A Stylish Diversion

David Foster’s discussion of the numerous analogies – some helpful, some not – that have been spun from the Titanic disaster reminded me of an essay’s  rather lovely job of spinning out for two pages a simple analogy.  The verbal play within it does bring home a point.   By Pico Iyer, it was one of those two-page essays in Time, when people read it.  (Clint’s uncle still subscribes to it – I didn’t know anyone did – but bed ridden and in his eighties, he uses it mainly to rail against modernity – or what passes for it in Time.)  Anyway, here’s “In Praise of the Humble Comma” – a short read but I’ll tempt you with the opening:

The gods, they say, give breath, and they take it away. But the same could be said — could it not? — of the humble comma. Add it to the present clause, and, of a sudden, the mind is, quite literally, given pause to think; take it out if you wish or forget it and the mind is deprived of a resting place. Yet still the comma gets no respect. It seems just a slip of a thing, a pedant’s tick, a blip on the edge of our consciousness, a kind of printer’s smudge almost. Small, we claim, is beautiful (especially in the age of the microchip). Yet what is so often used, and so rarely recalled, as the comma — unless it be breath itself?


19 thoughts on “A Stylish Diversion”

  1. Punctuation is an invention of the Middle (Dark?) Ages. My Latin teacher told us that the most challenging part of her graduate studies was trying to make sense of the original texts with everything run together without even spaces between words.


    As bad a typist as I am, it took three tries to do that. Imagine trying to teach a child to read that.

    Case is also a “modern” invention. Yet another imposition by old white medieval men. Probably racist and patriarchal that some letters are bigger and more important than others.

  2. I did a fair amount of public speaking outside the library and classroom, and the comma was essential to me whether I was delivering my own words or someone else’s.

    Prof. van Creveld’s two kindle offerings I mentioned recently are evidence of how difficult good comma usage can be for people whose first language is not English.

    MCS’s point is excellent; how about ancient Hebrew writing, which even left the vowel sounds out? Or ancient Greek, which was boustrophedonic?

  3. One of my wiser teachers pointed out that it wasn’t Hemingway that was closest to speech (unless maybe you are Pinter and think that’s the way people talk – though I think he was pre-Pinter) but Henry James. When we talk we gesture, we pause, we circle back, we emphasize. To catch all that with punctuation is hard so most write sorter sentences than James (or Faulkner). But it is writers like that who really catch dialogue with others and with ourself. He’d gained this insight sitting in a trucker’s diner on a long trip and listening to two guys shout out a conversation between a booth and the bar. So and so who you remember looked like this and that and did some memorable thing then verb and modifiers of it and then another series of phrases and clauses for the objects. It took me a while to love James and then to love Faulkner – and it finally came when there was a voice in my head saying the whole thing. The role of the implicit author – the author who writes the whole set of works but is somewhat separate from the biological author – came out of studying style like that and even rescued some old novels.

    If you haven’t followed the link, here’s the paragraph I pointed out to my students most often:

    By establishing the relations between words, punctuation establishes the relations between the people using words. That may be one reason why schoolteachers exalt it and lovers defy it (“We love each other and belong to each other let’s don’t ever hurt each other Nicole let’s don’t ever hurt each other,” wrote Gary Gilmore to his girlfriend). A comma, he must have known, “separates inseparables,” in the clinching words of H.W. Fowler, King of English Usage.

    Most of them didn’t know who he was, but once I’d explained and pointed out that this can be an analogy to his attitude toward the law they paused. Or that Ruskin used no punctuation and spent his last years completely insane.

  4. Punctuation and case are both critical innovations that enhance the printed word. The amazing thing is how long it took for us to come up with them, and how fast they came into widespread use around the world once we came up with the idea.

    The interesting thing about it all is the thorough penetration that these innovations have achieved. Ask any lay person without a background in the history of languages, and they’ll tell you that we’ve always had punctuation, and they can’t imagine not having it, or not separating words. The absence of such conventions is so counterintuitive that it will generate cognitive dissonance in the person first encountering it, and they’ll argue for hours that such a thing is manifestly impossible. “How could you have read anything like that?!?!?!?”

    Quite an achievement for the innovators who came up with it all.

  5. I believe I’ve read that there were movements at different times towards punctuation in written Latin. These came to grief on two points. The first was that white space was expensive when the alternatives were velum (sheep or goat normally) or papyrus that had to be imported from Egypt. The other was that it would make things too accessible to the plebs and that by not requiring such close study to make it comprehensible, the intended meaning would be lost. The most insulting thing a speaker could do was to appear to be reading his remarks, everything was supposed to be composed in the moment. You’ll note that inscriptions on public display show normal word spacing. It’s not that they didn’t realize how much harder lack of punctuation made reading, it’s that they liked it that way.

  6. From the original article:
    “The hot-blooded Spaniard seems to be revealed in the passion and urgency of his doubled exclamation points and question marks (“Caramba! Quien sabe?”)”

    I find it somewhat amusing that the typsetters coundn’t actually supply the inverted leading exclamation and question marks implied, and so have that sentence make sense.

  7. “You’ll note that inscriptions on public display show normal word spacing.”

    I’m hard-pressed to find examples of that, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen any imagery supporting that thesis, or seen examples of Roman public inscriptions in museums, either.

    What I have seen is like this:


    Not that I’ve done an extensive study on the subject, but that’s what I’ve seen and read about–Zero word separation or punctuation as we know it. If you’ve cites to the contrary, I’d appreciate you sharing them.

  8. @Ed in Texas,

    Spanish makes more sense than English, in that regard: If you’re reading something out loud, it makes it a lot easier to do it right if you know from the beginning of a sentence that it’s an exclamation or question. In English, you’ll hear people reading along, realize there’s more than a simple period at the end, and you’ll get this sudden difference in intonation rising right there at the end of the sentence… Which can be either humorous or maddening, depending. I used to listen to my Mom read to the younger brothers, and you’d occasionally hear examples of that happening to her. It’s like “Oh, lovely… This isn’t a normal sentence, this is a damn question!”

    It’s more common a problem for less-proficient readers, or those who are extremely tired at the end of their workday.

  9. You learn something every day, if you’re attentive:

    “The interpunct (interpunctus) was regularly used in classical Latin to separate words. In addition to the most common round form, inscriptions sometimes use a small equilateral triangle for the interpunct, pointing either up or down. It may also appear as a mid-line comma, similar to the Greek practice of the time. The interpunct fell out of use c. 200 CE, and Latin was then written scripta continua for several centuries.”

    That’s out of the Wikipedia, when I went looking for “WTF are those little triangular points between words…?”. I think I’ve seen those before, but I’d always just assumed they were Latin inscriptions from the post-Roman era, where they did Latin with modern conventions. Apparently, there was a convention for word separation, then there wasn’t, and then there was again, depending on who did the writing. I’d always assumed that “real Roman” Latin had that scripta continua thing going on, and the way you dated it to post-Roman era was if there was any sort of punctuation. Now that I think about it, that can’t possibly be accurate, because some of those monuments date back to actual Roman times… So much for picking up things through context. I’m glad you brought this point out–I’ve learned something today. Yay!!! I can quit the internet for the day!

  10. The koala bear eats, shoots and leaves.

    Alternately: the koala bear eats shoots and leaves.

    The comma verbs nouns.

    There’s a book called “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation” by
    Lynne Truss

    I used to have a paper copy. I remember it as pretty good.

  11. The seemingly random Insertion of upper-case Letters in the Texts, both written by Hand and set on the Press, of the 18th century bother me more than any Habits of that Era’s Punctuation.

  12. IIRC the odd capitalizations of earlier written English are cognate with German practice, and are not actually random. Though it sure seems that way sometimes.

    Anybody up for some academic footnoting lore?

    Yeah, me neither.

  13. I knew there was a logic to it all, and I finally found it after considerable searching… The Cambridge Encyclopedia of English, p.66-67 references one J.Hart and his Orthographie for guidance in these matters.

    “Hart recommended his readers to use a capital letter at the beginning of every sentence, proper name, and important common noun. By the early 17th century, the practice had extended to titles (Sir, Lady), forms of address (Father, Mistr/s), and personified nouns (Nature). Emphasized words and phrases would also attract a capital. By the beginning of the 18th century, the influence of Continental books had caused this practice to be extended still further (e.g. to the names of the branches of knowledge), and it was not long before some writers began using a capital for any noun that they felt to be important. Books appeared in which all or most nouns were given an Initial capital (as is done systematically in modern German) – perhaps for aesthetic reasons, or perhaps because printers were uncertain about which nouns to capitalize, and so capitalized them all. The fashion was at its height in the later 17th century, and continued into the 18th. The manuscripts of Butler, Traherne, Swift, and Pope are full of initial capitals. However, the later 18th-century grammarians were not amused by this apparent lack of order and discipline in the written language. In their view, the proliferation of capitals was unnecessary,
    and causing the loss of a useful potential distinction. Their rules brought a dramatic reduction in the types of noun permitted to take a capital letter (p. 122).”

    There was a certain logic to it, and the Germans still do it. The capitalization of the word “I” is a vestigial remnant, if I remember my reading correctly. Or not… I can’t remember where I found that.

  14. The first rule of punctuation, I think, is that it needs to make the meaning of the author plain. The second is: if you seem to need more than a coma, your best bet might be to use a period and two sentences. Third: if you need some sort of complicated, convoluted punctuation to comply with the first rule, you’ll fail, so best to start over, see rule 2.

    I hadn’t heard of the elocutionary punctuationist distinction. My English teachers generally allowed as much license as my math teachers.

    The disheartening thing is reading the complete gibberish that makes it into print, all written and edited by so called “professional” writers.

  15. There’s also the question I’ve always had: Is language more a tool of thought, or a tool of communication?

    I have come to think that the communication utility of language is subordinate to the “tool for thinking” aspect. Every single person I’ve run into whose communication is incoherent and jumbled? Their thinking is demonstrably the same.

    It may be a “chicken and egg” thing: Poor thinking means poor language skills, but I think the two are inextricably entwined. If you don’t have the terms and the language structure beneath them to support your thinking process, you’re going to have a very hard time just “running on instinct” and visualization. This is why I think that anyone who claims they don’t have an internal “voice” as they think is either delusional or mistaken. If you read Lena Boroditsky’s work and listen to her lectures, it rapidly becomes apparent that language shapes worldview; or, conversely, that worldview shapes the languages we use to create that worldview. Either way you look at it, language is a tool for thinking, and it’s a tool we’re constantly honing and modifying to fit, like some ape on the plains of Africa looking for the perfect stone to use as a handaxe.

    Punctuation is merely an expression of that. You have to wonder what an ancient like Cicero or Caeser would have made of English as a tool; would the treasure-chest of riches within have left them marveling, or horrified?

    I think that a lot of the horrible prose I’m seeing out there isn’t so much an indicator of decaying English skills so much as it is a sign that the writer or speaker is incapable of the coherent thought necessary to express themselves coherently. They’ve got incoherent minds, thus the products emanating from those minds are also incoherent as hell. It’s a common flaw with the ideologues; you look at their written works, and you find yourself wondering just what the hell people were seeing in them. I’ve read a couple of translations of Mein Kampf, and I can’t see the attraction, TBH. Might be different in the original German, among the original readers, but… I kind of get the feeling that that particular author wasn’t admired for his limpid and lucid prose, but probably because people read it, couldn’t make sense of it, and then chose to think “Well, everyone else says this is brilliant, so if I question it, I’m the dummy…”

    An acquaintance of mine who lived through that era kinda intimated that she’d done that; read it, and then suspended her senses because of the “conventional wisdom” around her. Everyone else thought it and Hitler were genius, sooooo… She went with the consensus, and said to herself “Well, I’m just a housewife, and not that smart… These other people must be right!!”

    Which I think is the real story behind much of the “woke” ideology. They spout patent nonsense, but everyone is afraid to say that they can’t parse the bullshit and make sense of it, so here we are. Locally to me, I just woke up to the news that the state government of Washington has decided to outlaw use of the word “marijuana” ‘cos “racism”. What brilliance, what insight… Should solve all of our problems, donchathink?

    I think these idiots read 1984 and thought it was an operations manual…

  16. I think of words as the tools used by the brain to fine-tune and sharpen thoughts, a force-multiplier for higher cogitation.
    As for punctuation – has anyone else seen the picture taken of a gal, at a rape protest, holding a sign lacking in correct usage? The result made it look like she was protesting for more rape.

  17. Ahh, the subtleties of the comma.

    Years ago, there was a contest for titles of famous science-fiction books, slightly modified, with amusingly altered meaning. A collection of short stories by Theodore Sturgeon was a winner:

    Sturgeon Is Alive And Well… became Sturgeon Is Alive And, Well…

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