Punctuation – Another Hurdle For The Learner Of English, Or A Dying Art? Punctuation marks are the traffic


Punctuation marks are the traffic signals of language: they tell us to slow down, notice this, take a detour, stop. They are designed to help readers to make sense of the written word. Punctuation herds words together, keeps others apart. Their placement, or absence, can vastly change the meaning of a phrase, this is the basis of all those “I’m sorry, I’ll read that again” jokes.

Think of the difference to meaning the punctuation marks make in the following examples:

Go get him, surgeonsORGo, get him surgeons

What is this thing called, love'ORWhat is this thing called love'

He shot himself as a childORHe shot, himself, as a child

A woman, without her man, is nothing. OR A woman, without her, man is nothing.

My son, if sinners entice thee consent thee, not refraining thy foot from their way.

My son, if sinners entice thee consent thee not, refraining thy foot from their way.

Dear Jack I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart. I can be forever happy – will you let me be yours'Jill

Dear Jack I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful, people who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men I yearn. For you I have no feelings whatsoever. When we’re apart I can be forever happy. Will you let me be' Yours Jill

The use of punctuation marks has changed considerably in the past 50 years. In the 70s, no educationalist could have predicted the explosion in universal written communication caused by the personal computer, the internet and the keypad of the mobile phone. Some blame the decline in punctuation standards on the electronic age. In the world of text messages where the number of characters count, the usage of punctuation marks is minimal. Email and text messages often make use of the dash because it is easy to see. Full stops and commas are tiny in modern typefaces, not to mention on the screen a mobile phone about 3cm square.

There are even changes in capitalisation. The initial letter of a sentence was first capitalised in the 13th century, but the rule was not consistently applied until the 16th. In manuscripts of the 4th to 7th centuries, the first letter of a page was decorated, regardless of whether it was at the start of a sentence. Nowadays the convention for starting a new sentence with a capital letter is so ingrained that word-processing software will not allow you to type a full stop and then a lower-case letter; it will capitalise automatically. But we no longer capitalise all nouns. And if we send text or email messages in capitals it’s called “shouting”. In some matters of punctuation, there are simple rights and wrongs; in others, it’s a personal choice or good sense. That’s difficult enough for the native speaker, imagine the confusion for those learning our language'

The apostrophe is one of the most misused punctuation marks in our language today. It was initially used in Shakespeare’s time to mark “dropped” letters. At some point in the 17th century it began to be used for other purposes, such as to indicate possessive case. But these days it is generally accepted that familiar contractions such as flu (influenza), phone (telephone), photo (photograph), fridge (refrigerator) and cello (violincello) are no longer written with an apostrophe. To write “Is there any milk in the ‘fridge, dear'” today looks self-conscious.

A current guide to punctuation states that with modern names ending in s and any foreign name with an unpronounced final s, the s is required after the apostrophe - Keats’s poems, St James’s Square With names from the ancient world, it is not - Archimedes’ screw, Achilles’ heel

If the name ends in an “iz” sound, an exception is made – Bridges’ score, Moses’ tablets

And an exception is always made for Jesus - Jesus’ disciples. However if you consult a dozen or so recently published punctuation guides, you will see that they contain minor disagreements on virtually all aspects of the above. “There never was a golden age in which the rules for the possessive apostrophe were clear-cut and known, understood and followed by most educated people. ” It seems there are no rights and wrongs in the matter, even for us native speakers, so how can a learner of English have a hope of getting it right'

It gets even worse for the student of English in oral exercises, because “it’s” sounds just like “its”, “who’s” sounds like “whose”, “they’re” sounds like “their”, “you’re” sounds like “your”, “there’s” sounds like “theirs”. Transcribing dictation becomes a nightmare.

Think how the absence or misplacement of the apostrophe totally changes the following meanings:

New members welcome drink (no doubt they do!)

Adult learner’s week (lucky him!)

Member’s May Ball (with whom will he dance')

Cyclist’s only (his only what')

Please return trolley’s (return trolley’s what')

Or the lack of a comma:

No dogs please (most dogs make a point of pleasing)

Using the apostrophe correctly is a real challenge for new learners, using the comma well requires an ear for sense and rhythm, using the semi-colon is often not even taught until the student is at an advanced level: it marks you as a master of the craft of punctuation. As teachers of English do we attempt to teach punctuation as the grammar books tell us, or as per common usage' Every language expert from Dr Johnson onwards has accepted that it’s a mistake to attempt to embalm the language. Of course it must change and adapt. It is in the nature of printers’ conventions to develop over time, usually in the cause of making language less fussy on the page. We no longer use full stops after everyday abbreviations, but where did all the commas go'

The reason it is worth standing up for punctuation is not that it’s an arbitrary system of notation known only to an over-sensitive elite who have attacks of the vapours when they see it missapplied. The reason to stand up for punctuation is that without it there is no reliable way of communicating meaning. Punctuation directs you how to read, in the way musical notation directs a musician how to play.

If we abolish punctuation, we’re missing the point, pun intended!

The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, R. W. Burchfield, Oxford University Press

Oxford Companion to English Literature

Eats shoots and leaves, Lynne Truss. Profile Books, 2003.