A Dissolving View of Punctuation

A Dutch artist is said to have taken a cow grazing in a field as the "fixed point" in his landscape—with consequences to his perspective that may be imagined. The writer on the "laws" of punctuation is in much the same predicament. He must begin by admitting that no two masters of the art would punctuate the same way; that usage varies with every printing-office and with every proofreader; that as regards the author, too, his punctuation is largely determined by his style, or, in other words, is personal and individual—"singular, and to the humor of his irregular self." The same writer will tell you, further, that punctuation will vary according as one has in view rapidity and clearness of comprehension, avoidance of fatigue in reading aloud, or rhetorical expression. Worse still, coming to the conventional signs which we call points or stops, he is bound to acknowledge that they are very largely interchangeable, at the caprice of authors or printers. Well may he exclaim, with Robinson Crusoe, "These considerations really put me to a pause, and to a kind of a full stop."

It is the paradox of the art, however, that the more these difficulties are faced and examined, the fuller becomes our understanding of the principles which do actually underlie the convention that makes punctuation correct or faulty. And in so unsystematic a system the expositor has the delightful privilege of flinging order to the winds, and choosing his own manner of development. He may elect to dwell at the outset on the apparent want of rule and the undoubtedly shifting and fluctuating practice. Take, for example, the question which nearly cost Darwin the friendship of Captain Fitz-Roy on the Beagle:

"I then asked him whether he thought that the answer of slaves in the presence of their master was worth anything?"

How Mr. Darwin printed this sentence I do not know, but in the printed volume of his Life it ends with an interrogation mark. No one can contest the propriety of this. Nevertheless, he might have chosen to follow the prevailing custom with indirect questions and end with a period [was worth anything.]. Or, again, he might have used an exclamation point, to indicate his surprise at Fitz-Roy's believing a slave who said he did not wish to be free; and, more than surprise, the scornful feeling that was in his tone, for he says that he put the question "perhaps with a sneer" [was worth anything!]. In this instance, the period and the interrogation mark address themselves merely to the eye, as aids to quick understanding. The inflection of the voice for one reading aloud would be the same, whichever was employed. The exclamation point, on the other hand, subtly conveys an emotional, rhetorical hint to the reader, which puts him, and enables him to put his hearers, in sympathy with the mood of the writer. As a matter of fact, Darwin was intent simply on illustrating Fitz-Roy's temper, and had no rhetorical designs whatever upon the reader. Suppose the opposite to have been the case, and that he had preferred to suggest not his own moral indignation, but the sheer intellectual absurdity and grotesqueness of the commander's credulity. He might then, discarding the exclamation point, have chosen to end his sentence with a dash or double dash [Was worth anything]. This stop would have had the value of a twinkle of the eye, or of a suppressed guffaw. I do not mean that ridicule is the special and constant function of the final dash. What it does it to make an abrupt termination, leaving it to the reader's imagination to guess what lies beyond. The French use, instead of the double dash, a series of dots. Sterne is the chief English writer who has liberally adopted this rather unsavory Gallic application, and he substitutes for it on one occasion a dash which has neither a ludicrous nor an unclean signification, but one quite solemn. He interrupts the touching story of Uncle Toby's benevolence to Lefever with this finished-unfinished ejaculation:

"That kind Being who is a friend to the friendless, shall recompense thee for this"

where the dash has all the effect of uplifted hands and a benediction, or of tears that checked further utterance.

Already, then, from a single example of the interchangeability of points, we perceive what shades of refinement in expression are possible to the judicious. And since we have mentioned Sterne, we may ponder here what he says of the sentence, for its equal bearing upon punctuation:

"Just heaven! how does the Poco più and the Poco meno of the Italian artists—the insensibly more or less — determine the precise line of beauty in the sentence as well as in the statue! How do the slight touches of the chisel, the pen, the fiddlestick, et cetera, give the true pleasure! ... O my countrymen! be nice; be cautious of your language; and never, never! let it be forgotten upon what small particles your eloquence and your fame depend."

In quainter fashion, Emily Dickinson wrote to a correspondent: "What a hazard an accent is! When I think of the hearts it has scuttled or sunk, I almost fear to lift my hand to so much as a punctuation."

A British organ of the book-trade head thus an illustration of the working of the Bankruptcy Act of 1883:


The use of "satisfactory" is here clearly satirical, as is meant to be intimated by the interrogation mark. As a jester with a sober face, the writer might have contented himself with a period [satisfactory settlement.]; or, with more feeling, he might have used the explosive exclamation point [satisfactory settlement!]; or, again, he might have ended with the period while inserting immediately after the word "satisfactory" either of the other two points, in parenthesis [satisfactory (?) settlement, satisfactory (!) settlement], or resorting to quotation marks ["satisfactory" settlement].

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