The Point of Punctuation

Proper punctuation in a sentence — periods at the end of a sentence, commas separating clauses, quotation marks around dialogue — is something that many of us have become oblivious to. But it wasn’t always this way. In terms of language development, the use of punctuation is a fairly new idea. Yet its use has become as routine as brushing your teeth, and proper punctuation in a written work is either taken for granted or overlooked. It is only when a comma or semi-colon is improperly used that punctuation is seen as the star of the sentence that it truly is.

Punctuation has become an integral part not only of writing, but of communicating as well. When used as a rhetorical device, punctuation gives an author the ability not only to structure a sentence, but to become the director of their work, and the work itself, a script. While the use of a period at the end of a sentence is almost mandatory, the more discretional punctuation uses such as, the addition of a comma or a dash, can be used to direct a reader into how to read the work. This use of discretionary punctuation has become more casual as our means of communication does as well, preferring digital means such as texting over more traditional forms, like, letters. The question then arises that as our own communication loses its formality, dropping periods and commas, will our writing as well?

One would assume that the invention of punctuation and the written word would be simultaneous—that the creation of the two would go hand-in-hand. However, even the overlooked space between words wasn’t used until long after the written word was invented. According to Keith Houston, writer for BBC Culture, the rise in the use of formal punctuation correlated with the rise of the Christian religion. Houston says, “Christians preferred to write down their psalms and gospels to better spread the word of God.” In ancient Greece, words were written side by side, melding them into a messy string of letters that would have to be read several times over to be deciphered (Houston). Aristophanes, exhausted by the lack of structure suggested the use of different dots above, below, and in the middle of a line in order to separate words and sentences from each other. Similar to our modern day periods, commas, and colons, the dots corresponded to the different lengths of pauses that are heard in normal speech — but their use did not catch on (Houston). Aristophanes symbols came out of the need for easy interpretation and understanding. But, as Christians began to spread their word and broaden their readership, the need to increase the legibility and structure of their work encouraged the development of punctuation.

Just as any human invention, punctuation came out of the need to ease our lives. Aristophanes’ punctuation originated from spoken word— using the different dots to indicate the natural pauses and breaks in our speech. As Christianity became the dominant religion of the world, the need to decipher and spread “God’s word” to a wide audience revealed the flaws in a writing system that lacked punctuation. Without indications to where one word, let alone, where one sentence, stopped, and another began, several interpretations of the same text could be made. And, not just an interpretation in terms of the word sequence, but in terms of emphasis as well— what words should be emphasized more than others can determine how a sentence is understood. Aristophanes’ little dots eased this dilemma by determining how the work as a whole should be read, or even more so, how it should be said. This idea, the idea of punctuation as a means to translate speech into writing, reveals it not just as a grammatical tool, but as a rhetorical device as well. Punctuation originated from the need for orators to make sense and bring order and structure to their work. And, although we acknowledge the different lengths represented by periods and commas, the importance of those pauses to the work as a whole are generally disregarded.

Punctuation as a rhetorical device is seen by many as frivolous and decorative. An extra comma here or a dash there may not change the meaning of the sentence, but it does change how the reader interprets it. In her instructive guide, The MLA’s Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing, Claire Cook suggests that rhetorical punctuation is merely decorative and unnecessary (109). Cook uses the sentence, “Smith stared blankly for a moment and then abruptly turned and ran,” to demonstrate the use of this unnecessary and frivolous punctuation (109). Cook suggests that, although the addition of a comma after the word “moment” would add a slight pause as the sentence is read, it doesn’t necessarily affect the meaning of the it. In this case, the addition of punctuation does not alter the meaning of the sentence but rather, adjusts the way the sentence is read. Cook argues that the discretionary use of punctuation is unnecessary because whether or not the commas are there, the true meaning of the sentence does not change.

While the addition of discretionary punctuation does not alter the meaning or clarity of the sentence in Cook’s example, it does alter how the sentence is read, both internally and audibly. This discernable difference is also noticeable with the addition of commas around “abruptly,” granting the reader an audible pause before and after the word. By surrounding it with commas, emphasis is added to “abruptly,” making the reader aware of the sudden shift in Smith’s actions. Those pauses and breaks created by the addition of discretionary punctuation set the pace of a piece of work by instructing the reader on where to pause and for how long. In turn, those breaks determine how the work is read and interpreted— not just verbatim understood but, emotionally and tonally as well. The inclusion of commas in the example are purely stylistic and optional— it is up to the writer to add them or not. And, although the addition of discretionary punctuation marks may not necessarily change what a sentence is actually saying, it does adjust how it is said.

The discretionary use of punctuation has begun to creep into our every day use of punctuation as well. Rather than as a stylistic decision, the addition of superfluous, or even the complete absence of punctuation, has become a widespread practice. But just as with the proper use of punctuation, these new changes in use have become as commonplace as an oxford comma. And it isn’t just out of sheer laziness. Ben Zimmer, executive editor of suggests that these new punctuation practices are due to the shift towards digital writing and communication. “Digital punctuation can carry more weight than traditional writing because it ends up conveying tone, rhythm and attitude rather than grammatical structure,” Zimmer says (cited in Bennett). As we shift towards digital writing and communication, not just the platform for writing changes, the way things are said and how they are said changes as well. Just as rhetorical punctuation is used to direct a reader on how a particular sentence should be read, the current uses (or absences) of punctuation have taken on new inflections and purposes regarding how a sentence is understood. They are used to set the tone in a text message, to portray urgency or excitement, or to determine a level of formality — to relate what our voices used to.

This shift towards digital communication has made us lose many of the natural verbal stresses and inflections that don’t translate from verbal to digital and written language very well. So, to make up for it, new uses of punctuation — from additional spaces, to exclamation marks, or, the lack of a period — have replaced those untranslatable verbal cues and stresses. Take a look at any of your recent text messages, most of the sentences will not end in a period like they are supposed to. Instead, they will probably end without any of the proper punctuation and, perhaps, consecutive sentences will be sent out as separate texts, one after another, rather than as a whole paragraph. And, when a period is added to the end of a text, it can give a sense of seriousness to the content of the message. Or sending a string of extra question marks separate from the actual question can denote a sense of urgency to the question. Because of the shift towards digital communication, we have transformed these arbitrary symbols into more than just grammatical structure markers. Punctuation, now, carries more weight than just to separate one sentence, or clause, from another because they have to. As we shift towards digital communication, discretionary punctuation and, the new uses of it that have been adopted, relay what just words cannot.

Punctuation marks have taken the place of all those audible indicators that are lost in the translation to digital communication. Before it even resembled what we now equate with punctuation, punctuation marks were used to translate the little quirks of speech into the written word. Punctuation as a rhetorical device, as a way of truly expressing what an author wishes their piece to say rather than just a way to properly format it, is easily understood but rarely acknowledged. We know that the comma, period, and colon are used to represent a certain length pause. But, it is what that pause means to the interpretation of a sentence as a whole that makes punctuation so important. It is a way of expressing the minute shifts in volume, pace, or tone that can be audibly heard but are impossible to put into actual words. As the need to express ourselves through written (or digital) means increases, our dependency on these little symbols does as well. It’s the point of punctuation— not only to produce grammatically sound sentences, to fully express what just our words cannot.


Works Cited

Bennett, Jessica. “When Your Punctuation Says It All (!).” The New York Times. The New      York Times, 28 Feb. 2015. Web.

Cook, Claire Kehrwald. The MLA’s Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1985. Print.

Houston, Keith. “The Mysterious Origins of Punctuation.” BBC. BBC, 2 Sept. 2015. Web.