Portrait of Lynn Shepherd

Lynn Shepherd

Confessions of a punctuation perfectionist

I love words. No – I absolutely adore words. Wielding them like weapons, painting them like pictures; effecting them to affect, plying them to persuade, crafting them to communicate. My day job, the latter; my novel-writing, all the above.  And it’s the very fact that I do adore words so much that I am – I confess – rather old-fashioned about punctuation.

In the last few days there have been endless debates, and almost as many column inches, devoted to a certain bookstore’s now celebrated ‘rebranding’, and The Case of The Missing Apostrophe, and I will say at once that I know where Waterstones(’s) are coming from. In a digital age, a name that can’t be immediately transposed to a URL without removing one of the characters is always going to be a bit of a challenge, and that being the case – and to paraphrase Shakespeare – if it were done, ’twere well it were done quickly, and got over with (that last bit is me, not him). Shakespeare, in fact, is rather an interesting case in point. None of his plays survive in his own hand, and the first published versions differ quite markedly in how they’re punctuated – depending on where you put the commas you can get quite radically different meanings from the same piece of text. And you don’t have to be a genius to suffer that fate either. The title of Lynn Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves is a beautifully succinct example of just how much of a tangle you can get into if you’re careless with your colons.

The trouble is that we just don’t seem to teach punctuation properly any more – or any grammar for that matter. Say ‘colon’ to most schoolchildren these days and they’d probably think they’d somehow strayed from English to Biology.  There’s so much emphasis on ‘self-expression’ that there seems to be neither the time nor the inclination to teach the basics of good literacy. Because that’s what punctuation is – basic literacy. If you can’t present what you say with precision, even the most moving and impressive piece of self-expression will be far less effective than it could have been. Punctuation is the skeleton of creativity – the vital bones of language, which give it its strength and its structure, and without which the whole thing risks collapsing in a soggy mess.

Good punctuation is an aid to meaning, and a saver of time – that Waterstone’s apostrophe told you how many Waterstones there once were, just as you only have to read  the name Queens’ College Cambridge to know that there are two lady founders in question, not one. How many sentences of explanation are spared by that one little mark? Though I do have to admit here (and with a smile) that if you check the said college’s web page you will find the following: “The use of the apostrophe in English to indicate the possessive is of no great antiquity”. Apparently they only started putting it after, rather than before, the s in 1823, nearly 400 years after the fact. That’s a salutary reminder – as if we needed one – that language is always evolving to meet the needs of each new generation, and it’s not just the publishers of dictionaries but the grammarians that have to keep pace with change. I don’t have a problem with that – it’s a very good thing. My pro-punctuation position is based purely on the fact that I want every nuance, every subtlety, every possible intricacy of expression available to me when I write, and punctuation helps me do that. It’s an essential tool of my trade.


This post was originally written in January 2012, for the http://itsacrimeuk.wordpress.com/ website