Making A Point: The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation, by David Crystal

Crystal clear: thats what the rules of punctuation are not. But David Crystal’s journey through the history of punctuation is, and this guide not only clarifies when is the right time to use a specific punctuation mark but it also explains the history of how these marks came into existence. It also clarifies why confusion reigns about usage.

Do you remember being taught that you used a comma when you needed to stop and take a breath? This was important advice at one time … especially if you were a monk being given a new piece of text that you were going to have to chant with fellow monks in the next 15 minutes. It was handy to know then, when to pause for a breath, so that you spoke in unison with your fellow monks. But if you were in a silent order, then the need for commas to denote breaths was …

In fact, Crystal explains that reading quietly to oneself was not the done thing when the written language first appeared. After all, if you had the brains and the knowledge to read then you would delight in showing off your superior skill by reading aloud.

And that’s Crystal’s point. Punctuation developed because of two very different roles: one to assist in the reading aloud of written text, the other to assist in it’s clarity when reading it.

Ah! Did you spot my deliberate mistake in the previous sentence? (By that, I mean the mistake I put in there on purpose, as opposed to the other mistakes I haven’t realised I have made.) It’s the apostrophe in it’s clarity. Our punctuation rules teach us that we only need an apostrophe in it’s when it’s an abbreviation of it is, not when denoting possession. So my usage in the previous paragraph broke the rule.

But how many of you read the text and understood the possession? And how many of you read it as it is clarity? I’m sure most of you understood what I meant even though the punctuation was wrong. And Crystal asks the question: how bad is that, if everyone reading my text understood what I meant? (And, let’s face it, the possessive apostrophe rule is a little confusing when it is required to show some possession, but not all possession.)

The problem arises when it’s clarity confuses readers and they become unsure as to what my real intention was. That’s why punctuation is so important. Punctuation is wrong when it leads readers to interpret the text in a completely different way to that intended by the writer.

(Crystal also explains why writers should get others to proofread their text. It’s not because writers don’t ‘see’ the errors with their punctuation, it’s because they know the point they were trying to get across, and don’t see any other interpretation.)

So, wordsmiths, like us, should be fascinated by language, otherwise, how else are we to be sure that our readers are understanding the precise point we’re making? Crystal’s book certainly improves the clarity of punctuation, in a light-hearted and easy-to-read way, which is perfect for those whose punctuation confidence is a little lacking.

Good luck.