27 June 2007

Punctual Punctuation

The right word may be effective, but no word was ever as effective as a rightly timed pause.~~Mark Twain


But that was rather difficult to read. The Romans sometimes used a dot between words, which later changed to a space and became standardized with the printing press, as did many other punctuation conventions--more about that later. The Greeks gave us paragraphos, or paragraph breaks--a horizontal line inserted when starting a new line of thought. Of course, there might be three or four pages of text in one paragraph, but what breaks there were certainly did aid in readability.

The period or "full stop" still wasn't used consistently. Medieval scribes often used daggers, flowers, birds, and other ornaments to indicate paragraphs or footnotes. In fact, punctuation was used more for speaking--reading the text out loud--than for reading silently. In other words, where a speaker should pause, the writer inserted some sort of mark. No regard was made to such things as dependent clauses, dialogue, or things of that ilk.

So let's skip ahead to a Venitian printing shop in the late 1400s, and visit Aldus Manutius (1449-1515). What an innovator he was. He was the first to publish classics without annotations or other distractions. Italics typeface is attributable to him. Periods, commas, and some grammar conventions came about because if his scholarly efforts. And yet, the print shop stayed in business for years, so he must have been somewhat profitable while swimming against the tide. His grandson, the younger Aldo, recorded punctuation rules in 1566. Three generations of the Manutius family defined the look and content of books today.

The Next Generation

At the beginning of the 1600s, punctuation was still used more for elocution than to delineate syntax. Not until Ben Jonson's posthumously published work, English Grammar (written in 1617 and published in 1640), was punctuation used syntactically and in a way that made sense. This small book can be somewhat daunting to read, however.

"There resteth one generall Affection of the whole, dispersed thorow every member thereof, as the bloud is thorow the body; and consisteth in the Breathing, when we pronounce any Sentence; For, whereas our breath is by nature so short, that we cannot continue without a stay to speake long together; it was thought necessarie, as well as for the speakers ease, as for the plainer deliverance of the things spoken, to invent this meanes, whereby men pausing a pretty while, the whole speech might never the worse be understood."
That means punctuation makes a sentence more easily comprehended. Makes one appreciate Strunk & White.

Contemporary Punctuation

From Punctuation in English Since 1600, which cites Encylopaedia Britannica:
"It was the lexicographers Henry Watson Fowler and Francis George Fowler in The King's English, published in 1906, who established the current British practice of light punctuation. Punctuation in the United States has followed much the same path as in Britain, but the rules laid down by American authorities have in general been more rigid than the British rules."
Even today, punctuation rules are fluid and each publishing house has its own "style" which may or may not conform with late 20th Century's accepted standards. Most large publishers are using fewer and fewer commas whether a pause is indicated or not. My publisher, however, inserted hundreds of commas in my last book because they adhere to the standard comma rules. They do not, however, adhere to the standardized rules for interrupting dialogue with body motion--there's a house "style" for that. It behooves a writer to read a few books from her targeted publisher to find out how that house punctuates. There are vast differences.

Just for fun, try the Eats, Shoots & Leaves' Punctuation Game.

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Jacquie Rogers
Faery Special Romances (May 2007)
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