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Punctuation matters!

Today's Independent has several letters disagreeing with a piece by Bethan Marshall (4 April) in which she said she didn't see much need for punctuation. Dr Marshall is a senior lecturer in English Education at King's College, London: talk about a treachery of the clerks!

She starts her piece with the one word "Punctuation", to make the point that there is nothing wrong with one-word or verbless sentences. This, of course, is irrelevant to the subject she is supposed to be writing about, but it preoccupies her throughout much of the essay.

When she does finally get round to talk about punctuation she says that many children use a comma for a short pause, full stop for a long pause, and a semicolon for an in-between pause, and remarks: "I punctuate that way largely myself."

This admission, of course, shows she hasn't understood the most basic purpose of punctuation, which is nothing to do with pausing for breath and everything to do with making the sense clear. Punctuation is there to prevent the need for double takes by the reader who is trying to get at the sense.

Another essay in same issue of The Independent defends the use of punctuation. It's by Philip Hensher and concentrates almost entirely on the use of the semicolon. I sympathize, being excessively addicted to these things myself. In fact, I'm trying to cut down on my use of them and just went through my latest book, pruning some of the semicolons. The result, I think, was a tautening of the writing.

What neither writer focused on sufficiently was the element of custom in punctuation. Fashions change in punctuation, as in everything else. I find David Hume, like other eighteenteenth-century writers, quite irritating to read because of their habit of scattering unnecessary commas all over the place. Makes for a bumpy read.

But just because punctuation changes does not mean that it doesn't matter. The ability to punctuate well is a basic skill that the writer needs to acquire, just as avoiding sinking is a basic skill for someone who hopes to become an Olympic-class swimmer. It's not enough in itself but it's an essential step before you can even begin.

Some fifty years ago Evelyn Waugh was lamenting the disappearance of what he called the lost art of punctuation. It hasn't disappeared yet, but it does need to be practised.


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