Reading Log: Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation (David Crystal)

David Crystal’s Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation is a delightful, intelligent book that begins with the first recorded use of punctuation and ends with a pragmatic antidote to the insufficient claims of the dogged descriptivists and the dogmatic prescriptivists alike.

The first third of this surprisingly entertaining read delves into the history of word spacing and punctuation. Crystal has done a particularly fine job digging into the archives of writing advice through the ages to give this history a shape, from the beginning of punctuation as an idiosyncratic guide to reading aloud to the grammarian era of hyper-punctuation and the equally idiosyncratic creation of rule after rule to tame the apparent chaos. And of course we are all familiar with the present spectrum, which Crystal adeptly outlines, with the punctuation police wielding copies of Eats, Shoots & Leaves at one end and leading linguists such as John McWhorter predicting the demise of the comma (following on the heels of Strunk & Whites spats and detachable collars) on the other.

Crystal’s premise is that both the elocution and grammatical approaches to punctuation are insufficient and incomplete; his solution is to a) recognize that punctuation represents a hierarchical system and b) navigate that system by a combination of pragmatics and semantics. Crystal explains what he means by the latter:

When we talk about punctuation as a system, we mean that, at any one place in a written discourse, a choice has to be made from the set of options the language makes available.

That choice involves a combination of semantics (the meaning a writer wishes to convey) and pragmatics (the look and overall effect of the text), neither of which exist apart from one another. This often-not-at-all-seamless fusion is at the heart of the punctuation battles and the epic confusion that results when one of them is (mis)applied at the expense of the other. For just this reason, the worst thing I ever did to my understanding of—and ability to productively wield—punctuation was to take a comprehensive “Modern English Grammar” course.

The rest of the book, save an appendix on teaching punctuation to children, is spent exploring the specifics of that hierarchical system from layout, whitespace and paragraphs through periods, dashes, colons and the ever-vexing comma, with more in between, before finally ending on brackets and quotations marks. This sounds like a lot—and it is. Crystal remarks that any attempt to fully examine a single mark would take a book for each (and multiple volumes for the comma, an exasperation to even the experts)… but I’d love to see a followup by Crystal elaborating on some of the punctuation delights mentioned only in passing, such as the dinkus, asterism, fleuron and pilcrow…not to mention the experimental marks, the percontation points and interrobangs, that didn’t—or have yet to—make their own lasting mark.

If this sounds like a dry read, it most definitely is not. Crystal is both erudite and witty, bringing in excerpts and asides from sources as diverse as Punch magazine and Peanuts comics, and writers as disparate as Gertrude Stein and Mark Twain. He has a knack for unearthing charming bits from 17th–19th century punctuation guides and contemporary writers alike…my copy is liberally marked with cryptic notations directing my future self, who has time for such things, to copy passages to my commonplace book or share with other language nerds.

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