Give comma another chance

An 8th-century text with punctuation, St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 229

Punctuation was made for man, not man for punctuation.

There is no general consensus over how punctuation works. The jury is still out on the Oxford comma; is the semicolon about semantics or aesthetics? And don’t get me started on the suspension points: ellipsis or Hitchcockean tension?

You probably won’t agree with every instance of punctuation in this short blog either.

It’s remarkable and rather unfortunate that something which was designed to be purely functional ended up being such a bother to post-literate users. Punctuation developed as a reading aid, to separate units of script such as words, clauses and paragraphs, to guide and regulate oral reading, and to help identify various parts of speech.

The greatest punctuation achievement in the West was the overcoming of scriptio continua, the practice of writing text as a continuous string without spaces in between words or any other marks of separation. This was the way of ancient Greek and ancient Rome. In the world of the written word, medieval punctuation was like Day 1 of Genesis: light separated from darkness, discrete words breaking out of continuous script.

Punctuation ought to be added to the credit of the medieval West. Nearly all the punctuation marks we have and use today were developed in the period between the decline of Rome and the invention of the printing press. But for many readers and writers today, punctuation feels that someone is indeed going medieval on them. It was not meant to be like this.

Punctuation was advanced writing technology for its developers and early adopters. It allowed readers to parse a paragraph more quickly, since they could make sense of different textual bits with the help of ‘tagging’ devices, such as the virgula suspensiva (a kind of comma used to mark the briefest pause or hesitation in a text), the punctus versus (the ancestor of the semicolon marking the completion of a clause), the punctus interrogativus (the ancestor of the question mark, closer to the ‘inverted’ Spanish ¿ than to the more common  ?) or the positura, marking the end of a section of text.

And we remember the pilcrow ¶, originally called paragraphus, marking the beginning of a paragraph, a section of text or a proposition.

These were incredibly useful writing gimmicks which helped boost the levels of European literacy in the long run. For many today, however, punctuation strictures seem redundant and their advocates look silly. But that is because we’ve allowed punctuation to become a question of mindless purism and we have forgotten the immense functional role it’s always had. Perhaps if we understand that the comma does for writing what string literals do for coding, then we’d give punctuation another chance.

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