Lesson 2: “Hearing” Punctuation


It was not until the introduction of the printing press in the 15th century that we see the beginnings of the practices of modern day punctuation, which then became fairly fixed by the 18th century. The British playwright Ben Jonson is often given credit for putting down many of the rules as we know them. In his 1640 book The English Grammar he discusses the primary functions of the various punctuation marks, marking the point at which punctuation correlates more with grammatical function of the words than with breathing patterns of speakers. In an 1892 book by John Seely Hart, A Manual of Composition and Rhetoric, we see an acknowledgement of this shift.


It is sometimes stated in works on Rhetoric and Grammar that the points are for the purpose of elocution, and directions are given to pupils to pause a certain time at each of the stops. It is true that a pause required for elocutionary purposes does sometimes coincide with a grammatical point, and so the one aids the other. Yet it should not be forgotten that the first and main ends of the points is to mark grammatical divisions. Good elocution often requires a pause where there is no break whatever in the grammatical continuity, and where the insertion of a point would make nonsense. (John Seely Hart, A Manual of Composition and Rhetoric, 1892)


What Hart said in 1892 still holds true, and teaching comma and period usage as correlating with pauses in speech can lead writers to make errors of comma usage. A study by Danielewicz and Chafe (“How `Normal’ Speaking Leads to `Erroneous’ Punctuation,” in S. Freedman, ed., The Acquisition of Written Language. Norwood, NJ: Ablex, pp. 213-225. 1985) reports on punctuation practices of college freshmen. They suggest that what might appear to be punctuation errors in freshman compositions are attempts to capture prosodic features of speech in writing. The writers seem to be punctuating to mark the intonation they would have used in speaking. Consider this example from the writing of one of the students in the study:


            One of these categories, that I can be classified in is that of an only child.


Danielewicz and Chafe propose that the comma in this student’s example indicates an intonation boundary. Such “errors” are likely reinforced from one of the only things that most students are taught about commas – that they mark pauses. In fact, most commas – one estimate says 70% – do not correlate with pauses in spoken language. We know that punctuation used to mark breathing pauses, but does not do so consistently anymore.


Activity: With students working in pairs, have one read to the other from a text. Do not allow the listener to see the printed text, but ask them to determine where the punctuation is and what kind it is. Have them reflect, discuss, and then share how they make these choices without seeing the punctuation.