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Punctuation's Parable

October 1st, 2006 | 4 min read

By Tex

Academic elites of a Western stripe are nearly mad in their obsession with cultural relativism. It has become a mark of distinction, if not one of moral fiber, among these self-styled protectors of thought to outstrip even Derrida and Lyotard in commenting on the universal relativity of actions, values, and just about anything-else-whatsoever when confronted with particular examples of behavior they think their poor middle and lowbrow neighbors might find offensive. “’Tis merely a convention,” they sagely nod. Without the careful inculcation of this virtue among the lofty ivory men and women of the West, surely we would all spend our days bewildered and unbalanced by the rapid succession of offensive moment after offensive moment. Their ever-vigilant eyes sweep the land from the top of the tower (ivory, of course) so that we lesser mortals might be spared the uncomfortable position of having our convictions actually challenged.

Such noblesse among our cultured fellow citizens surely deserves a note of thanks—and I encourage you to write your neighborhood high-hat as soon as you finish reading this—however, it can also make discussion of such an interesting topic as cultural relativism and the scope of its legitimate application to values and behaviors, quite impossible. The person who dares to address a practice or belief that is debatably binding on all men at all times and places, is quickly shuffled aside as the ignorant cousin who hasn’t yet come to grips with the obvious subjectivity of x. Thus, rather than addressing such conventions as weddings or liturgy or clothing or moral behavior; diplomacy or violence or torture or dictators; I’ll content myself with something a little more common and a little less volatile and leave the application to the reader, away from the prying eyes of our nation’s sentinels: I propose a discussion of punctuation.

There really can’t be much harm in discussing something that will put most people to sleep the moment it is brought up; since putting one’s readers to sleep can hardly be considered harmful (except to one’s ego). I’m sure nothing will put most modern readers to sleep faster than a discussion of those conventional little squiggles, dots, and lines that were taught (or not) in grade school. Punctuation has always been nothing more than the etiquette by which printers and writers convey meaning via the written word. Punctuation first showed up somewhere around 200 BC, tasked with the pathetic job of telling Greek tragedians when to dramatically pause in their orations. St. Jerome modified and expanded upon the system to aid in accurate phrasing during daily Scripture readings. The first semicolon debutante came out just two years after Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and the apostrophe joined the English-language printer’s arsenal somewhere in the 16th century.

Over the years our punctuation marks, and the rules that govern their use, have modulated and undulated in concert with the expression of human thought on the written page. Wiser men than I have carefully adjusted and tuned these little marks to effectively and quietly convey meaning from one mind to another through pen and ink; and while rules of usage and stylistic preference are continually revised, it is remarkable to note that the purpose of punctuation continues unaltered. Yes, punctuation is a wonderful convention that does not shudder from its task simply because it is a convention, and this pointed courage in the face of the onslaught of relativism contains a lesson for us all.

In the first place, an examination of punctuation and its purposes reveals that it exists to convey meaning. Meaning exists, at the very least, because people happen to believe they have something to communicate: at the very most, because what people happen to believe runs the delicious risk of corresponding to a reality outside of the individual. While the nature of meaning is a worthwhile study on its own, I simply pause to point out that, regardless of its nature, meaning is something that people attempt to convey: in speech; in action; in writing. This comic (or tragic) human attempt gives rise to a very interesting phenomenon; it gives rise to the invention of a convention. Unless we think that old Aristophanes was a complete dunce, we can safely assume he knew his theatrical punctuation system was not universal, nor was it the meaning of the message he wanted to convey—it was nothing but a mode, a bottle to put his message in. For this reason, saintly Jerome could modify and manipulate the conventions as necessary to fit his ecclesiastical purposes without the slightest twinge of conscience. In all this alteration and variation, however, let us not lose sight of the fact that punctuation, though merely a convention, found its raison d’être in something universal.

Second of all, punctuation is nearly inextricably tied to words and meaning. When men attempted to communicate through written words they found they needed something to give their words the proper sense. While the process of punctuating has always been rather selective and unhurried, each new mark and its modification has emerged in response to a very real need: how to make the actors breathe properly; how to bring out the correct meaning of sacred revelation; how to balance a lyrical cadence; how to phrase words into precise statements of meaning; how to encode and format information; how to produce a measured and glorious effect on the imagination of a reader. Once the convention was created its loss or: misuse is near’ly alwayswoefullybemoanedan dmea?ingisobscured—if not completely destroyed!

Lastly, the conventionality of punctuation gives flexibility. At one time the comma may have served the single purpose of aiding in proper breathing; now it has at least fourteen documented uses, and the overworked comma stands ready to continually expand its already considerable repertoire. The relationship between the quotation mark and the comma or full stop is one of constant flux, depending upon which side of the Pond you happen to live, and some grammarians and printers have considered adding the tilde (~) to their punctuation toolkit. Being merely a convention, punctuation can blithely bend to the whims of wordsmiths while never missing a beat or losing its primary role of conveying meaning in texts.

Punctuation, then, while a simple tradition and not universally binding, arises out of universal needs and is intrinsically tied to those needs and their solutions. Its conventionality does little to minimize its utility and its meaning. The ramifications of such a notion are wide-reaching when usefully applied to the many conventions that we are told, with an academic sniff, “are merely relative.”

Endnote: Many thanks to Lynne Truss’s British bestseller Eats, Shoots & Leaves for providing the soil that has helped germinate these budding thoughts.