Punctuation please

  • Mind Our English
  • Friday, 25 Nov 2011

Exploring the use of punctuation and some aspects thereof.

punctuationmustbeverymuchamodern inventionnodoubttheearlyformsofwriting usednaryadistinguishingmarkornotatallor theyusedotherdevicestodemarcatedifferent thoughtsandideasormeaningfulunitsthere oftofacilitatereading for example look at the cuneiform inscriptions on baked clay tablets of the ancient mesopotamians the hieroglyphs on the temple walls of ancient egypt and the pictograms on turtleshells of the ancient chinese in the ancient scripts if one character or symbol represented a word it was easy to make out the words making up a sentence but there was no special way to mark where one sentence began and another ended except by starting a new sentence in a new column as in ancient chinese written vertically down if on the other hand the characters or symbols made up a syllabary as in Japanese or an alphabet eg greek roman arabic cyrillic if there was no spacing to separate one word from another and if there was no means to separate phrases and clauses and sentences then the text would be one conflated mess of characters and symbols

Now let me put the above text in modern form, with punctuation, thus: “Punctuation must be very much a modern invention. No doubt the early forms of writing used nary a distinguishing mark or not at all, or they used other devices, to demarcate different thoughts and ideas, or meaningful units thereof, in order to facilitate reading. For example, look at the cuneiform inscriptions on baked clay tablets of the ancient Mesopotamians, the hieroglyphs on the temple walls of ancient Egypt, and the pictograms on turtle-shells of the ancient Chinese. In the ancient scripts, if one character or symbol represented a word, it was easy to make out the words making up a sentence but there was no special way to mark where one sentence ended and another began, except by starting a new sentence in a new column (as in ancient Chinese, written vertically down). If, on the other hand, the characters or symbols made up a syllabary (as in Japanese) or an alphabet (e.g. Greek, Roman, Arabic, Cyrillic), if there was no spacing to separate one word from another, and if there was no means to separate phrases and clauses and sentences, then the text would be one conflated mess of characters and symbols” – like in the opening sentence of the first paragraph above.

With reference to English and the Roman alphabet that it uses, I trust I have made my point – that punctuation is important to the written word. At the risk of being criticised for stating the obvious, let us note the punctuation and other devices (e.g. spacing between words and between sentences, and the judicious use of lowercase and uppercase letters) in the above text. Sentences begin with the capitalisation of the initial letter of the first word. Proper nouns also have their initial letter capitalised, whether they begin a sentence or appear in the middle of one. A full stop ends a sentence, and the next sentence begins after one blank letter-space – or two letter-spaces (when I learnt typewriting).

A paragraph is separated from the previous one by one line-space. Alternatively, in absence of an intervening line-space, the new paragraph is indicated by indenting the first line, i.e. beginning the first sentence of the paragraph after allowing for a few letter-spaces – two or five or 10.

And so on ... At this juncture, I should note an interesting punctuation device. Malay, written in Jawi before it was romanised, used maka and hatta as punctuation words – to indicate the beginning of a new sentence.

There are some 12 conventional marks used for punctuation in English – full-stop (called period in American English), colon, semi-colon, comma, quotation marks (also known as inverted commas), question mark, exclamation mark, hyphen, dash, apostrophe, brackets, and ellipsis.

There seems to be a cavalier attitude towards punctuation or even a tendency to reduce the use of punctuation marks. I feel uptight when punctuation marks are used sparingly (or even omitted) or are included carelessly. A comma may be unwarranted, as in the following example: “Malaysia, being a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society, we celebrate festivals literally year-round.” – A reader’s letter in The Star, Oct 27, 2011, p.48. The first comma is uncalled for. The extraneous comma results in a sentence with one finite verb, celebrate – but with two subjects, Malaysia and we, which are separated from each other by a modifier phrase which can be associated with either of the two subject nouns. The sentence would be grammatically correct if the first comma, or either of the subject nouns, was discarded.

Covering the topic of punctuation and punctuation marks is beyond the scope of this column. As such – sorry, such being the case – I can, in this article, but touch on the rôle of punctuation in writing, printing, reading, and comprehension; and illustrate with a few choice examples.


There is quite a lot that one can do with the hyphen, which is a short, horizontal stroke at mid-x height commonly used to link two letters on either side of it, e.g. well-known. Note that there is no spacing on either side of the hyphen. With a letter-space on either side – especially with the use of a typewriter, which has no key for a longer horizontal stroke – a hyphen may double as a dash. Where numerals are involved, a hyphen without a letter-space on either side of it indicates a range of values, e.g. 7-17 November (meaning “7th to 17th of November”). On the other hand, a hyphen (necessarily when a typewriter is used) with a letter-space on either side of it indicates a subtraction sign, e.g. 17 - 7 = 10 (meaning “17 minus 7 equals 10”), and 7 - 17 = -10 (meaning “7 minus 17 equals minus 10”; the second hyphen positioned close to the number 10 indicates a negative quantity).

There are certain cases, where the use of the hyphen is optional. Thus lamp post, lamp-post, and lamppost mean the same thing. In the second instance, the hyphen links two words which are commonly used together. In the third instance, the hyphen is dispensed with and the two constituent words are conflated.

A common practice in American English is to conflate two constituent words rather than to hyphenate, e.g. antiaircraft instead of anti-aircraft, nongovernmental instead of non-governmental, and laborsaving instead of labour-saving.

Even then, in British English and American English, words like today, tomorrow, goodbye (AmE goodby), and textbook are single words instead of the formerly hyphenated forms to-day, to-morrow, good-bye, and text-book.

However, there are instances where the hyphen makes a difference. A mere hyphen distinguishes between a man eating tiger (a man that eats tiger meat) and a man-eating tiger (a tiger that eats men and, for that matter, women and children as well). Similarly, one armed bandit is a bandit who bears arms, but one-armed bandit is a gambling machine operated by pulling down an arm-like handle at its side.

I have previously discussed at some length the topic of hyphens, “Whither the hyphen?”, in MOE (Feb 9, 2008).


The full-stop (also called full stop and, in AmE, period) is a small solid circle (unlike the tiny hollow circle in modern Chinese) used largely to mark the end of a sentence. It is also used to form abbreviations, e.g. – which, itself, is an abbreviation of Latin exempli gratia “for (the sake of) example” – M.I.C. (“Malaysian Indian Congress”) and N.A.T.O. (“North Atlantic Treaty Organisation”), although it is now common practice to abbreviate proper names without the full-stops, thus: MIC and NATO.

Furthermore, the full-stop, in a set of three, is used to indicate ellipsis (the omission of words) at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of a sentence; thus: (1) “... to forgive divine”; (2) “The witness identified the vagrant, who ... was seen in the vicinity, as the culprit.”; and (3) “The headmaster gave a long speech in which he exhorted the pupils to study hard ...” For ellipsis at the end of a sentence, one may opt to add an extra dot for good measure, i.e. three for the ellipsis plus one for ending the sentence.

The full-stop is also commonly used as a decimal point. Strictly speaking – sorry for this hair-splitting stuff – the decimal point is written as a dot poised above the text-line, at mid-x height, whereas the full-stop rests on the text-line itself.


The comma is, arguably, the second most common punctuation mark, after the full-stop. It is used in a text to mark a half-pause in the reading, whereas a full-stop marks a full pause.

S. Chalker and E. Weiner (Oxford Dictionary Of English Grammar, 1998, p.324) give the following example, “The quarrel over, the friendship was resumed” vs “The quarrel over the friendship was resumed”, to illustrate that punctuation “is also used to avoid grammatical or semantic ambiguity”.

When three or more items are presented in a sequence, the comma is used to separate or identify the individual items; e.g. he brought along a penknife, a length of rope, and a bottle of water.

Is the last comma, that between the penultimate and the last items, necessary? Including it is considered otiose (H.W. Fowler, rev. E. Gowers, 1977. A Dictionary Of Modern English Usage. Oxford University Press, p.588). However, a comma between the last two items is called for in the following sentence: “Tenders were submitted by John Brown, Cammel Laird, Vickers, and Harland and Wolff.”

Without the comma after Vickers, there is no knowing whether there were four or five tendering firms; or, if there were four, whether Harland was partnered with Vickers or Vickers with Wolff.

The comma in question – termed the Oxford comma, the Harvard comma, the serial comma, or the series comma – “may sometimes be needed to avoid ambiguity” so that “it may as well be used always for the sake of uniformity” (Fowler, loc. cit.). We are in good company in following this advice. Dictionaries such as Concise Oxford English Dictionary (2004) and Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language (1989) use the Oxford comma as a general rule.

“But, on the grounds of simplicity and beauty, the Oxford comma loses out. The absence of an Oxford comma makes a sentence less cluttered and more pleasing to the eye.” – H. Mount, in The Daily Telegraph UK 2011, reproduced in The Star/Star2, July 27, 2011, p.15. What? A mere comma can clutter up a sentence and make it less pleasing to the eye?

Lynn Truss must have intentionally coined, in relation to a panda, the cryptic title for her book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves (2003). A panda eats shoots and leaves (of the bamboo), BUT the title does not convey such meaning.

The comma, if omitted, brings out the meaning. The rationale for the use of the ampersand is clear: shoots and leaves go together to make up the animal’s diet.

What if the ampersand is replaced by the word “and”, and a comma is inserted after “shoots”?

The result, “Eats, Shoots, and Leaves”, then refers to her fictional gun-toting panda in cowboy gear, who saunters into a saloon, “eats, shoots, and leaves”. What a clever title, all owing to a comma!

Closing remarks

One should not take punctuation for granted. Punctuating with care can make the difference between ambiguity and clarity. There is no cogent reason to stint on punctuation. One’s mission should be to punctuate where one can, to boldly go where others care not.

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