At Large: Just a word about punctuation

Punctuation issues never get a second look from Hollywood screenwriters searching for a movie idea. Rappers sneer at commas and semi-colons, if they ever give them a thought. Politicians who debase the language daily in their relentless campaigns to trick us out of our money and votes will never be brought up on punctuation charges.

My grammar school teacher, Miss Mildred Webb, was a paragon of punctuation. She knew the rules and knew that no seven-year-old could be expected to live a worthwhile life without observing each and every one of them. But she had no successful strategy for spreading her keen appreciation of punctuation to a class full of grimy, twitchy second-graders. It was all she could do get us to cross our t’s and dot our i’s.

In her classroom, most of us related punctuation to pain. Forget to put the period inside the closing quotation marks, and Ms. Webb would materialize beside your desk to pinch your earlobe between her gnarled thumb and forefinger.

Where does that period belong, Douglas?

Or, forget the comma separating the dependent and independent clauses in a sentence, and off you went to stand in the dark, smelly cloakroom at the back of the class.

I’ve repressed all memory of what the punishment was for misuse of commas in a series, and especially for trifling with colons and semi-colons.

Learn the rules, observe the rules: that was Miss Webb’s approach. I’m sure she would be brought up on abuse charges were she a teacher today.

Today, there are other approaches.

“Punctuation,” according to Paul Robinson, author of Opera, Sex, and Other Vital Matters, “absorbs more of my thought than seems healthy for a man who pretends to be well adjusted. The subject is naturally attractive to all with character structures of the sort Freud dubbed anal, and I readily confess to belong to that sect. We anal folk keep neat houses, are always on time, and know all the do’s and don’t’s, including those of punctuation. Good punctuation, we feel, makes for clean thought. A mania for punctuation is also an occupational hazard for almost any teacher, as hundreds of our hours are given over to correcting the vagrant punctuation of our students.”

Warped though he certainly is, Mr. Robinson advocates a gentler, less coercive approach to punctuation instruction. “Rules are important,” he says, “no question about it. But by themselves they are insufficient. Unless one has an emotional investment, rules are too easily forgotten. What we must instill, I’m convinced, is an attitude toward punctuation, a set of feelings about both the process in general and the individual marks of punctuation. That set of feelings might be called a philosophy of punctuation.”

You’ve probably never heard of Mr. Robinson, and now you’ve probably developed a theory as to why that is so.

Perhaps rather than a turn to punctuation philosophy, a review of real life experience with the danger posed by improperly punctuated expressions may be the most effective means of improving punctuation performance.

I refer you to Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, by Lynne Truss (London: Profile Books Ltd., 2003). Ms. Truss, a novelist and journalist in England, is fun to read, even on questions of punctuation. She offers lots of examples of how to get into serious trouble by failing to mind your periods and commas, none more heart-stopping than this one:

“To be fair,” she writes, “many people who couldn’t punctuate their way out of a paper bag are still interested in the way punctuation can alter the sense of a string of words… [Ms. Truss is endearingly ever hopeful. Ed.] The consequences of mispunctuation (and re-punctuation) have appealed to both great and little minds, and in the age of the fancy-that e-mail a popular example is the comparison of two sentences: A woman, without her man, is nothing. A woman: without her, man is nothing. Which, I don’t know, really makes you think, doesn’t it?”

To me, these are the sorts of thoughts one would like to get exactly right. As Ms. Truss says, “…we ignore the rules of punctuation at our political peril as well as to our moral detriment.” Indeed, and we want to avoid that at all costs, given the myriad sensitivities whose imposition hamstrings 21st-century discourse.

It’s possible to become punctuation-obsessed. Ms. Truss, delightfully, is not. About Mr. Robinson, I’m not so sure. He seems to invest punctuation marks with airs, eccentricities, and annoying attributes. He is fond of some. Of others, he is not. I sense some latent anger. He writes, “Periods and commas are lovely because they are simple… Semicolons are pretentious and overactive… More than half of the semicolons one sees, I would estimate, should be periods, and probably another quarter should be commas.”

Obviously, he may be a little unhinged over the matter of punctuation, but I can sympathize. For instance, although Letters to the Editor are full of them, I despise the exclamation point. It seems to me that if you haven’t made your point by the time you come to the end of your sentence, the exclamation point won’t help. You might as well settle for a period!

A version of this column appeared in this space in 2004.