rule it’s done poorly by people who use it as an excuse to not learn any rules. The worst offenders are native English speakers who insert a comma for every pause, breath, and effect.

    Sentences, when they are, full, or saturated, with commas, are, hard to read, and comprehend, indeed, almost painfully so.

    I’m half joking there, and I’m guessing that I’m not the only one who cringes at that degree of abuse. Reading that back to myself, I’m not sure if I was doing a Shatner impression or just panting.

  6. >Sentences, when they are, full, or saturated, with commas, are, hard to read, and comprehend, indeed, almost painfully so.

    Indeed. The syntactic school of punctuation seems to have arisen as a reaction against excessive use of elocutionary punctuation in early modern English.

  7. it makes perfect sense to me. Written western languages are meant to encode sounds, not ideas, so punctuation truly should encode how one speaks.

  8. The grammarians of the English Renaissance, the lexicographers of the Augustan age, and the schoolmarms of the nineteenth century, together really fucked up the language. Most of the “rules” they teach today are not, in fact, rules–they’re just ex post attempts to impose an artificial structure on natural usage. Take, for example, the attempt to stamp out double negatives. Hell, I’ve found quadruple negatives in Chaucer. And double negatives are commonly used for emphasis in French and Russian, among other languages. And it’s funny how so many “substandard” usages, like “ain’t” for “am not” and “don’t” as a contraction of “does not,” seem to appear uniformly in English dialects from Yorkshire to Kentucky.

  9. Double negatives are used by snobby intellectual elitists as well — the “not unlike” construction excoriated by Orwell and parodied by Adams being the most salient example I can think of.

  10. The “intellectual” usage is at least true double negation and logically consistent. I’m totally with the ramrod-up-the-ass prescriptive grammarians on this one, perhaps because I used to be a mathematician: ~~T == T.

  11. I had one editor who would violate strict grammar rules in favor of phrasing and punctuation that was more readable. She was a breeze to work with. And I’m pretty much a grammar snob. But when you want people to understand what you are talking about, sometimes breaking the rules makes sense. (Especially about not having prepositions at the end of a sentence…)

  12. >(Especially about not having prepositions at the end of a sentence…)

    That one fails my functionalism test. And it’s not even native – like the equally silly rule against splitting infinitives, it’s an imposition from Latin grammar on Engiish.

  13. > has everyone (excepting of course fellow elocutionists) forgotten the semicolon;

    As far as non-literary writing goes, the semicolon is dead. All the functions of the semicolon have been absorbed into other constructs, particularly the comma. This is may not true in a purely literary form such as poetry, however, in the technical, practical and business realm the semicolon is not only dead, it is also considered a little pretentious.

    One place where the semicolon has been replaced in an interesting way is in its function as a list separator. The comma now serves in that role. However, it is also worth pointing out another punctuator that has commonly replaced the semicolon separated list: the bullet point list.

    Lament its loss if you will, rage against the follies of our Language Arts teachers, weep for the decline of reading in our children. Nonetheless, the semicolon is deceased, pushing up the daisies, shuffled off its mortal coil, pining for the fjords, joined the choir invisible. It is an ex-punctuator.

  14. I agree about split infinitives. The Latin argument is compelling. As to an audible pause-oriented punctuation, I’ve always found a minimalistic approach more suitable. Pauses seem misleading. Use punctuation when it adds clarity to grammar; avoid punctuation otherwise. On this principle, ellipses would indicate an omission only, not a pause.

  15. Regarding the exaggerated demise of the semicolon I must respectfully disagree. I use it whenever I am chaining together two related sentences that are separate enough to need more than a comma, but not so much that they need a period. Call me pretentious if you must, but I maintain that the semicolon is still of use.

  16. >Call me pretentious if you must, but I maintain that the semicolon is still of use.

    Of course it is, man. Chris Byrne’s argument was for the noble semicolon, not against – and I agreed with every syllable of it.

    Er…OK, somehow I missed JessicaBoxer’s comment. Nay, I say, nay…and the evidence that the semicolon is not dead is that I habitually use it in the classically quasi-conjunctive way without cavil from editors. Even the indifferently-skilled ones have never attempted semicolonectomy on me.

  17. Of course there’s a correspondence between the way a sentence is punctuated and the way it sounds in your head when you read it. That’s why so many people on the internet sound like mental defectives or deranged lunatics. Real example:

    > My bestfriend in the whole entire world just called me and had told
    me she thinks that she is a witch!!!!!!!! i was holdin back my tears
    cus i dont wont to hear this from her. i mean i am a christian!!!! i
    dont even believe in witches nor ghost! i dont wont to stop bein her
    friend but it looks like i am gonna hav to. [...]
    that person to me is gone!!!!!!!!!! i was tryin to find some1 to talk
    to bout this but that person is who this is bout so im writin on hur.
    plz just help me. her bday is comin up and she wants to do a witch
    theme. i am not even goin to think bout goin not cus its my parents
    decision becus its mine.

    Now, reading this, doesn’t it sound like it’s being spoken by someone with a minor speech impediment and an alarmingly unhinged demeanor? The subject matter doesn’t help either, but I’m talking purely about the writing style. Such things just *sound* wrong. And the weird part is that this person probably had to learn proper punctuation (and so forth) for school, but never made the connection between how something is written and how it sounds.

    I suspect that this mental disconnect is at the heart of most people’s problems with the technical aspects of English. Have you ever looked at the English section on the SAT, where it asks you to say which of the four sentences is punctuated correctly? In almost all cases, three of the four sentences make absolutely no sense if you make the connection between punctuation and how the sentence is spoken. If I spoke the incorrect sentences aloud the way they’re written, any native English speaker would say “Wow, what’s up with that wackity-ass sentence? That’s obviously wrong.”. Those tests are designed to catch the most common punctuation mistakes; if it’s possible to ace this part of the test merely by reading punctuation as pronunciation instructions — and believe me, it’s possible — then I’m forced to conclude that most people simply don’t understand that punctuation has anything to do with inflection and cadence. They see it only as decorations that get placed according to complicated rules. Elocutionary use of punctuation is simply lost on them, just as a blind man doesn’t see facial expressions.

    Is there really such a profound disconnect? Does this truly explain most sucky internet writing? Or am I taking this too far?

  18. > my Wesnoth informants tell me there is no analog of it in German or Russian

    Your Wesnoth informants are wrong about Russian. There *is* an analog, it is called “авторская пунктуация”.

  19. >I suspect that this mental disconnect is at the heart of most people’s problems with the technical aspects of English.

    Sounds like you have hold of an interesting theory, maybe, but I’m not sure what your actual interpretation of that excerpt is. Are you suggesting that the author generates two rather distinct variants of English in her mind, that the above is a screen dump of the “spoken” variant, and that she fails to grasp the connection between spoken and written English? Because, I have to tell you, I’m willing to bet that the author actually sounds exactly like that in speech…

  20. >Your Wesnoth informants are wrong about Russian. There *is* an analog, it is called “авторская пунктуация”.

    Interesting. Is there an English translation of that phrase that would convey any information?

  21. If the semicolon is dead, I’ve never noticed. Practically every sentence I write has a semicolon, and I sometimes find myself wishing I could put two in the same sentence. (I’ve been told by at least one professional editor that I can, but it seems wrong to me.) And yet somehow, as if to mock me, this comment seems to want nothing to do with semicolons!

  22. >(I’ve been told by at least one professional editor that I can [use more than one semi in a sentence], but it seems wrong to me.)

    Likewise. I wouldn’t do this unless I were emulating or parodying mid-Victorian writing.

  23. “авторская пунктуация” should mean “author’s punctuation” (it is read something like “autorskaia punctuatsiia”; that double “i” , specific for Slavic languages :) ) . That is, punctuation as the author used it, even if departs from generally accepted punctuation rules. As a collateral example: one writer spelled his name “Alecsandri” even if normally it should be “Alexandri”; so his spelling has remained in use in literary history.
    Maybe this helps.

  24. >That is, punctuation as the author used it, even if departs from generally accepted punctuation rules

    That sounds more like the copy-editing mark “stet” (“let it stand”) in English than like systematic elocutionary punctuation.

  25. Does this mean that you would punctuate a question that, for whatever reason, doesn’t have rising tone without a question mark?

  26. >Does this mean that you would punctuate a question that, for whatever reason, doesn’t have rising tone without a question mark?

    I would seriously consider it. But if I thought suppressing the normal question mark might confuse readers about the semantics of the utterance, I would leave it in even though it didn’t represent rising intonation. Precision and clarity are the overriding Rule Zero.

    Or, to put it another way: any rule of usage, whether formulated by self or others, should be broken if it interferes with clarity and precision – this is an actual duty of the writer, overriding all other rules without exception.

  27. > Interesting. Is there an English translation of that phrase that would convey any information?

    “Author’s punctuation”

  28. > That sounds more like the copy-editing mark “stet”

    Russian term has two meanings: one is copy-editing, and the other is exactly what you call “elocutionary punctuation”.

  29. I am also an elocutionary writer. I learned to diagram sentences to pass 8th grade composition, and promptly forgot it by 9th grade, when I could just write and get As.

    I also write internet marketing copy for extra income – this is writing aimed at search engine spiders, not people.

    There are a number of rules:

    1) Keyword density (whatever ad word you’re trying to index to) has to be between 2-3% of the article.
    2) Articles should be about 500 words long or longer.
    3) The client usually does not care if the article is written well, they care that it boosts page ranks on a web site that they’ll sell to someone else (with a ‘pre built’ page rank).
    4) Articles are written on whatever fad is ‘hot’ at the moment. Or some MLM marketing scheme. Any kind of ‘self help’ treacle that Oprah gushes about will be in my work queue about three days after it airs.
    5) It pays at a penny to a penny and a half per word.

    Which lead to the following joke amongst myself and my employer:

    “Good writing focuses on clarity.”

    Or, as the Internet would say it:

    “As everyone surely knows, the primary defining quality of top flight excellent writing is the essence of essential clarity, which should be the ultimate primary focus of the attention of the person aspiring to be a writer as their chosen profession.”

    For Internet page ranking purposes, the second sentence is better than the first. It’s longer (therefore, to web spiders, more relevant) and has more words with more syllables, meaning the writer has more credibility.

    And it’s one concept for a paragraph that takes up 41 words (out of 500) rather than 5. Thus, you’ve come closer to finishing this article so it can be turned in and forgotten.

    While I’m glad to have a steadily paying gig that lets me go to conventions without prior notice…this is still the writing equivalent of scrubbing vomit off the floor. It isn’t even up to flipping burgers level.

    Fortunately, game sales are slowly rising and I’ll be able to shift my focus to making products for my company rather than web drivel mining. (Also, I’ve talked my employer into creating different pay rates for different levels of quality of writing We’ll see if some of my clients are willing to pay 3 cents a word for something that’s been copy edited.)

  30. >I am also an elocutionary writer. I learned to diagram sentences to pass 8th grade composition, and promptly forgot it by 9th grade, when I could just write and get As.

    I didn’t make it explicit in the original post, but I have observed that the probability that a person writes in this style rises with their skill level.

  31. It seems to me that the fundamental argument here is about whether English is primarily a written or verbal language… I feel a bit of a bias for written on first impulse but on reflection it doesn’t seem the stronger position, and my style probably includes elocutionary elements sneaking back in past my training.

    It’s interesting to contrast ASL, which as far as I understand is basically impossible to transcribe without massive data loss…

  32. I’m not enough of a professional writer to know whether I’m truly elocutionary. (I write as I read.) It sounds as if I bear many elocutionary elements, however. I remember seeing violations of the punctuation (and spelling) rules I’d been taught in English classes before, and concluding that you could break nearly any of these rules in the name of dialogue. Consider the speech of the runaway slave Jim in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – you’d get a drastically different sense of the man had Twain followed the rules.

    I may be biased now as a result. I cannot think of an example offhand of writing that violates strict grammar, that does not also attempt to portray a Character – someone stodgy, or afflicted, or childlike, or tired. It’s as if elocutionary style is to be regarded as a blemish on perfection; benign, maybe, but a blemish nevertheless.

  33. Before I started my career as a system administrator, I was a professional editor of science and math journals, non-fiction trade books, and reference works. I can say from experience, ESR, that you are a rare case. Most authors claiming to use the elocutionary method are just covering for the fact that they punctuate randomly. When presented with a manuscript like this, editors are trained to apply the house style book. House style is necessarily one based on the syntactic method, which is very useful in these messy cases.

    I suspect that your copyeditors rejoice when they receive your manuscripts. It is a rare treat to get a “clean” manuscript, especially in the world of technical and academic writing. The punctuation in your essays is functional and consistent. (Copyeditors are trained to seek consistency.)

    The discussion here has led me to wonder about how the elocutionary punctuation method affects the reader’s sense of an author’s voice in general. I realize I’m not capable of making a judgment about this in your case. I’ve heard you speak in public many times, and I’ve met you briefly. I just now noticed that when I read your writing, I hear your voice in my head–including your rhythm, cadence, and volume control. It’s rare to find such a strong match between a written and spoken style.

    I’m curious. For the readers here who have not heard ESR speak, do you imagine him speaking to you when you read him, or do you see him writing?

  34. Eric’s writing has fewer digressions than his conversations in person, in large part because there’s nobody throwing verbal shiny objects at him to distract.

    A friend of mine has a problem with written communication; he writes EXACTLY as he speaks. Unfortunately, his writing does not convey “understated wry humor” until you’ve actually met him in person. Until then, he sounds like an arrogant ass. (And, when he gets deep into writing, he writes Intel Officer Data Dumpese…)

  35. >I suspect that your copyeditors rejoice when they receive your manuscripts. It is a rare treat to get a “clean” manuscript, especially in the world of technical and academic writing.

    I know both these things to be true. Personally, I have too much pride to turn in sloppy copy, and have never ever done it.

    >I just now noticed that when I read your writing, I hear your voice in my head–including your rhythm, cadence, and volume control.

    That is the intended effect. Again, consider Kipling and Runyan – you don’t recieve their characters’ dialog as words on a page, you hear it. This is not the only kind of good writing there is, but it’s an important kind, especially for the sort of hortatory essays I tend to write. I didn’t end up on the NYT bestseller lists by accident.

    (Well, the level of writing skill that got me there wasn’t an accident, it was a tool I’d been sharpening for 25 years. Other things about my attainment of absurd fame were indeed quite accidental and I still shake my head bemusedly when I think of them.)

  36. As far as non-literary writing goes, the semicolon is dead. All the functions of the semicolon have been absorbed into other constructs, particularly the comma. This is may not true in a purely literary form such as poetry, however, in the technical, practical and business realm the semicolon is not only dead, it is also considered a little pretentious.

    I’m with Eric; that is arrant nonsense. The semicolon has at least two salient uses, one of which I just gave an example for: namely, separating the clauses of a compound sentence without use of a conjunction. The other use is as a second-order list separator used when one or more of the list phrases contains a comma, e.g.: “While at the pet store I looked at a big, shaggy dog; a litter of black, white, and gray kittens; and all manner of tropical fish.” Ambiguity in such contexts arises frequently enough that a second-order separator becomes useful, much like brackets and parentheses in mathematical notation.

    One place where the semicolon has been replaced in an interesting way is in its function as a list separator. The comma now serves in that role. However, it is also worth pointing out another punctuator that has commonly replaced the semicolon separated list: the bullet point list.

    When PowerPoint starts shaping literary style our culture has well and truly hit bottom and started digging. (I’ve used bullet point lists in text before; I should really stop. It’s a lazy man’s route to clarity.)

  37. Is there really such a profound disconnect? Does this truly explain most sucky internet writing? Or am I taking this too far?

    Peter, I’m of the strong opinion that you are correct. I’ve met people who can be engaged in delightful verbal conversations but when they email, they write like an insane monkey hopped up on speed and given a T-Mobile Sidekick.

    I’ve noticed a gender-based pattern to this behavior too: men tend to cluster around the middle, whereas women tend to cluster around the extremes. A great many of the women I know are either meticulous about their written voice, or else fall in the “insane monkey” end of the spectrum. Male writing patterns tend to favor more well-formed sentences, with only casual regard for proper punctuation, spelling, and capitalization.

    Of course that’s probably a heavily selection-biased sample: outside my cohort of people I correspond with, the internet could probably produce many, many counterexamples to the above.

  38. “Is there really such a profound disconnect?”

    I think in these cases the reason is simply typing speed. If you think fast and type slow, either it will be very boring, or you’ll just stick to the essential tokens.

    However, for some other kind of errors, such as “must of” instead of “must have”, I think that means the person mumbles instead of speaking in verbal conversations too.

    “men tend to cluster around the middle, whereas women tend to cluster around the extremes” – interesting, as for those exercise whose main requirement is patience and meticulousness, usually it’s the other way around (think cooking or accounting).

  39. > Nay, I say, nay…and the evidence that the semicolon is not dead is that I habitually use it in the classically quasi-conjunctive way without cavil from editors. Even the indifferently-skilled ones have never attempted semicolonectomy on me.

    I perform them frequently on myself. I have a bad habit of overusing semicolons: in my rough drafts, they appear in about every third sentence. Most of the revision I do between rough and final copy typcially consists of breaking overlong sentences into simpler, clearer ones. Analogously, revising my code consists mostly of breaking up long expressions and putting intermediate results into well-named variables.

  40. > [regarding the demise of the semicolon] I’m with Eric; that is arrant nonsense.

    It comes down to the most basic question of grammar: is grammar a definition of what is right, or is it is description of what people actually use? No doubt the answer is in between the two (unless you are French.) The point I was making is that for the most part people simply do not use the semicolon in business writing anymore. And, in my experience, people tend to view it as pretentious. In many respects it is similar to the impersonal pronoun or expressions like “courts martial” or “letters patent”: correct, occasionally appropriate, but a little otherworldly.

    > When PowerPoint starts shaping literary style our culture has
    > well and truly hit bottom and started digging. (I’ve used bullet
    > point lists in text before; I should really stop.

    Who said Powerpoint? Bullets have been used in technical and business writting for a long time. I think it is interesting to consider the grammar of these elements of of writing for the same reason that the grammar of the sentence and paragraph is interesting. However, I think that in many respects they have not yet settled from the nuclear explosion of MacWrite yet. That is to say, the usage is not sufficiently settled to describe their grammar with sufficiently broad coverage yet. (Exceptions being the style guidelines used by many journal publishers.)

    And what do you have against PowerPoint? That 90% of the presentations are bad? If so, I’d refer you to Theodore Sturgeon. I don’t think English writing ossified with Shakespeare. I think that the changes in English over the computer age are very refreshing and beneficial. Electronic documents have improved English, even if not every change is good.

    > It’s a lazy man’s route to clarity.)

    What is wrong with producing clarity in a lazy way? Is clarity more clear when stained with sweat?

  41. “For the readers here who have not heard ESR speak, do you imagine him speaking to you when you read him, or do you see him writing?”

    I hear a voice, but the one imagined is very different to what I actually heard when I found some interviews with ESR on YouTube. The imagined voice is much slower, with clearer pronounciation, and, most importantly, uses way more emphasis by stressing syllables and by short stops than ESR actually does in these interviews. The imagined voice is a “Now. Let’s-make this ab-so-lute-ly-clear” voice. In short, the imagined voice is that of a teacher during teaching, while ESR’s voice in these interviews is rather casual and conversational.

  42. I generally punctuate so as to satisfy the syntactic and elocutionary criteria simultaneously. As a third (or maybe second-and-a-half) level, I try to choose punctuation that implies a spoken cadence that would make the syntactic structure clear when the sentence is spoken aloud.

    I also suspect that shifts in scansion patterns may play a part in marking syntactic structure.

  43. >I generally punctuate so as to satisfy the syntactic and elocutionary criteria simultaneously.

    Not so difficult, since most speech pauses are structure markers of some sort. Elocutionary punctuationists don’t live to ignore grammatical structure, we just refuse to let structure-driven rules interfere with the use of punctuation to express information that is not overtly structural.

  44. Anything which makes reading easier, like the use of paragraphs and punctuation, have got to be good – whether used in a traditional grammatical sense or in a style that reflects and highlights patterns of speech. One cannot become excessively technical when writing in an informal context. In formal writing, I guess the rules have to be stricter to maintain consistency and style (avoiding usage of direct speech for instance).

    In any context I cannot stand it when I am faced with a blob of text which has neither proper punctuation nor logical paragraph breaks for easy scanning. Language has to be inherently beautiful visually to be scanned effortlessly while reading. The beauty comes from all aspects of written language: the proper usage of paragraphs, adequate but not excessive spacing, logical and consistent good punctuation or even handwriting or choice of script and font face.

    I like to follow rules of grammar when possible, but most often I just follow what comes naturally when writing. One of the things I try to avoid is the excessive use of commas which can be distracting. Commas, when used properly, add clarity. But a misplaced comma can drastically alter the meaning of a sentence.

  45. Very interesting. I’ve never given much regard to grammar rules, but I guess I’m an instinctive elocutionist. Is it possible for an elocutionist to borrow from a syntactist? If you need to use punctuation in the syntactical manner, can you do it? I would imagine that the elucutionist is more of a hacker, who borrows things according to his needs in the situation.

  46. Prior to this discussion, I had never heard of this “elocutionary” style of punctuation. I guess&emwell, I guess I must be instinctively elocutionary, since I’ve always written that way. ;)

  47. whoops. All that discussion on semicolons made me forget one! Should have been “I guess—well”

  48. eric: >(That, my friends, is real professionalism.)

    agreed. utterly.

    >elocutionary punctuationists will cheerfully countenance written utterances that a grammarian would consider technically ill-formed. Here’s an example: “Stop – right – now!”

    over and above the godawful pseudogrammar arising from most self-styled “grammarians” (nonsplitting of “infinitives”, “which vs that” via Fowler’s excrescences, etc):

    eric, you have precisely described the essence of all-but-recent printed english. ~all pre-20thC english writings essentially follow and/or underline your approach. only as printing exploded commercially did the virtueparasite/posturing contingent become materially important, as they flocked to the new opportunity.

    in similar vein, you may find the following article related in essence, since punctuation (physical representation of words’ close relationships) is closely related to typesetting (physical representation of words’ (all) relationships), if for no other reason than typesetters’ personal choices often determine the physical outcome and it’s interesting to see why those choices have evolved over time (and very rapidly after the innovation of DTP).
    in particular, you may find it interesting that the re-revolution in digital typesetting created by Donald Knuth was in deliberate and vehement reaction to (then and now again) modern “unreadability” (his word), and he deliberately regressed in TeX to the standards of the 14th and 16th-thru-early20th centuries in order to improve readability:

    French Spacing

    stick with it. it starts broad, then accelerates, and then crashes into the current digital circs. in particular, the vehement rejection (“the only book i’ve thrown across the room”) by modern graphic designers/typographers of the empirical re-validation of centuries-old typography is somewhere between infuriating and hilarious. note that modern typography was essentially recreated with false moral values by the University of Chicago in the early-to-mid 90s, essentially declaring as Morris did a century earlier that the Designer was More Important than the Reader.

    it’s worth noting again that Knuth rejected the soi-disant modern “unreadable”[sic] designer-centric typesetting of the 15th century, in favour of 500+ years weight in favour of reader-centric typesetting.
    and worth noting that his efforts have been effectively eliminated by the University of Chicago in the last decade.

    and yet, we now all read, due to these same morris-worshipping twits, the same clagged crap that the 15th century struggled through.

    anyone who’s zipped effortlessly through a book printed in the 1800s set in 6point type (seriously), yet previously plowed through (or failed out), with headaches or gathering befuddlement, the same book reprinted 100 years later in 10point and “modern” 15thC typesetting, will suddenly realise why.

  49. note that “French Spacing” is an artificial U.Chicago fiction.

    the correct term (and traditional) for their own description is:

    “English Spacing”

  50. [i DO wish eric's (hi) blog backbone had an Edit function for comments (subject to moderation)]
    [tweak to above (after dinner and closer inspection):]
    eg of the overlap:
    “Microsoft appears to have introduced a further terminological variation by labelling some aspects of French spacing as French Punctuation”

  51. The semicolon is dead; as far as non-literary writing goes. Say it ain’t so!

    It’s a shame many writers don’t dare use punctuation more exotic than the simple stop, because vigorous and lucid writing requires a certain confidence; the confidence to risk angering the grammarians, and get your point across. Please read H.W. Fowler’s The King’s English, you can find it (in its entirety) at http://www.bartleby.com/116/ I never “got” punctuation, nor did I dare write any but the most short, choppy, uncomplicated sentences before I read his book: it fundamentally changed my writing. I burned my copy of Strunk and White.

    Between Fowler, and Williams’ The Mac is Not a Typewriter… I have all the grammar and style references I need.

  52. > The “intellectual” usage is at least true double negation and logically consistent.
    > I’m totally with the ramrod-up-the-ass prescriptive grammarians on this one,
    > perhaps because I used to be a mathematician: ~~T == T.

    Language may not exactly follow logical algebra.
    Not unattractive subtly, but usefully, differs from attractive.

  53. The French have the Irony Mark. UNFAIR.

    We need more punctuation… new and improved punctuation; a revival of the serial comma; and a more universal understanding of the differences between the em-dash, the en-dash, and the dash. Sources inform me that there exists in development (beta?) a lovely thing called the Interrobang. The name only *sounds* naughty…. It consists of a question mark superimposed on an exclamation point. I could see this thingie easily replacing the exclamation point, for I have grown weary of its overuse in IRC; the term “exclamation point” is just too long; and I never use it without a question mark anymore. (The exclamation point should be renamed, after which its use should be reserved for writing the language of the Bushmen or the Hottentots–whoever it is with the language consisting of clicks and guttural sounds.) I would also like to see the finer points of the ellipsis drilled into schoolchildren’s heads (FOUR dots at the END of the sentence, THREE dots in the middle). It would also be nice if we could come up with the Snort Mark, the Pfft Mark (or Bollocks Mark, if you will), and the AFK2P Mark. Oh, and there were a couple that Dave Barry talked about in a newspaper column 379083 years ago: the Semicolonel and the Probation Mark. We NEED these. In our language we lack the gender and most of the cases of other languages (except the genitive, aka “apostrophe-s”). I think speakers of these other languages question our sanity because of our attempts to further gender-neutralize English (e.g., person-hole-cover) when there’s no gender in English to begin with…. Indeed, we could add SO much by sprinkling some bizarre newfangled punctuation throughout everything, especially when you take into consideration that the French just removed all their diacritical marks, yet kept their Irony Mark.

    I would still probably end up e.e. cummingsing my way out of using most of it. But it’s the thought that counts.

    For the record, the double negative in its incorrect usage goes like this: We don’t need no steenkin’ badgers. (Translation: We DO need steenkin’ badgers. Badgers? Oh hell, I’ll leave that error in; it amuses me.) Chaucer and Douglas Adams (now there’s two authors’ names I’ve never seen together) were using their negatives correctly; mathematically, they cancel each other out and the sentences come out positive–which was, of course, their intent. It’s actually correct, but just a bit curly for my taste.

  54. Saltation: and worth noting that [Knuth's] efforts have been effectively eliminated by the University of Chicago in the last decade.

    Wait, how? Where? When? Did usage of TeX rise to a particular height and then recede due to something I’m unaware of?

  55. re my original point: pick up any book or newspaper around you. :(

    BUT you may have misread what i wrote. i was not talking about tex’s community’s current health, but rather about knuth’s Purpose in creating tex. i did not say that tex’s usagenesses(es) was receding, but that the key purpose of tex’s creation by knuth has been steamrollered.
    tex can be used to create almost any typeset output. including modern standard. but note that knuth WROTE it in order to re-enable traditional typesetting/typoography. ie reader-centric rather than designer-peers–centric. (have a read thru that linked wikipedia article for the full story, including rather scathing comments by mr donald.)
    despite that, we still are subjected to anti-reader typesetting.

    to be clear: my point was re typesetting rather than tex.

    what we currently regard as normal is what was noted in the 19th century to have been resoundingly rejected in the 15th century as “unreadable”

  56. Jessica Boxer,

    In reading your posting, I KNOW I have spoken with you before, from POF, and would like to follow up with you. Enjoyed our worldly discussion in the past and would like to expand upon it, with you. The last one was too short! Unfortunately, we have been out of touch from each other. You have my e-mail addresses and Yahoo IM link. PLEASE get in touch!! I would greatly appreciate it!

    Thanks! John

  57. And what do you have against PowerPoint? That 90% of the presentations are bad? If so, I’d refer you to Theodore Sturgeon.

    As Edward Tufte has written, PowerPoint intrinsically makes it difficult to achieve clarity. PowerPoint has the lowest information density of any medium, and unlike any other visual medium, PowerPoint slides contain less information even than speech. Thus, one cannot fit complete sentences onto slides, but only abbreviated bullet points, so that the expression of relationships suffers. It is only possible to fit about twenty-five numbers on a PowerPoint slide, versus hundreds on a sheet of paper. Furthermore, PowerPoint encourages deeply nested bullet hierarchy, and splits information up between slides, rather than making it visible all at once, preventing comparisons from being made.

    This is before we even get to the accidental failings of PowerPoint, such as an atrocious typographic layout engine, apparently distinct from and somehow even worse than the one in Microsoft Word.

    The best use of PowerPoint I have seen is as a chorus: slides rapidly flash illustrations and key phrases as the speaker unpausingly speaks. Lawrence Lessig and Aaron Swartz both do this, and it works well. However, they are not using PowerPoint as it was intended. PowerPoint will destroy any orator who doesn’t fight against its intrinsic style.

  58. All these months later, I’ve stumbled over this discussion … and had an “Ah ha moment”. I think I’m an elocutionary punctuationalist (is that a word) – and that this instinctive bent of mine clashes horribly with my work. For good or for ill, I’m an English Teacher in Australia (I’m ignoring the cynics who says that as we don’t even speak the language here, we should not attempt to teach it).

    To me, it seems simpler to teach students elocutionary punctuation, despite the rules that abound in the text books. Student writing is ‘free form’ to say the least – and they’re exposed to so many new text forms that break all the rules, all the time. To teach anything based on a set of rules, rather than functionality, seems a doomed enterprise.

    I’m trying to make punctuation ‘sexy’ for the kids. I’ve even included emoticons as a new form of punctuation (acceptable in very limited contexts) because they convey meaning.

    Any thoughts?

  59. I wish I could go back and have all of my English teachers from 1st to 12th grade read this. I have always had great pride in my command of the English language, especially in a world where a conversation is reduced to “lol thx” and the like. Regardless, I always received poor grades in English for not following the standard conventions. When I would write a paper, I would write in such a way that the reader could easily understand the way in which I speak. I’m glad someone else shares my views on the English language.

  60. The semicolon dead ?(bollocks mark, snort) No way. (Though I notice that a few of yall who use it, use it wrongly.) No, if a clause is clear, it is easy to read; and if a clause is easy to read there is no reason why it shouldn’t be followed by another – provided it too is easy to read – from which it proceeds and its relation to which is better indicated than effaced by making it a separate sentence.

  61. Pingback: Elocutionary Punctuation « az•el•frath

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