Do We Need Punctuation?

Do we need punctuation? Silly question. Of course we do…don’t we?

The answer may not be as clear as we think it is. In Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Lynn Truss writes about what happens when we don’t use commas and periods: If we think of punctuation as “the stitching of language,” without it “all the buttons fall off.”

Or we can think of punctuation as a set of “traffic signals”: When commas and periods are missing, “words bang into each other and everyone ends up in Minehead.”

It makes sense – until you realize there’s no punctuation in many ancient Greek and Roman textsAnd what about writers in the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean languages, who didn’t start using punctuation until modern times?

I’m as cranky as Lynn Truss is about correct punctuation – perhaps crankier. If I’d been her editor, I would have inserted a comma between the coordinate clauses in her second sentence. (In simple English, I would have put a comma after each other: “words bang into each other, and everyone ends up in Minehead.”).

But I’m irritated by her the-world-is-coming-to-an-end attitude towards punctuation errors.

It’s not just that she sometimes makes mistakes. A bigger problem is that when students discover how idiotic pronouncements like Truss’s are,  they lose faith in everything that we English teachers tell them.

Here’s an example: I often hear people confidently declare that “Ain’t ain’t in the dictionary,” a dubious fact they were told in the fourth or fifth grade. Well, ain’t is in there, and I can usually get my hands on a dictionary or two to prove it.

What invariably follows is a “Why should I believe anything?” cynicism about English.

* * * * * * 

Punctuation is a social convention and a convenience. It certainly makes writing easier to read. But readers and writers largely got along without it until the printing press was invented, and even then periods and commas took a while to catch on.

Apostrophes were introduced later; Chaucer and Shakespeare didn’t bother with them.

Many educated people – truth-to-tell – don’t understand punctuation. I once knew a Harvard graduate, the author of several books, who didn’t know the difference between semicolons and commas. (The same is true of math. I once knew a postmaster who couldn’t understand even basic functions with fractions. People learn ways to adapt.)

The English language has tremendous vitality. It will survive ain’t, Lynn Truss’s complaints, and texting.

Let’s remember that English nearly died after the Norman Conquest of 1066. The upper classes and those who did business with them spoke French. (Even today, the menus in Buckingham Palace are written out for Queen Elizabeth II in French.) Only the peasants spoke English.

The English language survived the Norman Conquest, and it will outlast us too.


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