My four-year-old recently started school and, as you can imagine, I’m taking a keen interest in what he’s already being taught, particularly about the English language.
When I picked him up yesterday I was about to ask him to stop punching, for fear of him making contact with somebody, when I realised what he kept saying as he was punching the air in front of him – ‘Full stop! Full stop!’ I certainly couldn’t stop his enthusiasm for punctuation so we did ‘full stop punches’ all the way home!
While full stops (or periods) are amongst the easier punctuation marks to master, there are many others that aren’t so easy to use. But if you fear using a semi-colon or don’t know when to use a comma, you’re in good company.
A recent blog post by British linguist and author David Crystal, pointed out that even Wordsworth, considered by many as the best poet to have ever lived, struggled with commas. In fact other famous writers did too.
The great poets Lord Byron and Thomas Gray both felt they lacked skill in the area of English language punctuation. Why did they feel this way when they were masters of using words? And why do people feel so strongly about punctuation being incorrectly used?
David Crystal writes about two Americans who travelled around the US a few years ago, red markers in hand, correcting any written mistakes they came across. I’m sure quite a few of you have been tempted to do something similar (or is it just me?!). However, the apostrophe they added to a notice at the Grand Canyon Heritage Site was considered a federal offence. They were fined, received a year’s probation, are banned from entering all national parks, and banned from any more correcting (I’m curious how this last one is enforced). Yet, their sentence was lenient. They could have spent six months in jail.
Mark Twain also felt passionately about punctuation to the point where I would have been scared of being his editor. In 1889 he wrote,
“Yesterday Mr. Hall wrote that the printer’s proof-reader was improving my punctuation for me,
and I telegraphed orders to have him shot without giving him time to pray.”
How strongly do you feel about punctuation and why do you think people are so passionate about its misuse?