Punctuation AND Repunctuation

Joel C. Relihan, Associate Provost and Associate Professor of Classics
Lines from Lyons, the Wheaton Wire, February 9, 2011

I write with a certain formality regardless of medium. I have never sent an uncapitalized e-mail; on the rare occasions when I send a text message, that message contains no abbreviations; I enjoy consulting The Chicago Manual of Style. This all suggests an obsession with rules, or at least a conservative resistance to new media, but there is a profounder principle involved, and one that I would like to preach here: Punctuation creates thought. Punctuation may seem to be an arbitrary collection of nasty little rules designed to help teachers deflate their students’ self-esteem; the popular view of powerful writing is the immediate (that is to say, the unmediated) spilling of thoughts onto paper. But this is often only a spilling: messy, shapeless, capriciously broken by commas. You do not have thought unless you have structure, and structure is hierarchical: subordination is not just a grammatical term but also a logical one. Punctuation is revelatory. When you accept that the semicolon joins together two independent but related thoughts into a larger whole, you start to see that your own thoughts frequently arrive in pairs; when you understand how a colon can introduce a list of examples, that string of ideas in your head becomes an illustration of a larger principle.

Language is perhaps the greatest of all human inventions, and certainly the oldest; compared to it, punctuation is only a newcomer. But punctuation has its own history, and punctuation has increased in complexity as the world has, and as human beings have, increased in complexity: parentheses and square brackets, the em-dash and the ellipsis, the faddish interrobang; and now formatting is punctuation’s new frontier. Punctuation reveals to you the architecture of your own modern mind as well as the patterns of your own modern thought. Punctuation does not just clarify or disambiguate speech, a gift to your readers: it provides rhythm, patterns of emphasis, risings and fallings, to your thought; it insists that your ideas have a sophistication commensurate with the world you inhabit. Your thoughts are not a string of declarative clauses, uniform ducks in a row on the calm surface of your mind. You are deeper than you know.

Punctuation the process is the goal of punctuation the tool kit. Look at your words again, paragraph by paragraph, and repunctuate them; when you recombine your clauses you discover (that is, you uncover) your thoughts. It is punctuation more than anything else that allows you to see what the contents of your mind really are. Are there dangers here, of artificiality or of pretense? Certainly; I am myself accused of being overfond of the semicolon, and as a translator I have to grapple with the conflict between an author’s self-aware use of punctuation and my own. The process is not flawless. But you cannot meaningfully change your presentation until you know your own mind, and punctuation, both tool kit and process, is a precious key to that self-understanding.