What's the point? - An essay on punctuation

Hausarbeit, 2010
16 Seiten, Note: 3,0


Assuming a sentence rises into the air with the initial capital letter and lands with a soft-ish bump at the full stop, the humble comma can keep the sentence aloft all right, like this, UP, for hours if necessary, UP, like this, UP, sort-of bouncing, and then falling down, and then UP it goes again, assuming you have enough additional things to say, although in the end you may run out of ideas and then you have to roll along the ground with no commas at all until some sort of surface resistance takes over and you run out of steam anyway and then eventually with the help of three dots… you stop (Truss 2003: 106).

This essay will focus on the use of punctuation and punctuation marks in American and British English writing. As today more and more people seem to not use the right amount of punctuation marks anymore and marks like the semicolon are supposed to have died out I wondered, whether these assumptions of Lynne Truss in her brilliantly written book Eats, Shoots and Leaves (2003) are true or not. In order to test this, a survey was prepared and passed over to twelve former or actual students of English – many of whom plan to become a teacher or are already working as teachers; additionally the survey was given to eight people who did not / do not study the English language but learned English at school, went to various places, where English is spoken or at least live in our Americanized world with its various adaptations from the English language. The survey which they had to do and which can be found in the appendix deals with English punctuation but nevertheless was introduced in German, which was chosen in order to avoid problems in understanding the different tasks, which could have distorted the results of the survey. The sentences used in the survey were mostly taken out of books, describing problems of punctuating, so that one can be sure not to make the kind of mistakes one was planning to test others on. In addition to the comparison of the results of the survey from students / non-students of English, also native speakers were asked to complete the survey; the aim of this was to compare the results of second language learners with those of native-speakers and to see, who of these were able to gain a better result. Before the survey and its data are analyzed, the use of punctuation and punctuation marks in general will be considered, but firstly the question what punctuation is and what kind of use it has shall be elaborated upon.

Punctuation has been defined in different ways. Some grammarians refer to the analogy of stitching, arguing that punctuation was the basting that holds the fabric of language in shape. Others state punctuation marks to be the traffic signals of language, telling us where to stop, when to slow down, etc. Lynne Truss thus regards a simple advice given by a newspaper style book as being the best of all definitions: “Punctuation is a courtesy designed to help readers to understand a story without stumbling (Truss 2003: 7).”

Of course punctuation marks are traffic signals helping us, the speaker / writer, to pronounce words correctly if for example hyphening is used; furthermore, the uttering of complete sentences needs them in order for the speaker / reader to know when to pause, to stop or to breathe while speaking. The German SlamPoetry Champignon and author Bas Böttcher makes this clear in his text Dot Matrix, in which he gives a great example of the importance of full stops, which has to be listened to, because it cannot be understood in the way it is meant to be, if it is just read (Böttcher: Internet 1[1]). In his eyes one‘s language is not only something that is given to anybody, naturally, but a tool, almost a piece of art, as via language art can be created in terms of poems, books, essays, etc. He warns that “wenn ich meine Sprache verrotten lasse, dann lässt am Ende meine Sprache mich verrotten. Das macht die Sprache, die Macht der Sprache“ (Internet: Böttcher 2008) but also predicts what will happen if one cares about his / her language, his / her utterances and writings, arguing “und erweitere ich meine sprachlichen Möglichkeiten, dann erweitert die Sprache meine Möglichkeiten. Das macht die Sprache, die Macht der Sprache […] und liebe ich meine Sprache, dann liebt ganz sicherlich meine Sprache mich (Ibid).“ His lesson is clear: It is not only one’s language that somebody hears – there is more in the language than meets the eye. Because of the kind of language somebody chooses to apply in an oral form, we, the listeners, judge him / her. We guess where he / she comes from, what kind of home that somebody who talks / writes is from and what kind of school or university he / she attended, if any. This is what Bas Böttcher wanted to express, when he was on stage and brought forth his poem, including the bottom line: “Und wenn ich hier vor euch stehe und spreche zu euch über die Sprache, dann spricht die Sprache eigentlich viel mehr noch über mich, das macht die Sprache, ich kenn die doch (Ibid).“ Part of this language Böttcher refers to is punctuation. Without it, one’s language would sound peculiar, as can be seen in the video posted on Youtube. Certainly not only Bas Böttcher talks about this phenomenon, also Lynne Truss mentions something similar:

While we look in horror at a badly punctuated sign, the world carries on around us, blind to our plight. We are like the little boy in The Sixth Sense who can see dead people, except that we can see dead punctuation (Truss 2003: 3).

Truss hereby refers to the lack of pronunciation marks and also the mistakes which are made by people trying to punctuate a sentence correctly. “Where did all the commas go?” (Ibid: 22), she asks and thus expresses that there used to be more commas which were applied in peoples’ writings. She wonders how this development took place and one finding is that the rules which exist are not clearly specified or at least are not known by most people. In the MBA Handbook it is written that “if there is any rule, few people are aware of it (concerning inverted commas)” (Cameron 2001: 260). Sir Ernest Gowers holds the opinion that the use of commas cannot be learned by rule (Gowers 1978 / Truss 2003: 82) while the Oxford Companion to English Literature notes the lack of a golden age in which the rules for the possessive apostrophe were clear-cut and known, understood and followed by most educated people (McArthur 1992 / Truss 2003: 30). Another problem of the correct use of punctuation marks is illustrated by Evelyn Waugh, who regards many people as considering any other usage but their own to be either barbarous or pedantic (Truss 2003: 30). Carey defines punctuation as being governed one-third by personal taste and only two-thirds by rule which seems to be another reason of the development of the use of punctuation marks to have strayed from the straight and narrow, as they – saying it in a simplified way – just seem to die out. (Internet: Nordquist / Truss: 2003: 27).

Also differences between the British English and the American English way of punctuation can be taken into consideration. We know that plenty of vocabulary differences between these two major national varieties of English are quite common, as plenty of linguists have proved, but also differences in punctuation do occur (Hofland, Johansson 1982: 33). An example of this could be the so called Oxford comma. It refers to the comma which is placed before a coordinating conjunction like and or or in an enumeration, so for example in the sentence He went shopping to Harrods, Kaufhof, and Primark. The Oxford comma, also called serial comma, is standard in American English but not in British English. If it can help to point out the meaning of a sentence more easily, like in He went shopping to Harrods, Hennes and Mauritz, and Primark (15., see survey), in which the comma makes it clear that Hennes and Mauritz represents one unit of meaning and that not two shops are meant, of which one is called Hennes and the other Mauritz, the serial comma is also used by UK writers. Where to set the question mark in a sentence including a quotation, is but one of many other differences between speakers from America and such of the UK. Generally one can say that quotation marks in British English aim to be logical, as they are placed according to sense and context of what is said / written. The placement of quotation marks in American English may lack logic but does have the virtue of simplicity due to the fact that all punctuation precedes all final quotation marks (King 2004: 151). Because of theses different rules, some American English speakers seem to adopt punctuation rules of British English and vice versa, which is why the phrase that an Englishman’s way of speaking would absolutely clarify him cannot be hold true anymore (Davies 2005: 73). Concerning the different pronunciation of words, both variants of English still exist as they did before – summed up by Partridge and Clark in the stereotyped sentence “British English is stuffy and American English bumptious (1951: 309)” – but concerning the rules of punctuation the cliché cannot be pertained.

All these different aspects lead to the question, whether the decreasing use of punctuation marks is a good thing to happen, as lots of sentences are simplified when written and punctuation mistakes were not to occur in such a number like nowadays, if some marks such as the semicolon were simply abolished, since they are not used anymore, anyways. Lynne Truss does definitely not think in such a way. “Abolish the apostrophe and it’ll be necessary, before the hour is up, to reinvent it, (Truss 2003: 67)” she argues and comes to the conclusion that all modern literature, in which the rules of punctuation are neglected, should be burned (Ibid: 27). Likewise Graham King reminds us not to underestimate the role of punctuation in writing good English (2004: 2). Using colons and other punctuation marks correctly is the equivalent of playing the piano with crossed hands – as nowadays the vast majority of the English speaking communities are able to write, but will only be able to write in an appropriate way, if punctuation characters are used to wit correctly (Partridge 1953: 52). Ernest Hemmingway’s solution is as follows:


[1] The passage starting at 1:25 and ending at 1:31.

Ende der Leseprobe aus 16 Seiten


What's the point? - An essay on punctuation
Universität zu Köln  (Philosophische Fakultät)
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
518 KB
Arbeit zitieren
Stefan Langenbach (Autor), 2010, What's the point? - An essay on punctuation, München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/174023


  • Noch keine Kommentare.
Im eBook lesen
Titel: What's the point? - An essay on punctuation

Ihre Arbeit hochladen

Ihre Hausarbeit / Abschlussarbeit:

- Publikation als eBook und Buch
- Hohes Honorar auf die Verkäufe
- Für Sie komplett kostenlos – mit ISBN
- Es dauert nur 5 Minuten
- Jede Arbeit findet Leser

Kostenlos Autor werden