Punctuation (Part 1): the real story behind the dots and dashes

My seven-year-old has starting learning Hebrew at school. This is the moment I have been waiting for; I have neglected my love affair with the language over the past 20 years since completing my major in 1992. I had forgotten the joy of using a different alphabet, of the light that goes on when you slowly feel yourself becoming reacquainted with the once-familiar sounds. I love seeing the joy on my son’s face as he starts to make the connections and realises he can read in this fascinating new language.

Let me stop before this turns into a column about the joys of Hebrew language and literature. I only mentioned it because doing homework with my son reminded me of the value of the dots, dashes and squiggles languages use to impart meaning.

The Hebrew alphabet has no vowels; the vowel sounds come from dots and dashes placed under or next to the consonants. Hebrew learners rely on these ‘dots’, as they are collectively called, to make sense of the words. Seasoned and mother-tongue users, accustomed to the flow and patterns of the language, dispense with the ‘dots’. The realisation that you can read without the ‘dots’ rivals the feeling of riding a bicycle without training wheels for the first time; both herald a coming of age of sorts.

The ‘dots’ got me thinking about our beloved English’s dots, dashes and squiggles, which we (rather more formally) refer to as punctuation.

Why punctuate?

Punctuation is one of the basic cornerstones of written English; grammar and spelling are the others. Obeying the conventions of punctuation ensures consistency and clarity in your communications.

When speaking, we use intonation, pauses, gestures, facial expressions and body language to add a layer of meaning to the words we use. But written texts have none of these nuances; they need some universally recognised guidelines to help readers interpret the relationship between various words and sentences and where the author intended a pause or emphasis.

As Lynn Truss put it so elegantly in her well-known Eats, Shoots and Leaves: “On the page, punctuation performs its grammatical function, but in the mind of the reader it does more than that. It tells the reader how to hum the tune.”


To pause or not to pause? And for how long… 

One of the main functions of punctuation marks is to indicate breaths or pauses of differing lengths. Virtually all of the common marks indicate a break of some sort.  I’ll go into each in detail in my next few columns. But for this introduction, let me share a delightfully old-fashioned poem on the subject.

The stop point out, with truth, the time of pause

A sentence doth require at ev’ry clause.

At ev’ry comma, stop while one you count;

At semicolon, two is the amount;

A colon doth require the time of three;

The period four, as learned men agree.

Cecil Hartley’s 1818 poem, published in his book Principles of Punctuation: Or, The Art of Pointing Familiarized, appears oddly anachronistic to us now. This is as much for the thought of him studiously counting under his breath while reading aloud, as for the confidently sexist way he describes his research panel. But then this is the same man who wrote The Gentlemen’s Book of Etiquette, and Manual of Politeness.

In the coming weeks join me on a stroll through the various punctuation marks used in English as I reveal their nuances and demystify some of the more frightening ones. I’ll also show you how punctuation can contribute to plain language by breaking up writing into manageable chunks.

You didn’t think I’d let a column slip by without a mention of plain language, did you?