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Punctuation: musical notation for language

Cover of Semicolon by Cecelia Watson

I am presently reading the delightful Semicolon by Cecelia Watson. The book has the charming sub-heading of “How a Misunderstood Punctuation Mark Can Improve Your Writing, Enrich Your Reading and Even Change Your Life”.

Far from dry reading, it’s a crisp and entertaining exploration of the history of this much-maligned punctuation mark, from its origins in the 16th century to its often contraversial application in interpreting the law. It’s a spirited defense of its use to help convey meaning and intent when we render the spoken word into written form, devoid of intonation, facial expression and sometimes wider context.

I’ve always been fond of the poor little semicolon. One workplace once told me not to use it, as it “confused the audience”. I found the excuse itself confusing. Surely a semicolon in the correct place is almost invisible.

Any strangely placed punctuation will disrupt comprehension; and any that promote the natural rhythm of a sentence will blend seamlessly with the whole. As the introduction to Semicolon says:

Great punctuation can create music, paint a picture, or conjure emotions.

And, to echo an example from the book:

A sentence without puncutation can certainly be understood even if we dont use apostrophes commas or even full stops let alone a semicolon its all a matter of familiarity and inference but golly its hard work a little puncutation can go a very long way to easing headaches and aiding readability and I don’t know about you but this reads to me like a monotone I mean how do you get a sense of my tone of voice out of this stream of consciousness infodump I have to stop this now its really quite upsetting

In the end, as Watson reminds the reader, everything we consider to be ‘rules for written language’ – including grammar and punctuation – has been devised after the fact. Language evolved first, and continues to evolve with each generation, in response to social needs, technological change and everyday usage.

The rules of grammar evolved with speech, though they can be less hard and fast than we imagine. They are full of exceptions because of that clever and hungry habit English has of adopting words, phrases and concepts from other languages, which it’s been indulging for hundreds of years. Of course Latin rules were never going to apply to everything and nobody should have tried in the first place.

(On this note, I always feel I should reiterate that singular ‘they’ has had a long history – the OED traces its use to 1375 – and just because some grammarians decided late in the linguistic day it didn’t fit Latin grammar rules, that doesn’t make singular ‘they’ incorrect for personal pronouns. Besides which, people are more important than grammar, so please don’t die on that hill when it comes to respecting people’s preferred pronouns.)

But I digress.

The grammar rules we have for spoken and written English can be deduced and inferred (and even taught) but they’re not carved in stone. Writers who know the rules perfectly well also twist and reshape them to achieve a particular effect. Words, grammar and punctuation are tools for expression, because the purpose of language is to communicate, after all: to convey information, tone, feeling, comprehension, from one person to another.

The purpose of written language is to do all of that across time and space, to people who the author never met and perhaps never will. Punctuation was invented as a way to mark up the written word, to attempt, as much as possible, to imbue those words with the specific sense in which the author meant them.

We can’t hear the pauses of speech, the emphases, the wry tone; we can’t see the frown or the glint in the eye or the proudly raised chin. We only have the words, and the way punctuation highlights them and alters their rhythm, as a way of understanding the entirety of what someone meant to communicate.

So don’t hate on the semicolon. Don’t despise the apostrophe or the comma, or even the dash and the parentheses. Try to learn how best to use them to mark up the music of your written word, so that you have a better chance of conveying all your meaning without the aid of a raised eyebrow, a beseeching tone or a finger-jab of emphasis.

Some sample pages from Semicolon:

Page sample from the introduction to Semicolon by Cecelia Watson
Page sample from the end of Semicolon by Cecelia Watson

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