Is 'correct' punctuation in English important?

Konrad Valentin   Friday, May 07, 2004, 18:28 GMT
One of the best-selling books in Britain at the moment is one on 'correct' English punctuation called 'Eats, Shoots and Leaves' by Lynn Truss. I believe, however, that many punctuation marks are becoming obsolete. For example, I very rarely see colons or semi-colons used any more, and I can't help but think that Truss's book is just another ultimately futile attempt to stop language doing exactly what it wants to do. Prescriptivists in the eighteenth century attempted to eradicate non-standard regional accents and dialects. They failed. People have tried to regularise the spelling system in English. They failed. Truss too will fail to stop people using punctuation marks in whichever way they choose. Nothing can be done either to stop the slow but inexorable decline of some punctuation marks. Punctuation marks were rarely used in Old English (full stops were sometimes used, but that is about it), and people managed to get by. Similarly, a lack of punctuation in Modern written English will not result in any major communication breakdown. Why? Because English, as Truss fails to recognise, is heavily context-dependent. People are able to understand a text with or without 'correct' punctuation because of the context that it appears in. So, is 'correct' punctuation in English important? Only if you are not very intelligent. That's my assessment. Anybody else care to comment?
James   Sunday, May 09, 2004, 17:04 GMT
I don't know. I sort of agree with you; clearly, language will evolve in its own way - and that includes the written aspects and communication.
Also, look at they way that email has changed the way we write. More or less, what I am writing even now is influenced by the technology that I am using.

I do disagree with you that only "the not very intelligent" need punctuation. It seems to me that the unintelligent usually butcher it rather than adhere to it dogmatically. Punctuation provides precision, and the lack thereof only leads to ambiguity. Also, you seem to imply that a text, because it is always embedded in 'context', will always have one normal meaning. This isn't the case. On a day to day level a lack of 'proper' punctuation isn't going to be much of a concern; but in something like Law, it would be a disaster.
Random Boy   Monday, May 10, 2004, 02:34 GMT
I beg to differ.

Recently, there have been signs in the London tube that read something like the following (I forgot the exact wording but I remember the punctuation):
"In the case of emergency, do not panic, call station staff or dial 999."

Well, the implication of the above sentence, which has incorrect punctuation, is certainly VERY different from:
"In the case of emergency, do not panic; call station staff or dial 999."
And the following would have been even clearer:
"In the case of emergency, do not panic. Call station staff or dial 999."

Of course, it wouldn't have taken intelligent people like us a millisecond to figure out what the sign intended to say but stupid people do exist!
Random Boy   Monday, May 10, 2004, 02:36 GMT
To clarify my first sentence in the post above, I beg to differ from Konrad Valentin. My piece of evidence supports what James pointed out in his second paragraph.
Jim   Monday, May 10, 2004, 05:08 GMT
I once read this popular science book by someone, "The Emperor's New Mind" by Roger Penrose, I think. What struck me was the over-use of exclamation marks. It seemed like there were a dozen a page. After a while (a short while) it got very tedious. These punctuation marks were reduced to meaninglessness by the author. He would have done well to have read a book like Lynn Truss' "Eats, Shoots and Leaves" before he wrote his.
Chilli   Monday, May 10, 2004, 14:24 GMT
Correct punctuation can be really, really important sometimes. It can change the whole meaning of a sentence. The only example that I can think of on the spur of the moment is as follows:

I am watching the flowers blossom.

I am watching the flowers, blossom.
(Blossom becomes a term of endearment and refers to someone to whom you are speaking.)

In legalese punctuation is considered so important that the presence of a comma (or otherwise) can make or break a case.
Chilli   Monday, May 10, 2004, 14:27 GMT
Adding on from that, however, I think that it is difficult to learn, but that there is little much harder to read than a piece of work that is punctuated very poorly or not at all.
Chilli   Monday, May 10, 2004, 15:30 GMT
Here's an example I stole from someone else's work:

>> "People who go to church on Sundays wear nice hats."
>> "People, who go to church on Sundays, wear nice hats."

>> The first sentence refers only to those people who go to church on
>> Sundays, it restricts the action to those who do go to church.

>> The second sentence refers to everyone and introduces additional
>> information about them all going to church on Sundays.
AmaDeus   Tuesday, May 11, 2004, 08:58 GMT
I agree with Konrad Valentin. There is no punctuation in spoken English, and this rarely results in ambiguity of meaning. I think most of you are just being incredibly pedantic. Whether you think punctuation in written English is important or not, you can't stop language evolving and it looks like most punctuation marks are rapidly becoming obsolete.

Random Boy, do you seriously think that anyone would follow instructions telling them not to contact the emergency services in an emergency? Do you think anyone would have time to quibble about the subtle nuances of English punctuation with a massive fire raging behind them on the London Underground? Perhaps you are one of the fools you talk about who are stupid (or perhaps retarded) enough to do whatever a sign tells them to do, but I'll wager that everyone else (and yes, that includes our less intelligent brethren) would be straight on their mobile phones dialling 999. Tell me, if a sign told you to jump off the nearest available tall building, would you do it? I hope everyone else can see that this is exactly what Konrad Valentin is on about when he refers to English being "heavily context-dependent." If a bomb had gone off at an Underground station, believe me, you would know what the precise meaning of that sign was, and you would have neither the time nor the inclination to discuss alternative meanings.

Chilli, then your second sentence is not a very good example is it? Not everyone goes to church and not everyone wears hats, so it seems highly unlikely that this would be the intended meaning. I think it would be much more helpful, by the way, if we stuck to real rather than hypothetical examples. If you want to hypothesise, I could come up with a whole host of sentences with alternative meanings, but the simple truth is that punctuation doesn't really mean a great deal any more.
James Joyce   Wednesday, May 12, 2004, 21:12 GMT
"There is no punctuation in spoken English, and this rarely results in ambiguity of meaning."

Are you HONESTLY this stupid? Or, excuse me, let me speak on your level...

punctuation is for written langauge only and english is not special in this regard also it is obvious that your description of rare ambiguity is entirely anecdotal and if not it is entierly made up your ideas are muddled perhaps at this point you feel yourself clever for being able to decode bits and pieces of what i am saying but you under a bit of stress now im afraid and while it is true that we have no choice in the role of punctuations future then your one man or should i say one boy effort to eradicate grammer will fail you probably have never heard of literary theory have you becasue if you did youd realize that novels plays essays and poetry will fail i suggest that you read up on a little of stanley fishs reader response theory each word counts each punctuation mark counts overwrought writers use too many adverbs and adjectives but that doesnt mean that they dont mean a great deal anymore its evolution so deal with it

"simple truth", eh? you are a nice person probably but you are an honest to goodness stupid human being unless of course you are under nine years old in which case you are quite precocious
Jim   Thursday, May 13, 2004, 01:13 GMT

You attack Chilli and Random Boy's examples on the grounds that they are unrealistic. Does this help your case that "most punctuation marks are rapidly becoming obsolete"? I suggest that it does not. Instead of looking at the grammatical structures that Chilli and Random Boy were exemplifying you argue from a contextual point of view. This argument is meaningless because it's so easy to just change the context.

How about these?

A) "Harry's sister who goes to church on Sundays wears a nice hat."
B) "Harry's sister, who goes to church on Sundays, wears a nice hat."

Suppose Harry had three sisters: one of them is an atheist, one of them is a Muslim and the other is a church-going Christian. If you want to say that this third one wears a nice hat, use A).

Suppose that Harry has only one sister. If you want to say that she wears a nice hat and you want to add that she goes to church on Sundays, use B).

"There is no punctuation in spoken English, and this rarely results in ambiguity of meaning." you write. Note that, in speach, other things are used: pauses, intonation, emphasis, etc. How do you think that a pause could be written? Read the two sentences above to someone; if you are able to speak normally they should sound different.