I hate punctuation

September 15, 2006

That’s it, basically. I just don’t like it and I don’t see the point of a lot of it. Whether it’s tadpole-shaped commas, pretentious apostrophes, intensely irritating exclamation marks, anatomy-evoking colons, squiggly question marks, indecisive semi-colons or the authoritarian full stop that I can’t see on my screen anyway.
What is the point of a question mark when it’s perfectly obvious that the sentence is a question? Or an exclamation mark when it’s blindingly clear that it’s emphatic or exclamatory? Most of the time I interpret this wretched device as pleading with the reader to find excitement in what is actually mind-numbingly boring. Most punctuation is either telling a reader what he knows already or what the writer can’t be bothered to find the words to express. The Spanish, in fact, take this to extraordinary lengths by insisting on upside down question and exclamation marks as well as the normal one. (Note that I resisted the temptation to put an exclamation mark at the end of that sentence).
There’s a spirited defence of punctuation as well as criticism of its misuse by Paul Robinson (who as far as I know has never kept goal for England) called ‘The Philosophy of Punctuation‘.
“Punctuation” he says “has the primary responsibility of contributing to the plainness of one’s meaning. It has the secondary responsibility of being as invisible as possible, of not calling attention to itself.” A lot of punctuation, to my mind, has lost this second sense of responsibility and instead is shouting ‘here I am and aren’t I clever.’ I would prefer to use punctuation only when I couldn’t otherwise make myself plain. One of Robinson’s points is “All parentheses and dashes are syntactical defeats. They signify an inability to express one’s ideas sequentially, which, unless you’re James Joyce, is the way the language was meant to be used.” He seems not averse to using the odd parenthesis himself, though. He reserves most of his wrath for the semi-colon. “Semicolons are pretentious and overactive…More than half of the semicolons one sees … should be periods, and probably another quarter should be commas. Far too often, semicolons, like colons, are used to gloss over an imprecise thought. They place two clauses in some kind of relation to one another but relieve the writer of saying exactly what that relation is.” He refers to the German poet Christian Morgenstern, who wrote a poem, “Im Reich der Interpunktionen,” in which imperialistic semicolons are put to rout by an “Antisemikolonbund” of periods and commas. Serious stuff.

Not surprisingly the Thais are way up at the top of the league of minimal punctuators- no commas, full stops, colons etc, just the odd quotation mark and a small gap between sentences. And I don’t see huddles of Thais scratching their heads over the morning newspaper. Mind you, they overdo it a bit by not having any spaces between words. So if English were to follow the Thai example faithfully Blair would have been reported as saying

ButIamnotgoingtosetaprecisedatenow Idontthinkthatsright


No problem, really, is it? Well, at least it’s not written from right to left.


One Response to “I hate punctuation”

  1. Oh, my. I should first say that I’m a professional editor, and I spend about half my day dealing with other people’s punctuation. I can see your point that some punctuation goes overboard; however, I like semicolons. 🙂 I edit computer-related books and articles that discuss programming languages, web design, and similar topics in highly technical terms. It’s enough for readers to wade through all the concepts without also having to mentally sort out the relationships between words and phrases, as they’d have to do if thewordswere allruntogether. As Robinson says, puncuation, properly applied, serves its clarifying purpose without intruding on the reader’s thought process.

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