On Punctuation

This little passage from a Wikipedia article made me chuckle:

Parentheses may also be nested (generally with one set (such as this) inside another set). This is not commonly used in formal writing (though sometimes other brackets [especially parentheses] will be used for one or more inner set of parentheses [in other words, secondary {or even tertiary} phrases can be found within the main parenthetical sentence]).

The grammatical rules regarding punctuations and parentheses are not very precise. Hence, one can easily construct a paragraph that’s grammatically, syntactically, and logically accurate, but absurd at the same time. Sometimes the results can be quite amusing (as in the excerpt mentioned above.)

Here’s another example where the author deliberately uses numerous parentheses to explain one thing: that there are no precise rules about punctuation:

There are no precise rules about punctuation (Fowler lays out some general advice (as best he can under the complex circumstances of English prose (he points out, for example, that we possess only four stops (the comma, the semicolon, the colon and the period (the question mark and exclamation point are not, strictly speaking, stops; they are indicators of tone (oddly enough, the Greeks employed the semicolon for their question mark (it produces a strange sensation to read a Greek sentence which is a straightforward question: Why weepest thou; (instead of Why weepest thou? (and, of course, there are parentheses (which are surely a kind of punctuation making this whole matter much more complicated by having to count up the left-handed parentheses in order to be sure of closing with the right number (but if the parentheses were left out, with nothing to work with but the stops we would have considerably more flexibility in the deploying of layers of meaning than if we tried to separate all the clauses by physical barriers (and in the latter case, while we might have more precision and exactitude for our meaning, we would lose the essential flavor of language, which is its wonderful ambiguity)))))))))))).

And while we are on the topic, let me mention two of my pet peeves regarding the usage of (1) writing in CAPS, and (2) misuse of quotes:

(1) Every once in a while I come across a sentence (sometimes an entire email) written in all caps. Writing in all caps doesn’t imply importance, seriousness, or emphasis – and they don’t help make your proposition more convincing (as the writers of these horrid sentences seem to think.) Italics should be used for emphasis; writing a whole sentence in all caps is equivalent to shouting. Please don’t do that (unless it’s warranted.)

(2) The unnecessary and erroneous usage of quotation marks. Again, some people seem to think that quotation marks imply emphasis. They don’t. Quotes should be used to indicate direct speech, different meaning of a word, and sometimes irony. Here’s one such misuse of quotation marks:


By the way, did you know that Sanskrit originally did not have any punctuation marks? The vertical bar (|) and double vertical bars were added later in the 17th century. Could that be one of the many reasons behind its eventual demise as a vernacular language in India?


The article mentioned above is available here, and was written by Lewis Thomas. Oh, and I share the author’s fondness for semicolons.

Hat tip for the Wikipedia extract goes to xkcd, and the billboard image is taken from The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks. Yes, there’s an entire blog dedicated to unnecessary quotes.


9 responses to “On Punctuation

  1. Quite a cohesive post.
    Yes, I have come across many people who use ALL CAPS TO WRITE AN ENTIRE SENTENCE. WORST IS THEY ASSUME THAT WRITING IN ALL CAPS, MAKING IT BOLD AND UNDERLINING IT WILL HELP THEM COMMUNICATE THE WRITE MESSAGE. As a matter of fact, writing sentences and paragraphs in all caps has been proven to be not very legible http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_caps
    Also, it’s actually very interesting to read sentences which get a completely different meaning because of the incorrect use of punctuation.

    • Hi Khusboo,

      Aren’t those emails annoying?! If an email (a) contains sentences written in all caps, or (b) has something akin to “Every Indian must read this” in its subject line, or (c) pleads you to forward it to as many people as possible, then I tend to either ignore or delete it. In general, I am skeptical to mass-forwarded emails – most of which have one or all of the three aforementioned characteristics.

      I like your comment about changed meanings due to misplaced punctuation marks. A deliberate rearrangement of a punctuation mark to reconstruct a sentence can be a lot of fun too… Actually, Gulzar had tinkered with one of Ghalib’s sher‘s in such manner; will have to write about this someday now that you have reminded me of that. 🙂

  2. I wonder sometimes about why such a well-structured (gramatically) language like Sanskrit miss punctuation marks!

  3. I guess one reason could be that – unlike Prakrit, which was actually the spoken language in the Vedic age – Sanskrit was used almost exclusively for academic discourse and poetic excursions. The meaning of Sanskrit and Prakrit also highlights this difference:

    Sanskrit: perfected, artificial
    Prakrit: primordial, natural

    • Gave it some thought. A reason could be the very structure of the language. Consider these rules:
      1. The words in a simple sentence don’t follow any particular order (so that you can’t change the mening by changing the order of words unlike “I will go” and “Will I go”)
      2. One and only one sentence is written in one line
      3. Converations are typically structured using paragraphs (“Sanjaya uvaacha” is a sentence and a line, followed by what Sanjay had said, followed by a blank line etc)

  4. (Sorry. For some reson, I can’t see the rest of my last comment.)

    You would need few punctuations for simple sentences if you follow those rules. That way, I guess, Sanskrit was not very forward-looking, even though the grammar is superbly structured.

    • Yeah, that makes sense. Perhaps it’s this rigidity in structure that robs the speaker of any fluctuations, and playful variations (where punctuations, can play a crucial role). The utter lack of punctuations is what makes the Sanskrit chants of a priest sound so methodical and dull. Even the pause between two verses sound more like a structural compulsion rather than an reflective pause.

  5. In Australia, you can’t enter a liquor store if you’re under 18 unless you have an adult with you. The quickest way to get from the carpark to the shop at my local supermarket is to cut through the liquor store. They have a sign up at the entrance that reads: If you are under 18 and not accompanied by an adult you must “walk around”.

    I want to rip the sign down and burn it every time I go to buy milk.

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