Punctuation, one is taught, has a point: to keep up law and order. Punctuation marks are the road signs placed along the highway of our communication -- to control speeds, provide directions and prevent head-on collisions. A period has the unblinking finality of a red light; the comma is a flashing yellow light that asks us only to slow down; and the semicolon is a stop sign that tells us to ease gradually to a halt, before gradually starting up again. By establishing the relations between words, punctuation establishes the relations between the people using words. That may be one reason why schoolteachers exalt it and lovers defy it ("We love each other and belong to each other let's don't ever hurt each other Nicole let's don't ever hurt each other," wrote Gary Gilmore to his girlfriend). A comma, he must have known, "separates inseparables," in the clinching words of H.W. Fowler, King of English Usage.
Punctuation, then, is a civic prop, a pillar that holds society upright. (A run-on sentence, its phrases piling up without division, is as unsightly as a sink piled high with dirty dishes.) Small wonder, then, that punctuation was one of the first proprieties of the Victorian age, the age of the corset, that the modernists threw off: the sexual revolution might be said to have begun when Joyce's Molly Bloom spilled out all her private thoughts in 36 pages of unbridled, almost unperioded and officially censored prose; and another rebellion was surely marked when E.E. Cummings first felt free to commit "God" to the lower case.
Punctuation thus becomes the signature of cultures. The hot-blooded Spaniard seems to be revealed in the passion and urgency of his doubled exclamation points and question marks ("Caramba! Quien sabe?"), while the impassive Chinese traditionally added to his so-called inscrutability by omitting directions from his ideograms. The anarchy and commotion of the '60s were given voice in the exploding exclamation marks, riotous capital letters and Day-Glo italics of Tom Wolfe's spray-paint prose; and in Communist societies, where the State is absolute, the dignity -- and divinity -- of capital letters is reserved for Ministries, Sub-Committees and Secretariats.
Yet punctuation is something more than a culture's birthmark; it scores the music in our minds, gets our thoughts moving to the rhythm of our hearts. Punctuation is the notation in the sheet music of our words, telling us when to rest, or when to raise our voices; it acknowledges that the meaning of our . discourse, as of any symphonic composition, lies not in the units but in the pauses, the pacing and the phrasing. Punctuation is the way one bats one's eyes, lowers one's voice or blushes demurely. Punctuation adjusts the tone and color and volume till the feeling comes into perfect focus: not disgust exactly, but distaste; not lust, or like, but love.
Punctuation, in short, gives us the human voice, and all the meanings that lie between the words. "You aren't young, are you?" loses its innocence when it loses the question mark. Every child knows the menace of a dropped apostrophe (the parent's "Don't do that" shifting into the more slowly enunciated "Do not do that"), and every believer, the ignominy of having his faith reduced to "faith." Add an exclamation point to "To be or not to be . . . " and the gloomy Dane has all the resolve he needs; add a comma, and the noble sobriety of "God save the Queen" becomes a cry of desperation bordering on double sacrilege.
Sometimes, of course, our markings may be simply a matter of aesthetics. Popping in a comma can be like slipping on the necklace that gives an outfit quiet elegance, or like catching the sound of running water that complements, as it completes, the silence of a Japanese landscape. When V.S. Naipaul, in his latest novel, writes, "He was a middle-aged man, with glasses," the first comma can seem a little precious. Yet it gives the description a spin, as well as a subtlety, that it otherwise lacks, and it shows that the glasses are not part of the middle-agedness, but something else.
Thus all these tiny scratches give us breadth and heft and depth. A world that has only periods is a world without inflections. It is a world without shade. It has a music without sharps and flats. It is a martial music. It has a jackboot rhythm. Words cannot bend and curve. A comma, by comparison, catches the gentle drift of the mind in thought, turning in on itself and back on itself, reversing, redoubling and returning along the course of its own sweet river music; while the semicolon brings clauses and thoughts together with all the silent discretion of a hostess arranging guests around her dinner table.
Punctuation, then, is a matter of care. Care for words, yes, but also, and more important, for what the words imply. Only a lover notices the small things: the way the afternoon light catches the nape of a neck, or how a strand of hair slips out from behind an ear, or the way a finger curls around a cup. And no one scans a letter so closely as a lover, searching for its small print, straining to hear its nuances, its gasps, its sighs and hesitations, poring over the secret messages that lie in every cadence. The difference between "Jane (whom I adore)" and "Jane, whom I adore," and the difference between them both and "Jane -- whom I adore -- " marks all the distance between ecstasy and heartache. "No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put at just the right place," in Isaac Babel's lovely words; a comma can let us hear a voice break, or a heart. Punctuation, in fact, is a labor of love. Which brings us back, in a way, to gods.
It’s nice to know that when debates online and offline are centred on questions whether Kejriwal is an anarchist or not, whether the IPL has lost its charm or whether the UPA government’s decision on Telangana was well-thought-out or not, there is still steam left in us to talk of small, universal things. Like the humble comma.
Professor John McWhorter of Colombia University recently raised doubts over usage of the comma, saying it might have reached an expiry date and that removing it would cause “so little loss of clarity that there could even be a case made for not using commas at all”.
Acclaimed novelist and essayist Pico Iyer had in June 1988 written an ode to this almost-imperceptible mark entitled “In Praise Of The Humble Comma,” extolling it as the signature of cultures. In an email conversation I had with Iyer last week, he said he still believes in the power of pauses and that the comma is actually about love. An abridged version of this was published in the Editorial page of The Times of India on February 14, but here is the full transcript for those who would like to know all he said:
Do you agree with Prof McWhorter?
I always defer to Professor McWhorter, who knows a thousand times more about these things than I will ever know. But a part of me feels that the comma is needed more than ever these days, precisely because punctuation is falling out of our text messages and e-mails, more and more, and because we’re more in need of a pause than ever before. To
me, part of the beauty of a comma is that it offers a rest, like one in music, a break that gives the whole piece of music around it a greater shape and a deeper harmony. It allows us to catch our breath and head back into a text cool and calm and, quite literally, collected. And in making sentences, the more commas we omit, the more we often end up in a state of unwanted ambiguity.
Not using the comma can give rise to ambiguity. Any instance of the difference it can make?
I read more and more sentences these days, as all of us hurry up so much that we barely stop to punctuate our sentences that leave me completely in the dark; I don’t know which clause belongs with which, and whether “The cat whom I love has gone missing” or “The cat, whom I love, has gone missing.” In many situations a comma can mark all the difference between separateness and togetherness.
Is the variation always that big?
Small things are not less important than big ones; I suspect that is one of the central lessons of our iPod, MacBook Air universe, in which more and more is getting shrunk. Indeed, tiny things can make all the difference between being “nowhere” and “now here.
But as Prof McWhorter says, can’t fashions and conventions change?
Yes, fashions change and, yes, people differ radically in how much they want to use the comma. I wouldn’t want anyone to follow my prescriptions. But if we lose these distinctions entirely, and then start to do away with semi-colons, parentheses and much else, I think we will lose all music, nuance and subtlety in our communication, and end up shouting at one another in block capitals.
There’s a reason these little marks were first invented – as stop signs and speed bumps and red-lights were invented – and I’m not sure that the use for them has diminished, especially as traffic has increased so dramatically (in every sense), and acceleration has become the order of the day.
I’m almost a believer in a Slow Speech movement, as in a Slow Food or Slow Life movement (remember how the English patient urges Kip, the Indian, to read Kipling slowly, and do justice to every comma; slowness is the language of love, as well as of intimacy and depth). The comma can turn an attack into a caress and a lecture into a mere statement of possibility.
If we were to do away with the comma, would it imply a lack of fidelity to the written language?
I think it would imply a lack of fidelity to subtlety and silence, the pause between words that sometimes gives them their deepest meaning, the space between certainties that is often where all power and meaning lies. It would be like a piece of music that never halted or changed speed, but that rolled on relentlessly. It’s the open spaces, the alternations and pauses and twists and turns in life, that give it its savour.
Text messages and contractions and “U” for “you” and the like all have their place, and are wonderful when it comes to making our communication brief and efficient; but we wouldn’t want all our talk to be only brief and efficient. And taking all pauses and hesitations — not to mention – barriers out of our language would be like taking the net away from a tennis-game. Where would all the fun go?
Every day, at my desk, I spend most of my time taking out commas — or parentheses or dashes — or putting them in again to try to catch a certain rhythm, a tone of voice, a slant of light. To write “Arjun was 43 and happy, and halting” is very different from writing “Arjun was 43 and happy and halting.” Put in the comma, and you’re playing the clauses off one another, and suggesting a contradiction; get rid of them, and you’re making a blander, blanker point, without much tension. It’s like the difference between putting two (not always compatible) people in a room, and just one.
When I wrote my little essay about the comma 26 years ago, I was really writing about love. Because in love the smallest things matter desperately, which is why lovers pay such attention to the tiniest marks on the page. And I don’t’ think it’s a terrible thing to be in love with the world and all its details, to be in love with language and all the places it can go. Put “God” all in lower-case, for example, and you’re deliberately provoking the person who believes in a god; put a comma in “God save the Queen” and you’re completely changing the meaning of the sentence, and altering our sense of whether you’re a believer or not.
In tiny markers lie the hugest differences.
Gertrude Stein take on the comma was that it only distracts and dilutes what should be focused and intense. Your views?
Well, Gertrude Stein wasn’t always the easiest writer to read–and her intent was to brand herself on the English language and to write sentences that had her mark on them (much as e.e. cummings, around the same time, gave us his signature, as it were, by leaving out all capital letters).
When Cormac McCarthy does away with quotation marks and capital letters for every word but “God,” and when he completes an entire page without a comma, and another with twelve sentences beginning with “He,” he’s going for a very specific effect, akin to secular chant, and trying to reproduce the God-haunted desert of his allegorical landscape. He’s banishing most rules in order to create his own universe.
But if there’s no real reason or sense to your omitting these marks, you’re simply backing into a signless desert you haven’t necessarily chosen.
Doing without certain punctuation marks, in a world full of punctuation, is a conscious choice, which carries a very specific charge and implications about the world as it is generally seen; just doing without them entirely makes no kind of statement about anything.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author's own.
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