Book review: David Crystal’s history of punctuation is marked for success
Although the conventions of use might seem fixed, they continue to evolve, says Crystal in his fascinating study
For punctuation, 1890 was a traumatic year. At one stroke, about a quarter of a million apostrophes were wiped from the surface of the earth.
The decision by the US Board on Geographic Names to do away with “apostrophes suggesting possession or association” in names such as Pikes Peak and Harpers Ferry is one of the more dramatic examples of the changeable fortunes of the cluster of squiggles that pepper our written language.
David Crystal’s superb new book is packed full of illuminating examples of the political, social and technological forces that have driven the evolution of English punctuation. With crisp, tight prose punctuated with self-conscious precision, Crystal provides not only a historical guide but an indispensable reference manual that doesn’t so much lay down the law as provide a rational framework.
If you fret over the correct usage of the semicolon or comma, and would rather rewrite a phrase than invite the scorn of grammatical purists, then this book is for you. The rules of punctuation weren’t carved in tablets of stone. They developed over centuries into broad conventions, guided by warring factions. And they continue to evolve.
In the beginning, there was nothing. No capital letters to designate the beginning of sentences or names. No commas, question marks, apostrophes or full stops. Not even spaces between words. Writing was typically used for inscriptions or signposts and didn’t need them – just as today our street signs are typically unadorned. Longer script might be intended for skilled orators who, like Cicero, viewed punctuation as a crutch for unskilled and ill-prepared speakers.
As the written word spread, so did the need for some clues inside the text to guide less gifted readers. Spaces appeared between words. They might be separated by full stops or other marks, and not with any consistency or accepted practice. The copying of religious texts by monks as Christianity spread across Britain proved a major driver. Many early works were glossaries of Latin and English, which would have been unusable without spaces.
Punctuation’s role in bringing clarity in religious texts was understood as early as the 4th century by St Augustine, who saw that the placing of a mark might mean the difference between orthodoxy and heresy. But even Augustine was forced to admit that there are times when rules will fail, in which case “there is nothing to hinder us to point the sentence according to any method we choose”.
Practices remained fragmented and inconsistent due to the very nature of handwritten works, and as literacy spread beyond the cloisters so the need for an orderly system grew.
The printing press would prove the vehicle to accelerate and amplify this standardisation. But it was only after a chaotic start as printers experimented with the rules, Crystal shows. Nonetheless, printers became powerful arbiters of both spelling and punctuation – or “house style”.
Their reign was soon challenged. The 16th century saw a surge of interest in orthography. Playwrights soon realised the importance of correct punctuation in giving cues to actors; a new school of grammarians set out to define and lobby for (their own) universal rules of usage.
Today’s digital landscape will drive changes too. The apostrophe on my smartphone’s keyboard is inconveniently placed: the temptation not to bother is powerful. New choices proliferate: emoticons can convey meaning as well as being full stops.
The speed and global reach of digital communications has important implications for the development of new conventions for punctuation. Crystal is at pains to underscore the importance of making sure children understand that acceptable usage differs according to context. (Calling the CEO your bff in a job application would be, like, wtf!) But most kids get it anyway, he says.
Intriguingly, a survey of online chat during a recent school visit showed that the students had not only eschewed emoticons, but also all online abbreviations. When asked why, one told him: “I stopped using them when my parents did.”
Making a Point by David Crystal (St Martin’s Press)