As readers and writers, we’re intimately familiar with the dots, strokes and dashes that punctuate the written word. The comma, colon, semicolon and their siblings are integral parts of writing, pointing out grammatical structures and helping us transform letters into spoken words or mental images. We would be lost without them (or, at the very least, extremely confused), and yet the earliest readers and writers managed without it for thousands of years. What changed their minds? In the 3rd Century BCE, in the Hellenic Egyptian city of Alexandria, a librarian named Aristophanes had had enough. He was chief of staff at the city’s famous library, home to hundreds of thousands of scrolls, which were all frustratingly time-consuming to read. For as long as anyone could remember, the Greeks had written their texts so that their letters ran together withnospacesorpunctuation and without any distinction between lowercase and capitals. It was up to the reader to pick their way through this unforgiving mass of letters to discover where each word or sentence ended and the next began...
The three dots that had spawned punctuation in the first place inevitably suffered as a result. As other, more specific symbols were created, the distinction between low, medium and high points grew indistinct until all that was left was a simple point that could be placed anywhere on the line to indicate a pause of indeterminate length – a muddied mixture of the comma, colon and full stop. The humble dot was put under pressure on another front, too, when a 12th Century Italian writer named Boncompagno da Signa proposed an entirely new system of punctuation comprising only two marks: a slash (/) represented a pause while a dash (—) terminated sentences. The fate of da Signa’s dash is murky – it may or may not be the ancestor of the parenthetical dash, like those that surround these words – but the slash, or virgula suspensiva, was an unequivocal success. It was compact and visually distinctive, and it soon began to edge out the last holdouts of Aristophanes’s system as a general-purpose comma or pause.
- Keith Houston, BBC, author of Shady Characters, The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks. More of his work can be found here.
Process and Punctuation
It is an essential doctrine in the philosophy of organism that the primary function of a proposition is to be relevant as a lure for feeling. For example, some propositions are the data of feelings with subjective forms such as to constitute those feelings to be the enjoyment of a joke. Other propositions are felt with feelings whose subjective forms are horror, disgust, or indignation.
Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality
Punctuation marks are not sentences, but they function as sentences. They are propositions, lures for feeling. To be sure, they are marks on a page or screen. But as marks, they speak to us in their language: periods say "stop here for a while"; commas say "pause here for a while"; question marks say "wonder here for a while"; and exclamation points say "this is really important." If we are poets, we may find ourselves experimenting with unique uses of punctuation or with no punctuation at all. Consider William Carlos Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow."
so much depends
upon a red wheel barrow
glazed with rain water beside the white chickens
Williams relies on line breaks and spacing to create pauses and structure within the text, instead of using traditional punctuation marks. He creates a flow through line breaks and the natural rhythms of the words. The very absence of punctuation marks speaks to us too. We note their absence and are mindful of their potential but absent presence.
Poets, more than others, know the importance of punctuation marks: periods, commas, question marks, exclamation points, colons, semicolons, quotation marks, parentheses, dashes, and ellipses. Of course, they know the importance of other things too: words, phrases, indentations, fonts, syntax, grammar, spellings, images, rhythm, letters (uppercase and lowercase), and the white space on a page. There are no uppercase letters in Williams' poem. Writing poetry is an organic process in which the many elements just named are woven into a whole. In Whiteheadian terms, the many become one and are increased by one, namely the poem itself.
The particular punctuation marks a poet chooses are part of the poem's overall meaning, as is the reader's interpretation of the poem. No poem is an island unto itself. It is a place where the past meets the future in the present, and its meanings are dependent on almost uncountable factors, including the elements of the poem, the intentions of the poet, and the intentions of the reader. The meaning of a poem is in process, and it is pluriform. A poem has no single meaning; it has many meanings. All are flowing.
A poem, like a punctuation mark within it, is a lure for feeling in process.
In a Whiteheadian context, "feeling" is a holistic term. It includes reflection, perception, memory, hope, purpose, and emotion. A punctuation mark is a lure to think, perceive, remember, or anticipate in a certain way, relative to social convention. This lure is also a bridge. It helps link what has come before in the poem with what may come after. And it is likewise akin to a breath or, perhaps better, the space between breaths. A punctuation mark is a lure for feeling, a bridge, and a breath—rolled into a single mark on a page. Punctuation marks function in popular texts in the same ways: in text messages, emails, written notes, recipes, news stories, for example. They are tremendously useful but can grow stale over time. That's why we need poets who use punctuation in creative ways and avoid punctuation too. They help keep punctuation alive.
Punctuation is in Process
Bonus! Exclamation Marks
A former president of the United States has a special fondness for exclamation marks. Studies show that he uses such marks in about 75% of his tweets. Often he precedes them with a demeaning adjective: "Sad!" "Pathetic!" "Stupid!" On occasion he has used as many as fifteen exclamation marks to make his point.
Can you believe it? Really now, can you?????? Sad!!!!!
I asked ChatGPT to compose a short paragraph on the misuse of the Exclamation Mark.
Oh my gosh!!! Language, the beautiful vessel of human expression, has fallen victim to the exclamation mark's ruthless tyranny! No longer reserved for moments of genuine excitement or astonishment, these little punctuations now pepper our sentences with excessive enthusiasm! They have infiltrated our everyday communication, robbing words of their nuanced meanings and reducing them to mere exaggerated exclamations! The very essence of subtlety and nuance has been trivialized, as every statement is now infused with an artificial sense of urgency! How tragic it is to witness the degradation of language at the hands of these exclamation marks!
Here is a history of the exclamation mark in case you're curious and maybe even hopeful of its redemption.