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].

Next, two sentences out of Ruskin:

"You think I am going into wild hyperbole?"

"But, at least, if the Greeks do not give character, they give ideal beauty?"

Here the form is affirmative, but there is a suppressed inquiry—"You think, do you?" "They give, do they not?"—and this justifies the interrogation mark. The affirmative interrogation is abundantly exemplified in Jowett's translation of Plato's Dialogues, being skillfully employed to vary the monotony of the catechism; as in the case of this sentence from Charmides:

"Then temperance, I said, will not be doing one's own business; at least not in this way, or not doing these sort of things?"

So Dickens writes inquiringly to Forster concerning a projected novel:

"The name is Great Expectations. I think a good name?"

Dr. Bradley, the Oxford Professor of Poetry, commenting on In Memoriam, says there are frequent instances in it and in Tennyson's other works of defective punctuation, "and, in particular, of a defective use of the note of interrogation." And shall we not here make a little digression to accuse poets in general of neglect of pointing? A stanza of Whittier's "Pæan" was thus maltreated in the Osgood edition of 1870—that is, in the author's lifetime:

Troop after troop their line forsakes;
   With peace-white banners waving free,
And from our own the glad shout breaks
   Of Freedom and Fraternity!

In most languages every one of the first three lines is grossly mispointed. Read:

Troop after troop their line forsakes,
   With peace-white banners waving free;
And from our own the glad shout breaks,
   Of Freedom and Fraternity!

Better than such obstructions to the sense would it have been if these lines had been left wholly unpunctuated. In fact, a good deal of simple verse, devoid of enjambment, might dispense wholly with points without great loss. The opening lines of Gray's Elegy, or of Emerson's "Concord Monument," would suffer little in intelligibility if printed thus:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day
   The lowing herd winds slowly o'er the lea
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way
   And leaves the world to darkness and to me

By the rude bridge that arched the flood
   Their flag to April's breeze unfurled
Here once the embattled farmers stood
   And fired the shot heard round the world.

The early scribes, by a system known as stichometry, attained the ends of punctuation by chopping up the text into lines accommodated to the sense. And in our modern practice a stop is often omissible at the end of a line because of the break, whereas it would be essential to clearness if the final word of one line and the first of the succeeding stood close together. Macaulay, writing of Pitt, says:

"Widely as the taint of corruption had spread | his hands were clean."

Had the line broken thus—

"Widely as the taint of corruption had | spread his hands were clean,"

to omit the comma after "spread" would have made his hands seem the object of the verb.

Division into lines is what makes poetry easier for the beginner than prose; and another result is that the punctuation of poetry is more disregarded by writers themselves than that of prose, though nowhere are there such opportunities as in verse for elegant and subtle pointing.

The exclamation point, which disputes a place with the interrogation mark and the period, is in turn contested by other stops. It has a peculiar function in apostrophizing, and the poets avail themselves of it freely.

O Lady! we receive but what we give,

writes Coleridge in his ode Dejection; yet in the same poem we encounter:

Thou Wind, that ravest without.
. . . .
Mad Lutanist! who, in this month of showers
. . . .
Thou Actor, perfect in all tragic sounds!
Thou mighty Poet, e'en to frenzy bold!

The comma in the last two lines is to be approved because of the exclamation point at the end and the desirability of husbanding stress. But the following quotations, from Byron, Clough, and Wordsworth respectively, show that the comma need not apologize for itself, and that the apostrophic usage is divided ad libitum:

Fond hope of many generations, art thou dead?

What voice did on my spirit fall,
   Peschiera, when thy bridge I crost?

Ye blessèd Creatures, I have heard the call.

The approved German practice is to put an exclamation point after Dear Sir (or Friend) at the beginning of a letter, and it was not unknown to our forefathers in their private correspondence; but convention now forbids it in English, and we use either the colon or the dash—the latter chiefly when the line runs on continuously after it. In friendly expostulation, however, as, "My dear sir! I consider what you are saying!" the exclamation point reasserts itself.

The colon and the dash have many functions in common. Either may be used before a quoted passage—and so may the comma, but preferably before a short quotation. From Coleridge again:

"Up starts the democrat: 'May all fools be gulloteened, and then you will be the first!'"

"Now I know, my gentle friend, what you are murmuring to yourself'This is so like him!'"

Colon and dash may be indifferently used wherever "namely" or "to wit" is to be understood, or even where it is expressed; but then the comma is more apt to be employed than either.

"What is stupidly said of Shakespere is really true and appropriate of Chapman: mighty faults counterpoised by mighty beauties.

"The Government called you hither; the constitution thereof being limited soa Single Person and a Parliament."

"He abandoned the proud position of the victorious general to exchange it for the most painful position which a human being can occupy, viz., the management of the affairs of a great nation with insufficient mental gifts and inadequate knowledge."

In English prose the colon has rarely a parenthetical function. Dickens, however, made free use of it in this capacity, as one may see in Dombey and Son. Here is an extract from a review in the London Athenæum, in which the Latin proverb is enclosed by colons:

"In examining works which cover so vast a field, it is not difficult to detect here and there an omission or a slip of the pen : facile est inventis addere : but in the present case one has to resort to a powerful magnifying-glass to discover points deserving censure."

In verse, Clough's Qua cursum ventus furnishes a fine instance:

As ships, becalmed at eve, that lay
   With canvas drooping, side by side,
Two towers of sail at dawn of day
   Are scarce, long leagues apart, descried:

When fell the night, upsprung the breeze,
   And all the darkling hours they plied,
Nor dreamt but each the self-same seas
   By each was cleaving, side by side:

E'en so—but why the tale reveal
   Of those whom year by year unchanged
Brief absence joined anew to feel,
   Astounded, soul from soul estranged?

The second stanza is purely parenthetical, and it might equally well, if less elegantly, be pointed with parentheses, a semicolon replacing the colon:

Are scarce, long leagues apart, descried;
(When fell the night, upsprung the breeze,
. . . .
By each was cleaving, side by side;)

It is rather the comma and the dash which compete with the marks of parenthesis. Thus, Fenimore Cooper writes in his Mohicans:

"The suddenness and the nature of the surprise had nearly proved too much forwe will not say the philosophy, but for the faith and resolution of David."

This might justifiably have been pointed as follows: [too much for (we will not say the philosophy, but for) the faith and resolution of David].

Dash, comma, and parenthesis have equal title to employment in this sentence of Thackeray's:

"If that theory beand I have no doubt it isthe right and safe one."

"If that theory be, and I have no doubt it is,"

"If that theory be (and I have no doubt it is)"

A frequent old-fashioned usage is exemplified in Coleridge's—

"Whatever beauty (thought I) may be before the poet's eye at present, it must certainly be of his own creation."

This has pretty much given way to the comma: [Whatever beauty, thought I, may be, etc.]

The parenthesis usefully replaces the comma when greater perspicuity is thereby attainable, as in this quotation from a newspaper of the day:

"You have not undertaken any better or more important work than the defense of State politics, which, of course, include municipal, against national."

Here the sentence is very much cut up by commas, and, in order to bring out the antithesis of state and national, a parenthesis after "politics" and after "municipal" effects a decided change for the better: [State politics (which, of course, include municipal) against national]. In fact, thus used, the parenthesis is only a larger and more striking comma, or curved "virgil," as the slanting precursor of the comma was called. In the "prologge" to Tyndale's first edition of the New Testament, where the virgil is the only form of comma, the opening sentence employs parentheses where we now resort to commas:

"I have here translated (brethern and susters moost dere and tenderly beloued in Christ) the newe Testament."

The parenthesis has been decried by some literary authority, and is rather under the ban of proofreaders, but without good reason. Prejudice to the contrary notwithstanding, the sign is, in any flexible system of punctuation, of great utility in clearing up obscurity and coming to the relief of the overworked comma, as in the penultimate example above. It needs no other apology.

While the comma, semicolon, colon, dash, parenthesis, and period may be termed "pauses," and may, in a rough way, be classified as being longer or shorter, this arrangement helps but little to determine the proper occasion for the use of each. In a scientific and unimpassioned style something like a mathematical punctuation is possible; but when fervor or vivacity or personal idiosyncracy of any kind enters in, the points become puppets to be handled almost at will. Take the line of verse—

God never made a tyrant nor a slave.

The need in it of punctuation other than the final period is not obvious; but, in the poet's own feeling, a comma was called for, slightly checking the flow, thus

God never made a tyrant, nor a slave.

By this refinement a little more emphasis is bestowed on the second member—"nor a slave either," as if mankind were less disposed to eliminate slaves than tyrants from divine order: a state of mind actually witnessed in this country in 1830, when the slaveholding citizens of Charleston celebrated the overthrow of Charles X. The emphasis would, of course, have been heightened by employing a dash, as —

God never made a tyrantnor a slave.

So Byron, in his Isles of Greece:

He servedbut served Polycrates
(A tyrant, but our masters then
Were still at least our countrymen).

A comma [He served, but served Polycrates] would have meant, "that made a difference;" the dash implies, "that made a great deal of difference." The semicolon has nowadays a much closer relation with the comma than with the colon. In the days of the scribes, it shared with the colon a function now confined to the period, viz., of denoting a terminal abbreviation—sometimes standing apart, as in undiq; (for undique); sometimes closely attached to the final letter, as, q; for que. The early printers duly adopted this, with other conventions of the manuscripts. When the Gothic letter was abandoned for the Roman, a curious result ensued in the case of the abbreviation of videlicet (viz.) . The semicolon was detached from the i, but no longer as a point. It took the shape of the letter it resembled in Gothic script, though not in Roman print, and thus really gave a twenty-seventh letter to our alphabet—a pseudo z. Not unnaturally, it acquired the sound of z or ss, as is exemplified in the lines from Hudibras:

That which so oft by sundry writers
Has been applied t' almost all fighters,
More justly may b' ascribed to this
Than any other warrior, viz."

Naturally, too, it ceased even to signify a contraction, for our printers follow it with a period (viz.) for that purpose; and if the practice observed by Goetz of Cologne, of using a zed for a period, had prevailed, we might have seen the odd form vizz arise.

The semicolon is now become a big brother of the comma, enabling long sentences to be subdivided with great advantage to comprehension and oral delivery. It is of marked use in categories, where the comma would tend to no little confusion. Thus:

"He has now begun the issue of two remaining classes of laws—Private Laws; and Resolves, Orders, Addresses,, etc."

—as contrasted with [Private Laws, and Resolves, Orders, Addresses, etc.].

In the following passage from Coleridge the semicolon prevents a close-knit paragraph from being cut up by periods:

"Of dramatic blank verse we have many and various specimens—for example, Shakspeare's as compared with Massinger's, both excellent in their kind; of lyric, and of what may be called orphic or philosophic, blank verse, perfect models may be found in Wordsworth; of colloquial blank verse there are excellent, though not perfect, examples in Cowper; but of epic blank verse, since Milton, there is not one."

An extract from Thomas Paine will exhibit several substitutions besides the one we are considering:

"Our present condition is, legislation without law; wisdom without a plan; a constitution without a name; and, what is strangely astonishing, perfect independence contending for dependence."

Here the comma in place of the semi-colon would have sufficed throughout if that before "legislation" had been made either colon or dash, and if the parenthetical clause "what is strangely astonishing" had been bracketed:

"Our present condition is: legislation without law, wisdom without a plan, a constitution without a name, and (what is strangely astonishing) perfect independence contending for dependence."

Nor would any obscurity have arisen in this extract from Burke had the comma prevailed; but the semicolon answers the purpose of emphasizing the several relative clauses:

"They think there is nothing worth pursuit but that which they can handle; which they can measure with a two-foot rule; which they can tell upon ten fingers."

Very frequently the semicolon plays at seesaw with the dash, most familiarly in the case of the hanging participial clause, as when Clarendon writes:

"In Warwickshire the King had no footing; the castle of Warwick, the city of Coventry, and his own castle of Killingworth being fortified against him"—where we might point: [the castle of Warwick ... being fortified against him]. And again in simple opposition, as of Knickerbocker:

"He was a brisk, wiry, waspish little old gentleman; such a one as may now and then be seen stumping bout our city," etc.in place of which may be employed [such a one as may now and then be seen].

In the third place, the semicolon may dispute the dash before a relative pronoun when it is desired to mark the whole of what precedes as the antecedent, instead of the nearest noun or phrase. Take this stately period from Sir Thomas Browne:

"We present not these as any strange sight or spectacle unknown to your eyes, who have beheld the best of urns and noblest variety of ashes, who are yourself no slender master of antiquities, and can daily command the view of so many imperial faces; which raiseth your thoughts unto old things and consideration of times before you when even living men were antiquities, when the living world could not properly be said to go unto the greater number."

But it is time to pause. Either some light has been shed on the principles of punctuation by studying the diversity of good usage, or else my readers may envy Lord Timothy Dexter's, who were bid to pepper and salt as they chose. This ignoramus, in bunching his points at the end of his book, intimated two truths—one, that punctuation is, to a large extent at least, a personal matter; the other that punctuation may be good without being scientific. By way of illustrating the latter thesis, I will quote here a passage from Rousseau on grammar:

"Whether a given expression," he says, "be or be not what is called French or in accordance with good usage, is not the question. We talk and write solely with a view to being understood. Provided we are intelligible, our end is attained; if we are clear, it is still better attained. Speak clearly, then, to any one who understands French. Such is the rule, and be sure that if you committed five thousand barbarisms to boot, you would none the less have written well. I go further, and maintain that we must sometimes be willfully ungrammatical for the sake of the greater lucidity. In this, and not in all the pedantry of purism, consists the veritable art of composition."

So we may say broadly of punctuation that if any composition is so pointed as to convey the author's meaning, it is well pointed. If it is, in addition, free from all ambiguity, it is still better pointed. And sometimes we must be willfully ungrammatical in order to be lucid, as in the following sentence, in which the comma after "has," though it separates the subject from the verb, tells us at once that "witnesses" is the verb and not a noun:

"The rise of such a society to such power as it now has, witnesses to profound modifications in the prevalent religious conceptions."

Likewise when we separate the object from the verb, as in

"This, man alone can accomplish,"

to show that it is the object, and not a demonstrative adjective qualifying "man," as in—

"Even out of that, mischief has grown."

It still remains possible, by a skillful combination of conventional usage and natural selection, to endow the text with every aid to quick and perfect apprehension, and to the effectiveness of the rhetorical and emotional aim of the writer. The punctuation then leaves nothing to be desired; it becomes elegant, the mark of a cultivated mind. How many graduates of our colleges, of both sexes, betray in their manuscripts no evidence of their literary training! How many writers of learning and distinction need to be edited for the press in the simple matter of punctuation! Our textbooks are palpably at fault—our elementary textbooks; for the study ought never to pass beyond the grammar school.

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