346 - A point on Puctuation

David Crystal (Standard British accent)

Yes, well the book Making a Point is called The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation, and I chose the word pernickety, or persnickety as it’s turned out to be in the United States, quite deliberately because there’s no subject in language that raises the emotions more than punctuation does. I think this is because it’s… it’s a very self-contained sort of subject, you know there are only a dozen or so punctuation marks. There are a few others of course, but a dozen or so common ones. So people feel that they can master these and understand the system, and then they… they get very uptight when they find other people using punctuation in a different way from themselves, or when they go around and see punctuation errors in shop notices and things like that. So it… it… it attracts the attention more than any other aspect of language, I think, and the reason for a book on it is to point out… well, first of all to explain where these punctuation marks came from, what the history of punctuation is, how English started with no punctuation at all, you know, the earliest manuscripts don’t have any punctuation marks in them. So where did it come from? How did it develop over the centuries? Where did all these different views about punctuation come from? Why are there so many variations in usage between British and American English and between different authors and so on, different publishing houses even? When you start describing the punctuation system in this way, what you find is that there are just so many exceptions to the rules, you know, even the basic rules – like when you use a full stop – have exceptions, you know, not all sentences end in full stops, you see. If you go looking around, you see exceptions everywhere. So I started out thinking that a book on punctuation would be just sort of a couple of hundred pages, maybe I’d handle it in a nice easy way: it turned out be nearly four hundred, and it could have been larger, but it was big enough, I think, at that point to stop. It’s one of those subjects, though, that becomes increasingly fascinating as you get drawn into it and you realize the true complexity of the subject. It’s… nobody, I think, has ever actually tried to produce a historical and synchronic account of punctuation before: there have been lots of very good and useful short guides to punctuation of course, but I found that it’s a subject that really warrants greater depth, and that’s why I wrote it.

(David Crystal was talking to Mark Worden)

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