R P O’Donnell on why punctuation is no ‘laughing matter
Roger Casement, the Irish revolutionary, was arrested in 1916 on charges of treason against the English crown. He faced death if convicted.
But Casement (who either had brass knockers or nothing to lose) argued that the Treason Act was originally unpunctuated, and so could be interpreted to forbid only domestic treason.
And as Casement cheerfully pointed out, he had committed all of his treason abroad. Holiday treasoning, as it were.
The English judge, however, found Casement guilty of mispunctuation while Irish. The verdict was treason — poor Roger was hanged on a comma.
Punctuation, the backbone of the English language for 500 years, has recently found itself at a crossroads. Or rather, we have found ourselves at the crossroads of the Digital Age, wondering how much further we have to carry punctuation — a gasping and frail (albeit stubborn) relic of the Print Age.
This would’ve been unthinkable just a few decades ago. Punctuation imposes structure and clarity on sentences, and in that way, even minor changes in punctuation can have serious ramifications.
As Casement discovered, absent-minded or slack-jawed punctuation can lead to disaster. Especially when lawyers get involved.
In 1991, Graham Greene changed a single comma in his will and then swiftly expired. His estate, containing classics of English literature, has been tied down in legal disputes over that comma ever since.
Even now, punctuation still holds clout. Oakhurst Dairy recently lost $5m in a lawsuit; its contracts were missing a single Oxford comma. And Oxford commas are largely a matter of taste (despite endless, frothing, and tedious arguments to the contrary).
Punctuation’s importance goes beyond structure and clarity.
One of the main drawbacks of print — compared to speech — is that readers can’t hear inflection, which makes it difficult to determine the speaker’s tone. (Are they being sarcastic? Ironic? Light-hearted?) Enter the humble comma. Writers convey emotion in prose by shaping and pointing their sentences with punctuation.
For this reason, careful punctuation is vital to good literature. As almost every writer has said, from Sally Rooney to Oscar Wilde, you can spend a whole day deliberating over one comma.
But these days, texts and emails dominate everyday life. We have gone past enjoying them; we rely on them now. Instant communication means anything slower than instant is unacceptable. Punctuation was one of the first things we chucked overboard to speed up the process. Which is perfectly natural, I think. Do we really need to spend hours crafting carefully pointed prose — just to tell our wife we’re stuck in the bathroom with no toilet paper?
But with punctuation uneasily getting its affairs in order, we need a different way to quickly show our emotions in text.
Enter emojis. (Exit commas, chased by a bear.) Emojis, it can be argued, are a punctuation surrogate — if not a replacement. They’re a faster, more direct way of conveying the writer’s emotions and have become understandably endemic.
Emojis, however, are like the Oxford comma. There are scores of otherwise level-headed people who suddenly contemplate arson when they see one.
A school in England recently announced that teachers were using emojis to teach English literature. There were the expected cries of outrage when people read the announcement — on their smartphones. Or heard it on a podcast, or from Alexa.
Print media, while not dead yet, is not exactly as sacred to people as they pretend it is.
I’ve touched an oar from the Lusitania (on display in a church in Castletownshend, of all places) but the unadorned and gorgeously clear prose of Erik Larson’s Dead Wake is the closest I’ve come to smelling the smoke of the doomed ship itself.
Dead Wake is filled with the voices and letters of the Lusitania’s passengers. The last letters of victims — some sent before departure, some interrupted halfway through — make for some of the most lingering heartache for readers.
If the Lusitania happened today, we wouldn’t have letters from victims and survivors. We would have texts and emails. And these would be filled with emojis. Any writer of the event would have to include them.
When I asked Larson about emojis, he told me that while he thinks they would be a distraction to readers in literature, in real life he occasionally uses them — to clarify a hurried email that could be misinterpreted. “Does this then betray a growing lack of confidence,” he asked me, “in our ability to use [conventional] English to make clear what correspondents of yore... seemed so effortlessly to convey?” It does of course.
We need punctuation; a punctuation-less world is scary to imagine. So do we flail frantically backwards and try to resuscitate it? Or do we lean into the change, into the Digital Age, and send a Dear John email to punctuation? That school in England has clearly chosen the latter. For what it’s worth, I think it’s right.
From Homer and the orators scoffing at the scribes, to libraries and theatres turning up their noses at radio and TV, people have always overreacted to the dangers of a new development. But then, irresistibly, love and literature move on, hand in hand with the new technology.
Maybe it’s time we learn how to skip the gut reaction and get right to the acceptance, so we can get back to what we’d all rather be doing — arguing about the Oxford comma.