Sunday, November 11, 2012

On "Pause and Effect" by M. B. Parkes ***

When I told certain friends and acquaintances that I was reading a book on the history of punctuation, most reacted with a statement along the lines of, "Why?" In other words, the subject seemed utterly dry and dull to them. The lone holdout was a recent doctor of philosophy, whose reaction was more along the lines of, "Tell me more."

I, of course, had been interested in the subject for some time. A popular book on the subject has yet to be published, however, so I had to settle for this--what is a very esoteric book on the topic. In fact, it was so esoteric in looks that I considered not bothering to read it at all. The book isn't aided at all by its design: large pages with a single, very wide column of type. In other words, even by its looks, it is dense and difficult to read.

But I'm glad that I did. Parkes, once I got into reading that first page, isn't a bad writer. The introduction, in fact, was quite fascinating, and the history overall is too. That said, Parkes is one for detail, and it is in those details that the book gets bogged down and boring.

The gist of the history goes something along the lines of this. Once upon a time, written language didn't involve punctuation. Writing was largely for the purpose of setting down thoughts for orators or lectors (professional readers). It was only when reading switched from being a public activity to a silent and private one that punctuation began to take a more consistent hold. I'd read this part before, but I'd been a bit skeptical. Parkes has made me a believer. Perhaps there is something to sharing so many details.

The shift the silent reading coincided with a move toward studying works in monasteries and such. But even before this, lectors and orators were known to mark up their private copies of manuscripts with personal punctuation--all kinds of marks, such as 7 or /--to show where pauses were to take place. One early lector says in a work that when asked to read something unfamiliar he had to turn the opportunity down: he didn't know enough about the work to be able to pause in the right spots.

Punctuation can have a great influence on the meaning of a passage, and so as the shift toward private reading in monasteries occurred, the Church also had an interest in ensuring that manuscripts were marked--punctuated--properly. Hence, some standardization began to sneak in then.

Most of this early punctuation was for the purpose of marking pauses in speaking, in reading aloud. That too would change--but much later.

The true standardizing came about, however, after the invention of the printing press. Now, typesetters were involved, and at times they had only certain marks to work with. Also, not just one copy of a manuscript was being produced by hundreds, so that readers and other printers became used to seeing certain kinds of marks, and subsequent copies then bore those marks also.

The study of grammar became something of interest to medieval scholars. They began naming out the parts of speech, studying how language itself worked. This too would have its effect on punctuation, as some punctuators would shift from simply using marks to denote pauses to using such marks to denote grammatical elements--complete ideas. In fact, there came to be a kind of debate between two schools: those who thought of punctuation largely as a means to denote pauses in speaking and those who thought of punctuation as a means to denote the logic (the complete thoughts) of a passage. It's a debate that to an extent carries into our day. The logic argument would find full force in the work of John Locke, who pushed prescriptive, instead of descriptive, grammar. Language should have rules, he believed, because this aided logic and reason, and so punctuation fell into that same lot.

Other punctuation marks, like quote marks and apostrophes, arose later. In Spain, the Royal Academy actually ruled that interrogative sentences should begin with the upside down question mark for clarity, but most such languages aren't regulated that way. Apostrophes first came into being so show missing vowels. Various marks were used for dialogue (if any were used at all) before quote marks became the norm in English.

And so it goes: the history of the comma, the period, the semicolon. Fascinating, in the big picture, if not so much in the little details.

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