Tag Archives: punctuation


McMillan & Goss
The Bard of Barnsley & Luke Carver-Goss

I’ve recently (and accidentally) been exposed to some differing views on apostrophes.
I went to see a performance by Ian McMillan (poet and host of The Verb), appearing with the excellent musician Luke Carver-Goss.  They did a piece called Apostrophe Amnesty Day.  McMillan’s point was that, for the most part, punctuation is artificial and doesn’t matter much.  (Nobody articulates punctuation marks, therefore they are a feature of the way we choose to transcribe the language.)  McMillan argues that those of us who criticise greengrocers for their failing’s (sic) in advertising their cabbage’s (sic) are just wasting our time (and sneering for the sake of our own aggrandisement, rather than for the benefit of greengrocers’ customers).
A piece in German from Nicholas Richards reminded me that the German language doesn’t use apostrophes for possessives.  I then got into a social discussion with an retired teacher who expected apostrophes to become the norm for plurals as well as possessives.  He laid the blame on the influence of Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy for being the start of a fashion in education that encouraged expression over precision, rewarding creativity and not pouncing on every mistake.  (I’m not sure that this is a fair representation of Hoggart’s legacy).

So if apostrophes can be used everywhere, don’t they become meaningless?  If German can do without them (for possessives), can’t we?

Many features of punctuation came from printing conventions.  Take the use of the capital letter I for the personal pronoun; that only arose as an attempt by printers to give the word due weight.  Compare it with the its Western European piers: je, ich, ik, io, yo and jeg do not take capitals.  Then look at the word shan’t.  It’s an abbreviation of shall not.  If the absent vowel deserves an apostrophe, why isn’t there one for the double ell?

The conventions are artificial, so for the most part, I’m with McMillan in believing that content (meaning) takes precedence over punctuation.  However, they are also a matter of established custom and practice, and I’m a publisher.  I’m prepared to shrug at unconventional usage when writing is there to lead to another subject (cabbages, for example).  On the other hand, when writing is the deliverable, clarity matters; sloppy punctuation distracts the reader and gets in the way of  the meaning.  That’s why I see occasional rants about apostrophe abuse from the likes of Damian and Dawn.  Don’t expect any leniency from proof readers.

And Another Thing…

AmpersandBlogThere is an oft-cited rule of English grammar that one should never begin a sentence with ‘and’.  And it is wrong.  In fact it is wrong on several counts.

Firstly, it isn’t a rule.  The next time you are challenged by anyone who fetishizes this issue, ask for their opinion of the King James Bible, frequently cited as one of the greatest repositories of well-turned English phrases.  The fragment “And it came to pass” occurs 396 times.  The vast majority of these are at the beginning of sentences.

Secondly, pedantically, it isn’t grammar.  That may surprise you, but think of it this way: grammar is about the structure of language – arranging the nouns, verbs and other components so that they make sense.  Sentences – in the sense of units that start with capital letters and end in full stops – are not part of grammar; they are elements of orthography.  Try saying the following passage aloud: “There are seventeen pirates on this ship, every pirate has a cutlass and the most dangerous pirate is One-eyed Jake.”  Now ask anyone who is willing to listen to you reciting such nonsense how many sentences there were in that speech.  The answer could be one, two or three.  From a grammatical viewpoint, it doesn’t matter.  Generally, you can’t hear whether the speaker put in a comma or a full stop after “ship”.  On the other hand, from a point of view of orthography – the presentation of the written form of the language – the punctuation and capitalisation matters: it helps to clarify meaning and improves readability.

The third point about whether or not sentences can begin with ‘and’ is that putting it that way mis-states the intention of the guideline.  ‘And’ is a conjunction.  It says that whatever comes after the word is joined to whatever went before.  Go back to the King James Bible.  Those sentences beginning “And it came to pass” are using ‘And’ to indicate that what follows is part of the same story.  That’s story, not sentence.  We’re definitely onto a new subject (because it came to pass that something new happened with a new main verb) and therefore onto a new sentence, but it is a continuation of the same story. Or take the following fragment of horror from Shakespeare’s King John:-

Arthur:    Must you with hot Irons burne out both mine eyes?

Hubert:   Young Boy, I must.

Arthur:    And will you?

Hubert:   And I will.

In this case, ‘And’ indicates continuity with the previous statement, but since the previous statement was made by another speaker, it is punctuated as the start of a new sentence.

A case can also be made for emphatic use: the writer may wish to give prominence to a sub-clause. And this demonstrates the appropriate stress.  Similarly, particularly in recorded speech, it may demonstrate a linked afterthought.

So if the rule doesn’t apply here, where does it apply?  This particular rant was occasioned by a play script that contained 85 sentences starting with the word ‘and’.  Many of them were legitimate, for the reasons cited above.  Others were not, because the structure reduced rather than enhanced the meaning.  Take the following:

But let us indeed continue. And trust that a more seemly life emerges.

The second sentence does not have a subject, or rather the subject is in the first sentence, and the second sentence only makes sense as a continuation of the first.  As a general test of this, do away with the ‘and’ and see if the sentence still makes sense.  The examples from Kings James and John pass that test.  The above example does not.

The point of the rule is not that you shouldn’t start a sentence with ‘and’; the point of the rule is that you should not put a full stop in the middle of a sentence.

Punk and Punctuation

(One of the novels Jane Austen never got round to writing.)

I recently had one of my occasional arguments with Bill Tordoff.  These are conducted in an atmosphere of good-natured grumpiness (on both sides), but are, in my view, worthwhile for forcing me to clarify my thinking on a subject.  In this case, the issue was punctuation, particularly the punctuation of stage directions.  Bill was so incensed by my habit of putting full stops (period marks, if you punctuate in American English) at the end of directions that he did a survey of other publishers to find out what they did.  He found a wide variety of things, including italics, various shapes of brackets, sentence case, lower case, and even directions in margins.  What Bill didn’t find was any other publishers habitually using full stops.  On the other hand, I did (in the first book off my shelf – Orton’s complete plays, published by Methuen Drama).  The point here is that there isn’t a right or wrong way of doing it, but each script (and each publishing house) has to be consistent.Bookshelf
Exasperated, Bill pointed to the following (in his abridgement of Johnson’s Volpone):

Volpone:      (Rising and fondling artefacts.)  Let me kiss with adoration every relic!

As Bill (elegantly) put it, directions like that are not sentences “they are participial phrases because they don’t contain a finite verb, and should therefore end with a comma, if anything, and not a full stop.”  Grammatically, he is entirely correct.  However, the function that fragment performs is to stand in for a sentence.  (A sentence like “Volpone rises and fondles the artefacts.”)  That it omits a main verb (and even, arguably, a subject) is a consequence of the imperative to keep directions as brief as possible.  It is certainly not part of the (spoken) sentence that follows it and therefore (in the way I lay down the rules for scripts published by Lazy Bee) it should be punctuated as separate from the spoken sentence and not continuous with it.
On the other hand, directions within a single sentence should be punctuated as part of the sentence.  Consider this (from the same source):

Voltore:      This lewd woman here (indicating Celia) has long been known […]

Formatting of stage directions – and even speeches in a play script isn’t easy.  Just take a look at the start of a line of speech.  It starts with a character name, but that character name is not part of the speech, therefore the speech itself starts with a capital letter, even though the preceding words did not form a (closed-off) sentence.
A few guidelines (from the Lazy Bee Scripts perspective):

  • If a direction comes at the start of a speech, punctuate the direction as a sentence (start with a capital letter, end with a full stop).  Start the speech with a capital letter.
  • If a direction comes between two sentences of a speech, punctuate the direction as a sentence.
  • If a direction comes within a sentence, punctuate it as if it formed part of the sentence.
  • Directions are part of the speech, not part of the character name (so the layout is as per Volpone’s speech above, with a separator between the character name and the direction).
  • Directions should be written for the cast, not from the point of view of the audience.  Instead of “A young man enters…” write “Tom enters…”
  • With the exception of scene-setting directions, they should be immediate (telling the cast or crew to do something during the show, not what they should have done to prepare).
  • Keep it short.

As I say, this is from a Lazy Bee Scripts perspective.  Other publishers will take different views.  In all cases, the first imperative is to be consistent.