The Philosophy of Punctuation
by Paul Robinson, author of Opera, Sex, and Other Vital Matters
Punctuation 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.
One approach to punctuation is by way of rules. In my very favorite book, The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E. B. White, we may read, for example, Rule Number 2: "In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last." I couldn't agree more heartily, and I love the quaint formulation. Better than that, I have inserted the missing comma in countless sentences written by students and colleagues of mine. I have also suffered no little distress seeing that comma removed from my own prose after it has been sent to the New York Times Book Review or (yes, I'm sorry to say) the New Republic, both of which clearly have adopted policies of eliminating this serial comma so beloved by purists.
Rules are important, 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.
I say "a" philosophy, because I'm not yet so opinionated as to insist that everyone adopt my own. I recognize legitimate alternatives, and I'm quite aware that punctuation has a history. A single page of Thomas Carlyle, or any nineteenth-century writer, reminds us, for instance, that a comma between subject and verb-for me the most offensive of all punctuation errors-was once perfectly acceptable. A colleague of mine, whom I consider a fine writer, punctuates, as it were, by ear. That is, he seeks to reduplicate patterns of speech, to indicate through his punctuation how a sentence is supposed to sound. Consequently his punctuation lacks strict consistency. But I can respect it as guided at all times by what I consider philosophical principles.
Given my character, my own philosophy is more legalistic. My colleague, you might say, is a Platonist in punctuation, while I am an Aristotelian. My punctuation is informed by two ideals: clarity and simplicity. Punctuation 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. With those principles in mind, and on the basis of reading what now passes for acceptable writing, I have developed a set of emotional responses to individual marks of punctuation. Precisely such emotional responses, I believe, are what most writers lack, and their indifference accounts for their errors.
Let me now introduce my dramatis personae. First come the period and the comma. These are the only lovely marks of punctuation, and of the two the period is the lovelier, because more compact and innocent of ambiguity. I have fantasies of writing an essay punctuated solely with periods and commas. I seldom see a piece of prose that shouldn't, I feel, have more periods and fewer of those obtrusive marks that seem to have usurped its natural place. The comma, as noted, was once overused, but it now suffers from relative neglect. The missing comma before the "and" introducing the last item in a series is merely the most obvious example.
Periods and commas are lovely because they are simple. They force the writer to express his ideas directly, to eliminate unnecessary hedges, to forgo smart-aleck asides. They also contribute to the logical solidity of a piece of writing, since they make us put all our thoughts into words. By way of contrast, a colon can be used to smooth over a rough logical connection. It has a verbal content ranging anywhere from "namely" to "thus," and it can function to let the writer off the hook. Periods and commas, because of their very neutrality, make one an honest logician.
Semicolons are pretentious and overactive. These days one seems to come across them in every other sentence. "These days" is alarmist, since half a century ago the German poet Christian Morgenstern wrote a brilliant parody, "Im Reich der Interpunktionen," in which imperialistic semicolons are put to rout by an "Antisemikolonbund" of periods and commas. Nonetheless, if the undergraduate essays I see are representative, we are in the midst of an epidemic of semicolons. I suspect that the semicolon is so popular because it is the first fancy punctuation mark students learn of, and they assume that its frequent appearance will lend their writing a properly scholarly cast. Alas, they are only too right. But I doubt that they use semicolons in their letters. At least I hope they don't.
More than half of the semicolons one sees, I would estimate, 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. Even the simple conjunction "and," for which they are often a substitute, has more content, because it suggests compatibility or logical continuity. ("And," incidentally, is among the most abused words in the language. It is forever being exploited as a kind of neutral vocalization connecting two things that have no connection whatever.)
In exasperation I have tried to confine my own use of the semicolon to demarking sequences that contain internal commas and therefore might otherwise be confusing. I recognize that my reaction is extreme. But the semicolon has become so hateful to me that I feel almost morally compromised when I use it.
Before leaving the realm of epidemics, I want to mention two other practices that are out of hand: the use of italics for emphasis and of quotation marks for distancing. These are ugly habits because of the intellectual tone they set. Italics rarely fail to insult the reader's intelligence. More often than not they tell us to emphasize a word or phrase that we would emphasize automatically in any natural reading of the sentence. Quotation marks create the spurious impression of an aristocracy of sensibility. Three paragraphs back I originally put quotation marks around "fancy," to suggest quite falsely that I would never use such a word myself, being of too refined a temperament.
At the opposite pole are two marks of punctuation that have grown increasingly obsolescent, the question mark and the exclamation point. Appropriately, the disappearance of the question mark largely reflects the disappearance of questions, which sound unpleasantly rhetorical to us. But even real questions, if they are long enough, are now apt to end in periods. The exclamation point is obviously too emphatic, too childish, for our sophisticated ways. Psychologically speaking, the decline of these two marks is the inverse of the semicolon epidemic. Questions and exclamations betray a sense of inquisitiveness and wonder that is distinctly unmodern, whereas semicolons imply a capacity for complex, dialectical formulations appropriate to our complex times. As part of my campaign against the semicolon-no doubt irrationally-I am endeavoring to develop friendlier relations with these neglected gestures. But I'll admit that it's not easy.
Then there are parentheses and dashes. They are, of course, indispensable. I've used them five times already in this essay alone. But I think one must maintain a very strict attitude toward them. I start from the proposition that 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. Reality may be simultaneous, but expository prose is linear. Parentheses and dashes represent efforts to elude the responsibilities of linearity. They generally betoken stylistic laziness, an unwillingness to spend the time figuring out how to put things in the most logical order. Needless to say, they also betoken a failure of discipline. Every random thought, every tenuous analogy gets dragged in. Good writing is as much a matter of subtraction as creation, and parentheses are the great enemy of subtraction. In all that I write I try to find ways to eliminate them.
A monstrous variation on the parenthesis is the content footnote. What, after all, is a content footnote but material that one is either too lazy to integrate into the text or too reverent to discard? Reading a piece of prose that constantly dissolves into extended footnotes is profoundly disheartening. Hence my rule of thumb for footnotes is exactly the same as that for parentheses. One should regard them as symbols of failure. I hardly need add that in this vale of tears failure is sometimes unavoidable.
Only one issue of punctuation generates no emotion in me, namely, the rules governing the placement of punctuation marks with respect to quotation marks. Those rules are simple enough, but perhaps because they differ between England and the United States they possess for me only the arbitrary authority of commandments and none of the well-nigh metaphysical significance that I associate with the period, the comma, the parenthesis, and the semicolon.
Copyright notice: ©2002 by Paul Robinson. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of Paul Robinson. This essay was first published in the New Republic on April 26, 1980.