Author Topic: Learning punctuation from usage rather than from school textbooks  (Read 9589 times)

Joe Carillo

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If you are confident that you have already mastered English punctuation like the back of your hand, you can stop reading this. But if you often hesitate to use the Oxford comma in punctuating the last item in a serial enumeration sentence, or agonize over using a comma or a semicolon to link two independent clauses, or become horribly indecisive on whether to use double quotes or single quotes for a verbatim phrase quoted within a longer statement under double quotes, you’d be well-advised to take time to read this introduction to Making a Point (St. Martin’s, 378 pages), British linguist David Crystal’s engaging history of punctuation and guide to its uses.

With Making a Point, Crystal enters the punctuation market trailblazed in 2003 by the book Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynn Truss, whose anguished rage over the misuse of English punctuation brought the book to bestseller lists worldwide, selling over 3 million copies to date.  Crystal does so in a more sober sociolinguistic context, however, providing a fascinating chronicle of the origins and evolution of punctuation marks in English over the centuries and offering well-nuanced advice on how to use them.

Says Sam Leith in a review of Crystal’s Making a Point in the September 17, 2015 issue of The Guardian UK: “His central argument, buttressed by countless well-chosen examples and enlivened by the odd whimsical digression, is that neither a phonetic, nor a semantic, nor a grammatical account of our punctuation system is singly sufficient. Those hoping to make punctuation logically consistent are chasing a will o’ the wisp – and ignoring the aesthetics and the pragmatics of practice. But nor is it a complete free-for-all. There are discoverable rules, or at least workable generalisations, about how punctuation functions. However, they are discoverable by the study of usage rather than from old school textbooks.”

Read Sam Leith’s review, “The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation,” in The Guardian UK now!

Read Keith Houston’s review, “Marks of Distinction,” in The Wall Street Journal now!

David Crystal is Honorary Professor of Linguistics at the University of Wales, Bangor. His many books range from clinical linguistics to the liturgy and Shakespeare. He is the author of The Story of English in 100 Words and Spell It Out: The Singular History of English Spelling, both published by Profile. His Stories of English is a Penguin Classic.

In “Future Reading,” a critique of digital books that came out in the October 1, 2105 issue of the online magazine Aeon, writer Craig Mod says that digital books stagnate in closed, dull systems. “Our relationships to our most meaningful books are long and textured. And until we can trust our digital reading platforms, until the value propositions of digital are made clearer, until the notes and data we produce within them is more accessible and malleable, physical books will remain at the core of our working libraries for a long time coming.”

Read Craig Mod’s “Future Reading” in now!
« Last Edit: November 05, 2015, 09:48:19 PM by Joe Carillo »