Coming to a full stop

Punctuation should be more than just an afterthought, an incorrectly placed comma can completely alter the sense of a sentence, says David Bernstein

Artichokes, asparagus and apostrophes. To be a greengrocer in my local street market you need to learn about all three. The last is perhaps the most difficult. Inserting apostrophes in exactly the wrong place requires considerable diligence.

First, spot your plural. Don’t worry if you can’t spell it. (Dan Quayle had problems with potatoes.) As long as there’s an S at the end you’re OK.

Now insert the apostrophe immediately before it. Banana’s, cabbage’s, grape’s. A bit of practice and you’ll move up to watercres’s.

Do not be discouraged by the fact that apostrophe’s indicates the possessive singular. Your customer doesn’t need to know that in order to comprehend what you’re trying to say. He or she realises that Jersey Tom’s does not signify the owner of the red fruit, some sweatered Thomas, but the fruit itself.

Communication is all that matters – as even the most self-indulgent designer would no doubt agree. As long as you get across the message what’s the point of bothering about punctuation? All those dots and commas and apostrophes. I used to imagine designers keeping a supply of punctuation marks in one of those tin salt shakers which used to grace fish and chip shops and finishing layouts by sprinkling an appropriate amount over the text.

The practice isn’t dead. Examine the current display ad for Happiness. The film has won the International Critic’s prize. Now who is this particular critic? And who gave him the authority to award his own prize? I think we should be told. And how do you become an international critic all by yourself? It must involve an inordinate amount of travel reviewing the same film in different capitals. Maybe, just maybe, he or she has help and there is a panel of international critics – and it’s their prize. You see what problems may arise from the misplaced apostrophe.

Eric Partridge in his invaluable guide to good English, Usage and Abusage, quotes a passage from a treatise published in 1644: “Great care ought to be had in writing for the due observing of points: for the neglect thereof will pervert the sense.”

The author, a Southwark schoolmaster, takes as an example the sentence, “My son, if sinners incite thee consent thou, not refraining thy foot from their way.” If the comma following “thou” instead precedes it, the meaning is exactly the opposite.

Of course, not all errors of punctuation cause communication glitches. And not all glitches are serious. Some perversions of the sense are quite amusing. From the draft of a brochure I received recently: “He visited Deauville where he trained horses to watch the races.”

I’d pay money to witness those training sessions. However, by inserting a couple of commas (or, better still, brackets), the printed equivalent of pauses, the scene becomes less bizarre. Quite ordinary, in fact, but at least the receiver’s attention is held where the sender requires it. That was a writer’s error, but if writers are less than rigorous can they blame designers for their cavalier disregard for punctuation? It’s no defence really to regard attention to detail as pedantic, to plead that communication is all. For punctuation’s purpose is to aid communication, to make things clear. Words and thought are inextricably linked.

If your words are muddled then so is your thinking. Similarly, if your punctuation is sloppy it can betray paucity of thought. Worse, it can communicate something very different from what you believe you’re communicating.

Today, when some (misguided) apostles of hi-tech graphics claim that text is dead, punctuation asserts its sovereignty. Access a website and omit a character and there is no access.

I’ll end as I began with a punctuation story from my neighbourhood. It was the primary school’s first year and first fete. The headmaster managed to persuade Rex Harrison to open the event. A crowd puller – so the local printer was commissioned to make the most of it on a poster. The printer was duly impressed and gave the star due prominence, encasing his name in inverted commas. The result was the opposite of the printer’s intentions. As one punter commented on learning that the star had actually appeared, “I thought it would be a monkey with the same name.”

Quotation marks indicate something false. People often use two fingers of each hand, punctuating the air, to convey in effect “so called” or “this is pretence”. The mistaken punctuation arguably lost the school a hundred pounds in takings. Mistakes can be far more serious. As recent events remind us, misplace a decimal point and you could be up before the General Medical Council.

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