Confessions of a Pedant

Punctuation – what’s it all about? Why do pedants like me get so worked up about bad punctuation? One answer we like to give is: clarity. Look, we say, the missing comma in this sentence makes it unclear, or it makes it look like nonsense, or…

But hang on a minute. In most cases, when I show you a sentence and say the missing comma makes it look like nonsense, what happens in reality is that most native English speakers read it and understand perfectly well what it’s supposed to say.

One of the reasons people get so annoyed with us is that most people most of the time understand the text anyway, so they can’t see why we make such a fuss over (literally) little things like apostrophes or commas. When the sign outside the fruit & veg shop announces the price for “carrot’s” we all know that they mean the plural of “carrot”. Anyone reading the famous (though presumably mythical) encyclopaedia entry about pandas would have intuitively ignored the superfluous comma and understood that it’s describing what the animal eats and not, in fact, suggesting that these creatures walk around with a gun, or a bow and arrow, and shoot people.

Sure, sometimes it is about clarity. There are sentences that could be understood two different ways if they’re not punctuated well. But, let’s be honest: we pedants get annoyed about bad punctuation even when that isn’t the case. We get annoyed because of the wrongness of it – not because it’s unclear. It’s only when there is a lack of clarity that we rejoice because this is our chance to be vindicated. Look, we say to anyone who hasn’t got totally bored and gone off to watch paint dry instead of listening to us, look at this sentence – a prime example of why punctuation matters!

And punctuation does matter. It does help make the text more readable. I know the difference punctuation makes – I’m a Hebrew speaker and I know the challenges of reading the Old Testament in the original, unpunctuated Hebrew. I also know what it’s like trying to read some modern English texts – namely, those social media posts where people, for reasons I fail to understand, write whole paragraphs without even so much as a full stop to show when a sentence ends.

Try reading this and see how it works – I’ve seen people do this sort of thing online far too often:

the house stood on a slight rise just on the edge of the village it stood on its own and looked out over a broad spread of west country farmland not a remarkable house by any means it was about thirty years old squattish made of brick and had four windows set in the front of a size and proportion which more or less exactly failed to please the eye.

(with apologies to Douglas Adams, who did punctuate.)

It’s not impossible to read – just more difficult than the punctuated version. So you see why people bothered to invent punctuation. It is kind of useful.

And it’s also kind of useful that we have rules about how to use this useful thing – conventions that make it easier for us to understand what the writer meant. Take question marks for example – they help you know that the sentence you’re looking at is a question, even if it doesn’t start with an obvious question word like Why or What. If someone leaves you a note saying “fancy a coffee?” you know that they’re asking if you fancy a coffee. If they write “fancy a coffee.” then it looks like they’re telling you: I fancy a coffee.

So punctuation is a useful thing. It makes written text easier to read, and sometimes clearer. But bad punctuation annoys me not only when it leads to lack of clarity – it annoys me because it jars me, it breaks the flow of reading, it draws my attention away from the content of what I’m reading and forces me to engage with those bits that are supposed to just be there as reading aids. Those little bits scattered between words are supposed to be unobtrusively smoothing my reading experience – not drawing attention to themselves. Good punctuation should just work behind the scenes. Bad punctuation is jarring, and that’s really why I find it so annoying – not because of clarity.

Questions? Thoughts? Talk to me - I don't bite :)

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