H.W. Fowler (1858–1933). The King’s English, 2nd ed. 1908.
Chapter IV. Punctuation
IN this chapter we shall adhere generally to our plan of not giving systematic positive directions, or attempting to cover all ground familiar and unfamiliar, important or not, but drawing attention only to the most prevalent mistakes. On so technical a subject, however, a few preliminary remarks may be made; and to those readers who would prefer a careful, systematic, and not over-long treatise, Beadnell's Spelling and Punctuation (Wyman, 2/6) is recommended. We shall refer to it occasionally in what follows; and the examples to which —B. is attached instead of an author's name are taken from it; these are all given in Beadnell (unless the contrary is stated) as examples of correct punctuation. It should be added that the book is written rather from the compositor's than from the author's point of view, and illustrates the compositor's natural weaknesses; it is more important to him, for instance, that a page should not be unsightly (the unsightliness being quite imaginary, and the result of professional conservatism) than that quotation marks and stops, or dashes and stops, should be arranged in their true significant order; but, as the right and unsightly is candidly given as well as the wrong and beautiful, this does not matter; the student can take his choice.
We shall begin by explaining how it is that punctuation is a difficult matter, and worth a writer's serious attention. There are only six stops, comma, semicolon, colon, full stop, question mark, exclamation mark; or, with the dash, seven. The work of three of them, full stop, question, exclamation, is so clear that mistakes about their use can hardly occur without gross carelessness; and it might be thought that with the four thus left it ought to be a very simple matter to exhaust all possibilities in a brief code of rules. It is not so, however. Apart from temporary disturbing causes—of which two now operative are (1) the gradual disappearance of the colon in its old use with the decay of formal periodic arrangement, and (2) the encroachments of the dash as a saver of trouble and an exponent of emotion—there are also permanent difficulties.
Before mentioning these we observe that the four stops in the strictest acceptation of the word (,) (;) (:) (.)—for (!) and (?) are tones rather than stops—form a series (it might be expressed also by 1, 2, 3, 4), each member of which directs us to pause for so many units of time before proceeding. There is essentially nothing but a quantitative time relation between them.
The first difficulty is that this single distinction has to convey to the reader differences of more than one kind, and not commensurable; it has to do both logical and rhetorical work. Its logical work is helping to make clear the grammatical relations between parts of a sentence or paragraph and the whole or other parts: its rhetorical work is contributing to emphasis, heightening effect, and regulating pace. It is in vain that Beadnell lays it down: 'The variation of pause between the words of the same thought is a matter of rhetoric and feeling, but punctuation depends entirely upon the variation of relations—upon logical and grammatical principles'. The difference between these two:
The master beat the scholar with a strap.—B.
is in logic nothing; but in rhetoric it is the difference between matter-of-fact statement and indignant statement: a strap, we are to understand from the comma, is a barbarous instrument.
Again, in the two following examples, so far as logic goes, commas would be used in both, or semicolons in both. But the writer of the second desires to be slow, staccato, and impressive: the writer of the first desires to be rapid and flowing, or rather, perhaps, does not desire to be anything other than natural.
Mathematicians have sought knowledge in figures, philosophers in systems, logicians in subtilties, and metaphysicians in sounds.—B.
The difference is rhetorical, not logical. It is true, however, that modern printers make an effort to be guided by logic or grammar alone; it is impossible for them to succeed entirely; but any one who will look at an Elizabethan book with the original stopping will see how far they have moved: the old stopping was frankly to guide the voice in reading aloud, while the modern is mainly to guide the mind in seeing through the grammatical construction.
A perfect system of punctuation, then, that should be exact and uniform, would require separate rhetorical and logical notations in the first place. Such a system is not to be desired; the point is only that, without it, usage must fluctuate according as one element is allowed to interfere with the other. But a second difficulty remains, even if we assume that rhetoric could be eliminated altogether. Our stop series, as explained above, provides us with four degrees; but the degrees of closeness and remoteness between the members of sentence or paragraph are at the least ten times as many. It is easy to show that the comma, even in its purely logical function, has not one, but many tasks to do, which differ greatly in importance. Take the three examples:
His method of handling the subject was ornate, learned, and perspicuous.—B.
The removal of the comma after learned makes so little difference that it is an open question among compositors whether it should be used or not.
The criminal, who had betrayed his associates, was a prey to remorse.
With the commas, the criminal is necessarily a certain person already known to us: without them, we can only suppose a past state of society to be described, in which all traitors were ashamed of themselves—a difference of some importance.
Colonel Hutchinson, the Governor whom the King had now appointed, having hardened his heart, resolved on sterner measures.
Omission of the comma after appointed gives us two persons instead of one, and entirely changes the meaning, making the central words into, what they could not possibly be with the comma, an absolute construction.
These commas, that is, have very different values; many intermediate degrees might be added. Similarly the semicolon often separates grammatically complete sentences, but often also the mere items of a list, and between these extremes it marks other degrees of separation. A perfect system for the merely logical part of punctuation, then, would require some scores of stops instead of four. This again is not a thing to be desired; how little, is clear from the fact that one of our scanty supply, the colon, is now practically disused as a member of the series, and turned on to useful work at certain odd jobs that will be mentioned later. A series of stops that should really represent all gradations might perhaps be worked by here and there a writer consistently with himself; but to persuade all writers to observe the same distinctions would be hopeless.
A third difficulty is this: not only must many tasks be performed by one stop; the same task is necessarily performed by different stops according to circumstances; as if polygamy were not bad enough, it is complicated by an admixture of polyandry. We have already given two sentences of nearly similar pattern, one of which had its parts separated by commas, the other by semicolons, and we remarked that the difference was there accounted for by the intrusion of rhetoric. But the same thing occurs even when logic or grammar (it should be explained that grammar is sometimes defined as logic applied to speech, so that for our purposes the two are synonymous) is free from the disturbing influence; or when that influence acts directly, not on the stop itself that is in question, but only on one of its neighbours. To illustrate the first case, when the stops are not affected by rhetoric, but depend on grammar alone, we may take a short sentence as a nucleus, elaborate it by successive additions, and observe how a particular stop has to go on increasing its power, though it continues to serve only the same purpose, because it must keep its predominance.
When ambition asserts the monstrous doctrine of millions made for individuals, is not the good man indignant?
The function of the comma is to mark the division between the subordinate and the main clauses.
When ambition asserts the monstrous doctrine of millions made for individuals, their playthings, to be demolished at their caprice; is not the good man indignant?
The semicolon is doing now exactly what the comma did before; but, as commas have intruded into the clause to do the humble yet necessary work of marking two appositions, the original comma has to dignify its relatively more important office by converting itself into a semicolon.
When ambition asserts the monstrous doctrine of millions made for individuals, their playthings, to be demolished at their caprice; sporting wantonly with the rights, the peace, the comforts, the existence, of nations, as if their intoxicated pride would, if possible, make God's earth their football: is not the good man indignant?—B.
The new insertion is also an apposition, like the former ones; but, as it contains commas within itself, it must be raised above their level by being allowed a semicolon to part it from them. The previous semicolon, still having the same supreme task to do, and challenged by an upstart rival, has nothing for it but to change the regal for the imperial crown, and become a colon. A careful observer will now object that, on these principles, our new insertion ought to have had an internal semicolon, to differentiate the subordinate clause, as if, &c., from the mere enumeration commas that precede; in which case the semicolon after caprice should be raised to a colon; and then what is the newly created emperor to do? there is no papal tiara for him to assume, the full stop being confined to the independent sentence. The objection is quite just, and shows how soon the powers of the four stops are exhausted if relentlessly worked. But we are concerned only to notice that the effect of stops, even logically considered, is relative, not absolute. It is also true that many modern writers, if they put down a sentence like this, would be satisfied with using commas throughout; the old-fashioned air of the colon will hardly escape notice. But the whole arrangement is according to the compositor's art in its severer form.
A specimen of the merely indirect action of rhetoric may be more shortly disposed of. In a sentence already quoted—
Mathematicians have sought knowledge in figures, philosophers in systems, logicians in subtilties, and metaphysicians in sounds—
suppose the writer to have preferred for impressive effect, as we said he might have, to use semicolons instead of commas. The immediate result of that would be that what before could be left to the reader to do for himself (i. e., the supplying of the words have sought knowledge in each member) will in presence of the semicolon require to be done to the eye by commas, and the sentence will run:
Mathematicians have sought knowledge in figures; philosophers, in systems; logicians, in subtilties; and metaphysicians, in sounds.
But, lest we should be thought too faithful followers of the logicians, we will now assume that our point has been sufficiently proved: the difficulties of punctuation, owing to the interaction of different purposes, and the inadequacy of the instruments, are formidable enough to be worth grappling with.
We shall now only make three general remarks before proceeding to details. The first is implied in what has been already said: the work of punctuation is mainly to show, or hint at, the grammatical relation between words, phrases, clauses, and sentences; but it must not be forgotten that stops also serve to regulate pace, to throw emphasis on particular words and give them significance, and to indicate tone. These effects are subordinate, and must not be allowed to conflict with the main object; but as the grammatical relation may often be shown in more than one way, that way can be chosen which serves another purpose best.
Secondly, it is a sound principle that as few stops should be used as will do the work. There is a theory that scientific or philosophic matter should be punctuated very fully and exactly, whereas mere literary work can do with a much looser system. This is a mistake, except so far as scientific and philosophic writers may desire to give an impressive effect by retarding the pace; that is legitimate; but otherwise, all that is printed should have as many stops as help the reader, and not more. A resolution to put in all the stops that can be correctly used is very apt to result in the appearance of some that can only be used incorrectly; some of our quotations from Huxley and Mr. Balfour may be thought to illustrate this. And whereas slight stopping may venture on small irregularities, full stopping that is incorrect is also unpardonable. The objection to full stopping that is correct is the discomfort inflicted upon readers, who are perpetually being checked like a horse with a fidgety driver.
Thirdly, every one should make up his mind not to depend on his stops. They are to be regarded as devices, not for saving him the trouble of putting his words into the order that naturally gives the required meaning, but for saving his reader the moment or two that would sometimes, without them, be necessarily spent on reading the sentence twice over, once to catch the general arrangement, and again for the details. It may almost be said that what reads wrongly if the stops are removed is radically bad; stops are not to alter meaning, but merely to show it up. Those who are learning to write should make a practice of putting down all they want to say without stops first. What then, on reading over, naturally arranges itself contrary to the intention should be not punctuated, but altered; and the stops should be as few as possible, consistently with the recognized rules. At this point those rules should follow; but adequately explained and illustrated, they would require a volume; and we can only speak of common abuses and transgressions of them.
First comes what may be called for short the spot-plague—the tendency to make full-stops do all the work. The comma, most important, if slightest, of all stops, cannot indeed be got rid of, though even for that the full-stop is substituted when possible; but the semicolon is now as much avoided by many writers as the colon (in its old use) by most. With the semicolon go most of the conjunctions. Now there is something to be said for the change, or the two changes: the old-fashioned period, or long complex sentence, carefully worked out with a view to symmetry, balance, and degrees of subordination, though it has a dignity of its own, is formal, stiff, and sometimes frigid; the modern newspaper vice of long sentences either rambling or involved (far commoner in newspapers than the spot-plague) is inexpressibly wearisome and exasperating. Simplification is therefore desirable. But journalists now and then, and writers with more literary ambition than ability generally, overdo the thing till it becomes an affectation; it is then little different from Victor Hugo's device of making every sentence a paragraph, and our last state is worse than our first. Patronizing archness, sham ingenuousness, spasmodic interruption, scrappy argument, dry monotony, are some of the resulting impressions. We shall have to trouble the reader with at least one rather long specimen; the spot-plague in its less virulent form, that is, when it is caused not by pretentiousness or bad taste, but merely by desire to escape from the period, does not declare itself very rapidly. What follows is a third or so of a literary review, of which the whole is in exactly the same style, and which might have been quoted entire for the same purpose. It will be seen that it shows twenty full-stops to one semicolon and no colons. Further, between no two of the twenty sentences is there a conjunction.
The life of Lord Chatham, which has just appeared in three volumes, by Dr. Albert v. Ruville of the University of Halle deserves special notice. It is much the most complete life which has yet appeared of one of the most commanding figures in English history. It exhibits that thoroughness of method which characterized German historical writings of other days, and which has not lately been conspicuous. It is learned without being dull, and is free from that uncritical spirit of hostility to England which impairs the value of so many recent German histories. That portion which deals with the closing years of George II and with events following the accession of George III is exceptionally interesting. One of the greatest misfortunes that ever happened to England was the resignation of Pitt in 1761. It was caused, as we all know, by difference of opinion with his colleagues on the Spanish question. Ferdinand VI of Spain died in 1759, and was succeeded by King Charles III, one of the most remarkable princes of the House of Bourbon. This sovereign was an enthusiastic adherent of the policy which found expression in the celebrated family compact. On August 15, 1761, a secret convention was concluded between France and Spain, under which Spain engaged to declare war against England in May, 1762. Pitt quite understood the situation. He saw that instant steps should be taken to meet the danger, and proposed at a Cabinet held on October 2 that war should be declared against Spain. Newcastle, Hardwicke, Anson, Bute, and Mansfield combated this proposal, which was rejected, and two days afterwards Pitt resigned. His scheme was neither immature nor ill-considered. He had made his preparations to strike a heavy blow at the enemy, to seize the Isthmus of Panama, thereby securing a port in the Pacific, and separating the Spanish provinces of Mexico and Peru. He had planned an expedition against Havana and the Philippine Islands, where no adequate resistance could have been made; and, had he remained in office, there is but little doubt that the most precious possessions of Spain in the New World would have been incorporated in the British Empire. When he left the Cabinet all virility seems to have gone out of it with him. As he had foreseen, Spain declared war on England at a suitable moment for herself, and the unfortunate negotiations were opened leading to the Peace of Paris in 1763, which was pregnant with many disastrous results for England. The circumstances which led to the resignation of Pitt are dealt with by Dr. v. Ruville much more lucidly than by most historians. This portion of his work is the more interesting because of the pains he takes to clear George III from the charge of conspiring against his great Minister.—Times.
The reader's experience has probably been that the constant fresh starts are at first inspiriting, that about half-way he has had quite enough of the novelty, and that he is intensely grateful, when the solitary semicolon comes into sight, for a momentary lapse into ordinary gentle progress. Writers like this may almost be suspected of taking literally a summary piece of advice that we have lately seen in a book on English composition: Never use a semicolon when you can employ a full-stop. Beadnell lays down a law that at first sight seems to amount to the same thing: The notion of parting short independent sentences otherwise than by a full-stop, rests upon no rational foundation, and leads to endless perplexities. But his practice clears him of the imputation: he is saved by the ambiguity of the word independent. There are grammatical dependence, and dependence of thought. Of all those 'little hard round unconnected things', in the Times review, that 'seem to come upon one as shot would descend from a shot-making tower' (Sir Arthur Helps), hardly one is not dependent on its neighbours in the more liberal sense, though each is a complete sentence and independent in grammar. Now one important use of stops is to express the degrees of thought dependence. A style that groups several complete sentences together, by the use of semicolons, because they are more closely connected in thought, is far more restful and easy—for the reader, that is—than the style that leaves him to do the grouping for himself; and yet it is free from the formality of the period, which consists, not of grammatically independent sentences, but of a main sentence with many subordinate clauses. We have not space for a long example of the group system rightly applied; most good modern writers free from the craving to be up to date will supply them on every page; but a very short quotation may serve to emphasize the difference between group and spot-plague principles. The essence of the latter is that almost the only stops used are full-stops and commas, that conjunctions are rare, and that when a conjunction does occur the comma is generally used, not the full-stop. What naturally follows is an arrangement of this kind:
The sheil of Ravensnuik was, for the present at least, at his disposal. The foreman or 'grieve' at the Home Farm was anxious to be friendly, but even if he lost that place, Dan Weir knew that there was plenty of others.—Crockett.
(To save trouble, let it be stated that the sheil is a dependency of the Home Farm, and not contrasted with or opposed to it.) Here there are three grammatically independent sentences, between the two latter of which the conjunction but is inserted. It follows from spot-plague principles that there will be a full-stop at the end of the first, and a comma at the end of the second. With the group system it is not so simple a matter; before we can place the stops, we have to inquire how the three sentences are connected in thought. It then appears that the friendliness of the grieve is mentioned to account for the sheil's being at disposal; that is, there is a close connexion, though no conjunction, between the first and the second sentences. Further, the birds in the bush of the third sentence are contrasted, not with the second sentence's friendliness, but with the first sentence's bird in the hand (which, however, is accounted for by the second sentence's friendliness). To group rightly, then, we must take care, quite reversing the author's punctuation, that the first and second are separated by a stop of less power than that which separates the third from them. Comma, semicolon, would do it, if the former were sufficient between two grammatically independent sentences not joined by a conjunction; it obviously is not sufficient here (though in some such pairs it might be); so, instead of comma, semicolon, we must use semicolon, full-stop; and the sentence will run, with its true meaning much more clearly given:
The sheil of Ravensnuik was, for the present at least, at his disposal; the foreman or 'grieve' at the Home Farm was anxious to be friendly. But even if he lost that place, Dan Weir knew that there was plenty of others.
The group system gives more trouble to the writer or compositor, and less to the reader; the compositor cannot be expected to like it, if the burden falls on him; inferior writers cannot be expected to choose it either, perhaps; but the good writers who do choose it no doubt find that after a short time the work comes to do itself by instinct.
We need now only add two or three short specimens, worse, though from their shortness less remarkable, than the Times extract. They are not specially selected as bad; but it may be hoped that by their juxtaposition they may have some deterrent effect.
So Dan opened the door a little and the dog came out as if nothing had happened. It was now clear. The light was that of late evening. The air hardly more than cool. A gentle fanning breeze came from the North and...—Crockett.
The last sentence here is a mere comment on what is itself only an appendage, the clause introduced by especially; it has therefore no right to the dignity of a separate sentence. But it can hardly be mended without some alteration of words as well as stops; for instance, put a semicolon after suitors, write moreover for especially as, and put only a comma after skinflint; the right proportion would then be secured.
The spot-plague, as we have shown, sometimes results in illogicality; it need not do so, however; when it does, the fault lies with the person who, accepting its principles, does not arrange his sentences to suit them. It is a new-fashioned and, in our opinion, unpleasant system, but quite compatible with correctness.
Over-stopping, to which we now proceed, is on the contrary old-fashioned; but it is equally compatible with correctness. Though old-fashioned, it still lingers obstinately enough to make some slight protest desirable; the superstition that every possible stop should be inserted in scientific and other such writing misleads compositors, and their example affects literary authors who have not much ear. Any one who finds himself putting down several commas close to one another should reflect that he is making himself disagreeable, and question his conscience, as severely as we ought to do about disagreeable conduct in real life, whether it is necessary. He will find that the parenthetic or emphatic effect given to an adverbial phrase by putting a comma at each end of it is often of no value whatever to his meaning; in other words, that he can make himself agreeable by merely putting off a certain pompous solemnity; erasing a pair of commas may make the difference in writing that is made in conversation by a change of tone from the didactic to the courteous. Sometimes the abundance of commas is not so easily reduced; a change in the order of words, the omission of a needless adverb or conjunction, even the recasting of a sentence, may be necessary. But it is a safe statement that a gathering of commas (except on certain lawful occasions, as in a list) is a suspicious circumstance. The sentence should at least be read aloud, and if it halts or jolts some change or other should be made.
The smallest portion possible of curious interest had been awakened within me, and, at last, I asked myself, within my own mind...—Borrow.
None of the last three commas is wanted; those round at last are very unpleasant, and they at least should be omitted.
In questions of trade and finance, questions which, owing, perhaps, to their increasing intricacy, seem...—Bryce.
Perhaps can do very well without commas.
It is, however, already plain enough that, unless, indeed, some great catastrophe should upset all their calculations, the authorities have very little intention...—Times.
Indeed can do without commas, if it cannot itself be done without.
Jeannie, too, is, just occasionally, like a good girl out of a book by a sentimental lady-novelist.—Times.
If just is omitted, there need be no commas round occasionally. There may be a value in just; but hardly enough to compensate for the cruel jerking at the bit to which the poor reader is subjected by a remorseless driver.
Thus, their work, however imperfect and faulty, judged by modern lights, it may have been, brought them face to face with...—Huxley.
The comma after thus is nothing if not pompous. And another can be got rid of by putting it may have been before judged by modern lights.
Lilias suggested the advice which, of all others, seemed most suited to the occasion, that, yielding, namely, to the circumstances of their situation, they should watch...—Scott.
Omit namely and its commas.
Shakespeare, it is true, had, as I have said, as respects England, the privilege which only first-comers enjoy.—Lowell.
A good example of the warning value of commas. None of these can be dispensed with, since there are no less than three parenthetic qualifications to the sentence. But the crowd of commas ought to have told the writer how bad his sentence was; it is like an obstacle race. It should begin, It is true that..., which disposes of one obstacle. As I have said can be given a separate sentence afterwards—So much has been said before.
Private banks and capitalists constitute the main bulk of the subscribers, and, apparently, they are prepared to go on subscribing indefinitely.—Times.
Putting commas round apparently amounts to the insertion of a further clause, such as, Though you would not think they could be such fools. But what the precise contents of the further clause may be is problematic. At any rate, a writer should not invite us to read between the lines unless he is sure of two things: what he wants to be read there; and that we are likely to be willing and able readers of it. The same is true of many words that are half adverbs and half conjunctions, like therefore. We have the right to comma them off if we like; but, unless it is done with a definite purpose, it produces perplexity as well as heaviness. In the first of the next two examples, there is no need whatever for the commas. In the second, the motive is clear: having the choice between commas and no commas, the reporter uses them because he so secures a pause after he, and gives the word that emphasis which in the speech as delivered doubtless made the I that it represents equivalent to I for my part.
Both Tom and John knew this; and, therefore, John—the soft-hearted one—kept out of the way.—Trollope.
After for and and beginning a sentence commas are often used that are hardly even correct. It may be suspected that writers allow themselves to be deceived by the false analogy of sentences in which the and or for is immediately followed by a subordinate clause or phrase that has a right to its two commas. When there is no such interruption, the only possible plea for the comma is that it is not logical but rhetorical, and conveys some archness or other special significance such as is hardly to be found in our two examples:
The lawn, the soft, smooth slope, the ... bespeak an amount of elegant comfort within, that would serve for a palace. This indication is not without warrant; for, within it is a house of refinement and luxury.—Dickens.
We shall class here also, assuming for the present that the rhetorical plea may be allowed even when there is no logical justification for a stop, two sentences in which the copula is, standing between subject and complement, has commas on each side of it. Impressiveness is what is aimed at; it seems to us a tawdry device for giving one's sentence an ex cathedra air:
The reason why the world lacks unity, is, because man is disunited with himself.—Emerson.
Many other kinds of over-stopping might be illustrated; but we have intentionally confined ourselves here to specimens in which grammatical considerations do not arise, and the sentence is equally correct whether the stops are inserted or not. Sentences in which over-stopping outrages grammar more or less decidedly will be incidentally treated later on. Meanwhile we make the general remark that ungrammatical insertion of stops is a high crime and misdemeanour, whereas ungrammatical omission of them is often venial, and in some cases even desirable. Nevertheless the over-stopping that offends against nothing but taste has its counterpart in under-stopping of the same sort. And it must be added that nothing so easily exposes a writer to the suspicion of being uneducated as omission of commas against nearly universal custom. In the examples that follow, every one will see at the first glance where commas are wanting. When it is remembered that, as we have implied, an author has the right to select the degree of intensity, or scale, of his punctuation, it can hardly be said that grammar actually demands any stops in these sentences taken by themselves. Yet the effect, unless we choose to assume misprints, as we naturally do in isolated cases, is horrible.
It may be asked can further depreciation be afforded.—Times.
Copyright © 2005-2008,Luxi ELT, All Rights Reserved