Use punctuation marks sparingly | Sunday Observer

Use punctuation marks sparingly

28 February, 2021

Our old English master knew his language although he had no degrees to flaunt. Once in a way he used to give us riddles we could not solve easily. When he began to teach the rules governing punctuation marks, he wrote the following sentence on the blackboard: “Charles I walked and talked half an hour after his head was cut off”. Many students were wondering where to put punctuation marks. Roger who was impatient to solve the riddle punctuated the sentence in the following way: “Charles I walked and talked half an hour, after his head was cut off”.

“How can a man talk after his head is cut off, Roger”? The teacher asked him angrily. “If you don’t know how to use punctuation marks, put one of them between “talked” and “walked”. He made our task easy. Then the sentence read: “Charles I walked and talked, half an hour after his head was cut off”. On another day, he gave us a well-known illustration recounting the fate of a warrior in ancient Greece.

Before leaving for the war, the warrior consulted the Oracle of Delphi. He was told: “Thou shalt go thou shalt return never by war shalt thou perish”. The warrior assumed that the Oracle meant “Thou shalt go, thou shalt return, never by war shalt thou perish”. Eventually, the warrior was killed in the war. The Oracle had meant something quite different: “Thou shalt go, thou shalt return never, by war shalt thou perish”.

Creative ideas

Though old, our English master was full of creative ideas. He gave us another sentence to punctuate: “What is what is not is not is it not”.It was a hard nut to crack. None of us knew how to punctuate it. Then the teacher walked up to the blackboard proudly and wrote: “What is, is; what is not, is not; is it not”?

About two centuries ago, punctuation marks took their cue from speech. Those days, people read aloud with pauses and dramatic stresses. Today, punctuation marks are used not for dramatic stresses but for clarity.

In the late 19th century, sentences were loaded with punctuation marks. With the publication of newspapers, sentences became shorter and there was no need to use many punctuation marks. Although too many punctuation marks would clutter the sentences, we need at least some of them for better communication.

To begin with, there should be some space between words. Unknown to many learners, this is a basic form of punctuation. Using capital letters where necessary is another basic form of punctuation. I remember the old schoolteacher’s rhyme:

“Sentences begin with a Capital letter

To help you make your writing better

Use full stops to mark the end

Of every sentence you have penned.”

Full stop

While I was following an editing course conducted by the “New Strait Times” in Malaysia, the editor said, “Punctuation is not a fireworks display to show off your dashes and gaspers”. Remember the first rule: The best punctuation is the full stop. It is used like a knife to cut off a sentence at the required length. Many writers, however, try to project a stream-of-consciousness effect by chucking out all punctuations, including full stops. James Joyce, for instance, used to write long sentences in “Ulysses” without pauses. However, he needed a full stop at the end of the sentence.

Full stops have been used in abbreviations for a long time. However, modern English writers have abandoned the full stop in certain abbreviations, such as “6am, eg, 1472 AD, Wm Shakespeare, RSVP and UK. We no longer use full stops in abbreviated words, such as “Dr, Mr, St Anthony” and “Revd”.

Susan Butler in “The Aitch Factor” published by Macmillan, Australia has taken up arms against the apostrophe. She says the apostrophe is essentially an artifice of writing, a grammarian’s flourish imposed from above rather than a popular creation arising from real need.

The use of the apostrophe is legitimate when we are conscious that something has been left out. For instance, we write “cos” for “because” and “o’er” for “over”.

However, “its” and ‘it’s” are causing problems. “Its” is the possessive form of “it” coming down from Old English. “It’s” stands for “it is.” In the meantime, “your” and “you’re” are getting confused. When we write “Yours sincerely” in letters, it has no apostrophe.

Road signs

Apostrophes in place names are creating another problem. Do you say “Gregory Place” or “Gregory’s Place”? The former seems to be popular. In fact, a Municipal Council in Devon has banned the apostrophe from all road signs. Even the United States abandoned the apostrophe in place names from the 1890s. Susan Butler has advocated that the apostrophe should be expunged.

However, we need the apostrophe in the following words: Dudley’s house, Nilma’s dance, or William’s shoes. In contractions, such as “aren’t, can’t, hasn’t or I’d” apostrophes are needed. The problem arises when adding possessive apostrophes to words and names ending in “s” or “ss.” Let’s look at the possessive forms of such words: The boss’s car, Thomas’s poems, a mistress’s secrets, or Dickens’s novels. With a possessive apostrophe we write: St John’s College, St Michael’s Mount, but we write Earls Court, St Andrews University, the Toastmasters Club, Missing Persons Bureau and Pears soap without apostrophes.

According to H.W. Fowler in “Modern English Usage”, there are no precise rules about punctuation marks. We possess only four stops: the comma, semicolon, colon and full stop. The question mark and exclamation point are not stops. They are only indicators of tone.

The semicolon (;) indicates that there is some question about the preceding sentence; something needs to be added. With a semicolon you get a pleasant little feeling of expectancy. However, the colon is less attractive than the semicolon. The colon gives you the feeling of being ordered around. It is used to introduce a list, present a conclusion, as a substitute for a conjunction or to link contrasting statements.

The use of the exclamation mark is discouraged by modern newspaper editors. However, we retain it in the following expressions: Shut up! What a mess! You must be joking! or Get lost! H.W. Fowler’s warning should be remembered. “Excessive use of exclamation marks in expository prose is a certain indication of an unpractised writer or of one who wants to add a spurious dash of sensation to something unsensational”.

Quotation mark

The quotation mark should be used sparingly. They should not be used for ideas you would like to disown. Nor should they enclose clichés. If you want to use a cliché, you must take the responsibility for it. Should we use double quotes or single quotes? Newspapers and book publishers are divided on this point. While more people use double quotes, others use single quotes.

It seems to be a matter of taste. Generally, quotation marks in British English are logical. They are placed according to sense. However, there are certain differences in American English as far as punctuation marks are concerned.

The use of punctuation marks in poetry is quite problematic. Poets have to be economical with them. T.S. Eliot used mostly semicolons. The reader of his poetry will feel that he is climbing a steep path through woods. If he finds a wooden bench somewhere, he would sit there for a moment and catch his breath.

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