Developing the theme of correct punctuation, reader jdmyeepa steers us to this superb essay about the Philosophy of Punctuation by Paul Robinson, who used to keep goal for Tottenham (and alas England) but then became a prominent American intellectual.

Or maybe it’s two separate P Robinsons. Whatever.

Anyway, this deft piece of work draws an interesting distinction between (a) writing as a way to express spoken thoughts on paper, using punctuation accordingly, and (b) writing as a separate means of communication with (therefore) different punctuation rules:

A colleague of mine, whom I consider a fine writer, punctuates, as it were, by ear. That is, he seeks to reduplicate patterns of speech, to indicate through his punctuation how a sentence is supposed to sound.

Consequently his punctuation lacks strict consistency. But I can respect it as guided at all times by what I consider philosophical principles.

Given my character, my own philosophy is more legalistic. My colleague, you might say, is a Platonist in punctuation, while I am an Aristotelian.

My punctuation is informed by two ideals: clarity and simplicity. Punctuation has the primary responsibility of contributing to the plainness of one’s meaning. It has the secondary responsibility of being as invisible as possible, of not calling attention to itself.

I tend to the Platonist end of that spectrum. Surely we write mainly because it is the best way to talk to people not in the room? So punctuation ought to help deliver the sort of precision in meaning which is lacking when tone of voice and body gestures are not available.

Look at this simple sentence: I think you are wrong.

It can be cast in five ways on the written page using typographic emphasis, depending on the intention of the speaker saying the words:

  • I think you are wrong (ie others may think you are right but I disagree)
  • I think you are are wrong (ie I am not quite sure about it)
  • I think you are wrong (ie others aren’t wrong) 
  • I think you are wrong (ie you’ve been denying it, but I insist) 
  • I think you are wrong (ie a strong stress upon your wrongness in this case)

In this sentence punctuation does not help much. The sentence is too short. But examples could easily be shown where the punctuation itself gives added subtle emphasis, depending how you do it.

Paul Robinson again:

Then there are parentheses and dashes. They are, of course, indispensable. I’ve used them five times already in this essay alone. But I think one must maintain a very strict attitude toward them.

I start from the proposition that all parentheses and dashes are syntactical defeats. They signify an inability to express one’s ideas sequentially, which, unless you’re James Joyce, is the way the language was meant to be used.

I think he’s being over-strict. Just pick the tool for the job.

Some writing will benefit from somewhat breathless punctuation to make a certain sort of emotional impact on the reader. Other writing needs to be more formal, more sedate and measured.

All this comes to a head in official or senior speechwriting. Here the drafter has to do two incompatible jobs.

First, to prepare a text which is user-friendly for the speaker on the day, using dynamic punctuation and layout and anything else handy to help the speaker effortlessly use emphasis and get a better audience reaction.

Second, to write a text which can be published afterwards ‘for the record’ as a coherent piece of work with some authority. Here the punctuation and lay-out and general feel of the words may have to be quite different to be convincing.

What a great subject. Much healthier than worrying about WW3 as started in the Korean peninsula or the collpase* of the Eurozone.  

Here is an earlier example I posted from another footballing linguistic philosopher. Enjoy.

* Oops. See comments below