Professor David Crystal, author of The Story of English in 100 Words  and Spell It Out: The Curious, Enthralling, and Extraordinary Story of English Spelling , a distinguished linguist and scholar awarded the Order of the British Empire for services to the English language, sets out in Making a Point  to trace the development of English punctuation from its beginnings to the present, from Anglo-Saxon manuscripts with no word spacings and minimal punctuation to Gertrude Stein (and again, minimal punctuation).
In the 1500s, writers tried to develop a system of punctuation based on the length of pauses required by commas, colons, semicolons, and periods. In Elizabethan England, the age of Shakespeare, actors welcomed the system of pauses and spacing, wanting “as many clues as possible about how a speech should be read. However, it didn’t appeal to publishers. They were not so concerned about phonetic values.” For publishers, the function of punctuation marks “was to help readers, not speakers.”
It’s here, writes Crystal, that “we see the origins of virtually all the arguments over punctuation … [that] are still with us today.” Should a writer punctuate for phonetic or semantic reasons, or, as in the case of E.E. Cummings, “the poet of parentheses,” for purely artistic reasons? “How should a reader interpret someone else’s use of punctuation: phonetically or semantically? And how should punctuation be taught and tested in schools?” Can it be taught and tested in the same way spelling or mathematics are taught and tested?
Is there in fact a politics of punctuation? As Crystal demonstrates, over the centuries, among scholars, linguists, teachers, copy readers, there’s an ideo-political divide on the subject of punctuation itself among hawks, doves, conservatives, liberals—or as Crystal would prefer, pragmatists.
A touchstone for Crystal, it seems, is Lynne Truss’s unexpectedly best-selling 2003 book on punctuation: Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation , which has grated on Crystal’s professional nerves.
In an after-dinner speech reported in the Guardian by Sam Leith—himself the author of Words Like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama , reviewed in TAC by this writer in 2012 —Crystal told his audience that some years back he’d advised Truss, a former colleague who was thinking about writing a book on punctuation, not to bother: “Nobody buys books on punctuation.” “Three million books later,” however, “I hate her.”
Although the remarks were made in good humor, and in fact he has a cordial relationship with Truss, there’s a touch of justifiable professional irritation here. No author who knows his subject as well as anyone in the world and writes elegantly about it likes to be outsold. But the problem bites deeper, summed up for Crystal in Truss’s subtitle—The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation—as well as her exhortation in the introduction: “Sticklers unite, you have nothing to lose but your sense of proportion, and you didn’t have a lot of that to begin with.” (A digression here, admittedly well off the point, although punctuation is involved. Truss’s dedication of her book is among the best ever written: “To the memory of the striking Bolshevik printers of St. Petersburg who, in 1905, demanded to be paid the same rate for punctuation marks as for letters, and thereby directly precipitated the first Russian revolution.”)
In a direct response to Truss, Crystal in 2006 wrote a book featuring a gun-toting panda and an exclamation mark on the jacket, titled The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left . Ten years later, in Making a Point, the level of annoyance has subsided, but the issue remains.
In a chapter entitled “Pragmatic tolerance,” Crystal outlines his method, one “in clear contrast to what has been called the ‘zero tolerance’ approach to punctuation. … My view comes down to this simple statement: it is not possible to be zero tolerant about a linguistic system that contains so much uncertainty.”
“No two educated people will agree about everything in the world of punctuation,” he writes. Gertrude Stein, for one, attempted to do for the question mark what she did for roses: “A question is a question, anybody can know that a question is a question and so why add to it the question mark when the question is already there in the writing. … if you do not know that a question is a question what is the use of its being a question…”
Kurt Vonnegut, Crystal tells us, suffered from “semicolonophobia,” writing in his A Man Without a Country : “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”
The semicolon has its defenders, however. As Crystal points out in one of the entertaining and effective “Interludes” he inserts between chapters, just as there is an Apostrophe Protection Society, a Semicolon Appreciation Society has been founded by a noted American lexicographer.
And what of exclamation marks and their uses? What of something like “Jeb!”? Crystal doesn’t deal with the niceties of American political punctuation. But he does quote H.W. Fowler, author of the Dictionary of Modern English Usage , who wrote that exclamation marks are often used by someone “who wants to add a spurious dash of sensation to something unsensational.” And F. Scott Fitzgerald remarked that using “an exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.” And then there are the exclamation marks on the covers of Truss’s panda book and Crystal’s response.
In his chapter on periods, “Periods, period,” he writes: “You would have thought that the oldest of all punctuation marks would have had its name settled by now. But this one still has alternatives: is it a stop, a full stop, a point, a full point, a period? Ben Jonson called it a prick. I have some sympathy.”
William Wordsworth was so unsure of his punctuation that at the suggestion of Samuel Taylor Coleridge he sent a draft of the second edition of his Lyrical Ballads  to a chemist, Humphry Davy, with this note: “You would greatly oblige me by looking over the enclosed poems and correcting anything you find amiss in the punctuation, a business at which I am ashamed to say I am no adept.” Although Wordsworth had never met Davy, and knew of him only through Coleridge, he was so uncertain of his own abilities that he asked him to send the corrected manuscript directly to the printer, without referring it back to him.
Thomas Gray shared Wordsworth’s attitude toward punctuation, Crystal reveals, as did Byron, who wrote this to John Murray in 1813: “Do you know anybody who can stop—I mean point—commas, and so forth? For I am, I fear, a sad hand at your punctuation.”
Crystal divides authors and their attitudes toward punctuation into “Wordsworthians” and “Jonsonians,” after Ben Jonson, the dramatist who sometime in the late 16th century wrote an English grammar in which he emphasized the importance of punctuation and chided printers for careless usage.
Among the Jonsonians, Crystal places Mark Twain, who in 1893 wrote: “In the first place, God made idiots. This was for practice. Then he made proof-readers.” And this, in 1889: “Yesterday Mr. Hall wrote that the printer’s proof-reader was improving my punctuation for me, & I telegraphed orders to have him shot without giving him time to pray.” Twain’s anger at his publishers resulted from the “labor and vexation” involved in “annihilating their ignorant & purposeless punctuation & restoring my own.”
With the steady growth of the publishing business, however, the standardization of punctuation was inevitable, at times with questionable results. Because of changes in punctuation, the Jane Austen novels we read today differ markedly from the novels as she wrote them, writes Crystal. And he shows by comparing a stanza of the same poem by Emily Dickinson taken from 1970 and 2000 editions, one from the original and one edited, that the 2000 edition, by changing dashes to commas and a period, has profoundly altered the poem.
With book production now largely automated and with the disappearance of printers and copy editors from the book-making process, many of the centuries-old arguments about punctuation have been rendered moot. Crystal believes that punctuation, like the language, continues to change and evolve, a process accelerated by the advent of the Internet, already old hat, and the new digital means of communication routinely used today by millions.
In a sense, it’s a revolutionary development, with generations of new users from every part of society, many of whom could never make it through an English composition class, now routinely expressing themselves electronically in quick concise communiques, 140 tweeted characters uncluttered by superfluous additions—in their way, perfect constructs adhering to Strunkian principles of brevity and clarity. (It does play hell with punctuation, however.) Interestingly, one of the country’s most accomplished tweeters is Donald Trump, who has called himself the “Ernest Hemingway of 140 characters.”
Other recent developments include emoticons, which can act as a form of punctuation, but may already be passé. Crystal reports on a recent school visit “where the class collected a corpus of online interactions, I saw no emoticons at all—and no texting abbreviations either. When I asked why not, I was told they weren’t cool any more. As one student commented, ‘I stopped using them when my parents started.’”
From Gertrude Stein’s unmarked questions to the emoticon smiley face, the innovations have not always staked a successful claim to the future of punctuation. But there are always more to come—perhaps “double colons” or “an exclamation mark with a dash through it, to show certitude”—and as Crystal asks, question mark and all, “who knows which of one of these might not one day go viral, and become a regular part of our punctuation system?”
John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author with Linda Bridges of Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement .