Creative Series II: The Pitfalls and Perils of Punctuation
If you’re like me, you might sometimes have problems with punctuation.
Let’s talk about punctuation first, and what it is for. Punctuation has a historical reason for being a part of our written language. The history of punctuation is actually quite fascinating, as presented by the BBC in an online article. A Wikipedia search shows us a number of reasons why punctuation has become such an important part of many written languages in our world today. “In written English, punctuation is vital to disambiguate the meaning of sentences. For example: “woman, without her man, is nothing” (emphasizing the importance of men), and “woman: without her, man is nothing” (emphasizing the importance of women) have very different meanings; as do “eats shoots and leaves” (which means the subject consumes plant growths) and “eats, shoots, and leaves” (which means the subject eats first, then fires a weapon, and then leaves the scene). The sharp differences in meaning are produced by the simple variations in punctuation within the example pairs, especially the latter.”
Reading a bit further in the Wikipedia example shows us: “The oldest known document using punctuation is the Mesha Stele (9th century BC). This employs points between the words and horizontal strokes between the sense section as punctuation.” There is a lot of really cool content on the web today about the history of punctuation. I hope that you find a few moments to do some research about just why we use punctuation.
So, what if we don’t use punctuation?
Did you know that the old Greeks recorded dialogues on parchment? There was a problem however, EVERYTHINGTHEYWROTEHADNOSPACINGANDWASWRITTENINUPPERCASELETTERS. Imagine even attempting to “decode” something that a scribe had written down for posterity. What a chore that would be! As a result, rules were created by Aristophanes of Bysantium to handle this increasing problem in Greek literature by adding spaces and accents to help people understand what they were reading.
If you are now, or remember how confusing or frustrating it could be to read and understand what many of us call archaic script, you would agree with me in saying that reading very old texts can be quite frustrating.
How about an example? I am going to use some material from Harvard’s The Geoffrey Chaucer Page, that was erected for just this purpose. Here is a direct copy from that site:
The opening lines of the Canterbury Tales constitute a learned version of the “reverdi,” a simple lyric celebrating the return of Spring after the harshness of winter, a common form of medieval French lyric. It became widespread in English as well. widespread in English as well. The most famous example in is the “Cuckoo song,” which dates from the twelfth century:
Sumer is i-comen in.
Groweth seed and bloweth meed
And springth the wude nu.
I suppose that little songs like this go back to earliest antiquity — the reassuring return of vegetation and fertility, and of the sun — especially in Northern Europe – – after the cold and dark winter.
The standard love lyric builds upon this return of spring song by adding human love. Spring brings a great outburst of energy in nature, the birds begin to sing again, and nature stirs its creatures to love:
Western wind, when wilt thou blow,
The small rain down can rain?
Christ, if my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again!
When Spring arrives, love comes with it. Here is a typical opening of a lover’s complaint:
When the nightingale singes
The wodes waxen grene,
Leaf and gras and blossom springes
In Averil, I wene,
And love is to min herte gon
With a spere so keen.
And on then into the story of his love.
How did you feel when you were reading the passages? Were you able to understand what Chaucer was saying?
If you have ever read any passages from Ovid, a roman poet who lived from 43 BC to 17 AD, you will find text that is very graphic in nature. More like reading something that might have been written by Stephen King:
And Phorbas the descendant of Methion.
Who hailed from far Syene, with his friend
Amphimedon of Libya, in their haste
to join the battle, slipped up in the blood
and fell together: just as they arose
that glittering sword was driven through the throat
of Phorbas into the ribs of his companion.
What I am pasting is very tame, in comparison to the rest of Ovid’s story.
What I would like to point out however, is the punctuation that is being used. Would Ovid’s punctuation be corrected by an editor? Would you have been the editor?
Did you know, there are many sources available for guidance in using punctuation?
My favorite is right next to me. I always keep it next to my keyboard.
There are many scholars who claim that our modern punctuation started in the 16th century. Other scholars claim that the punctuation we use today began much earlier. Whomever is correct, the fact that modern punctuation has become so critical to our daily writing lives means that facing the challenge of punctuation’s sometimes massive role in our writing, is privy to how our readers judge us and our ability to write.
I recommend using Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.
I keep Elements of Style next to my keyboard. If it is not, I have my source online where I can reach it at any time. If you take a look at the link I provided, you’ll find that you too, can have it at your fingertips. There are countless other sources that you can use to ensure that your punctuation is correct. Here are just a few that you can use:
- Elements of Editing, A Modern Guide for Editors and Journalists by Arthur Plotnik
- The Elements of Grammar by Margaret Shertzer
- Write Right! by Jan Venolia
- The Copyeditor’s Handbook, A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications by Amy Einsohn
Are just a few of the invaluable books, available as sources that you can add to your collection of tips and tricks to being a better writer.
Writing is fun for me. It has been a constant source of learning the art and craft of writing. I hope that you have as much enjoyment and reward from writing as I have through the years.
Next in my Creative Series III: How to Start Writing