Old English manuscripts were written pretty much without punctuation of any kind and one of the ‑ at first intimidating and later pleasurably challenging ‑ exercises that students of the language were given (in class and later in exams) was to punctuate a short passage, known as a gobbet, supplied “unseen”. A similar task constitutes a large part of the work of the sub-editor in a modern newspaper. And while elderly pedants with time on their hands tend to find much to fault in our newspapers they should perhaps remember that they are composed of hundreds of thousands of words, assembled daily in great haste in the space of a few hours.
In a review of what would seem to be a fascinating new book, Shady Characters: Ampersands, Interrobangs and other Typographical Curiosities by Keith Houston, Ian Sansom in the Guardian (October 5th) writes: “Punctuation is not merely an ornament. Nor is it, as Houston’s title wrongly implies, a curiosity. It is not a garnish that we sprinkle on our sentences: it is an essential ingredient, a part of the complex and evolving technology of writing and printing, whose history both reflects and determines how we have expressed and defined ourselves as sentient, scribbling beings.”
Well said. It is also true that punctuation evolves over time. In Austen’s “Nothing occurred during the next three or four days, to make Elinor regret what she had done, in applying to her mother;” (from Sense and Sensibility) we should probably now dispense with both of the commas. Nor are there really strict rules: it is more a question of guidelines, and of common sense. But perhaps the apparent (?) optimism of Sansom’s tone in his conclusion is a little misplaced: “The box is open: all the tools are at our disposal. As Houston notes, ‘personal web pages have democratised typesetting in a way unimaginable to Gutenberg.’ Punctuation is no longer the preserve of the printer or the scribe [who were actually pretty anarchic and far from rule-bound – drb]. Every man is his own priest. Every man is own typesetter. We are all Gutenbergs now.”
There have also been times when an idea of orthodoxy was useful to culture.