On Punctuation (December 2020)

This morning’s assembly is on the subject of punctuation, a topic that may seem too esoteric even for me to craft ten minutes of meaningful fancy from, but if that were your view then you would underestimate the breadth of the assembly back catalogue which already contains not one, but two pieces on this subject. Neither of these were by me, and both have descended into the lore and legend of the school as masterpieces of wit and craft. To match up to past performance, therefore, I shall have to produce some hardcore punctuation scholarship.

First we have the family of sentence breakers – the comma, the semi-colon, the colon, and the full stop. These devices provide pauses, divide up text, and clarify meaning. The full stop separates one sentence from another; the comma divides clauses and phrases within a sentence; the colon acts as a thus and a therefore, placing the second sentence as the logical conclusion of the first; and the semi-colon, that sly forger of loose allegiances, links two sentences with a wink and a nudge, suggesting that they are parts of the same thought without providing further explanation.

Peter Hall, in a rather wonderful lecture on “Shakespeare’s Verse” introduced me to another form of sentence breaker that punctuates the blank verse in which Shakespeare wrote: the line break. Many of his characters speak in iambic pentameter – lines of ten syllables alternating unstressed and stressed, “If music be the food of love play on” – and even when there’s no other punctuation, no punctuation mark, at the end of a line there remains a break. Or, rather a lift, Hall says; the line break is not a pause but a surge, an injection of energy so that the next line starts with some oomph “Give me excess of it that surfeiting // the appetite may sicken, and so die.” I recommend that you find the lecture and read it – especially if you have found it difficult to get on with Shakespeare thus far.

These sentence breakers are worthy of especial consideration now, as we enter a vacation because we are about to have our scholarship punctuated by the vacation of our building (a vacation that has, in fact, started early, but we maintain the forms and structures of Steel House study for a few days yet: we are, right now, metaphorically, if not literally, still at school). What kind of punctuation marks do we have in our study? If I might lead you on a metaphor of my own then I think that each week of school is a pentametric line with five stressed days and unstressed beats between them (when Saturday school comes along we have a line with an extra beat, a diversion from the usual form, and really you need to turn to Peter Hall to unpack the Shakespearean skill in which that can be done); the weekend, then, is a line break, a lift, a recharging for the next challenge. Commas are the pauses that break up your study and each of you will have put these in your weeks at different times and in different ways; at least I hope you all have these in your weeks – if not, then this is something to reflect upon and build in for next term. Commas are important; mine are bridge club on a Thursday afternoon, Diplomacy on a Friday and the amazing evening each week when I play online Dungeons and Dragons with a group of teacher-friends. What about vacations, though, are they to be full stops? I think not: a full stop signifies the end and we have not yet reached the end of your Harris Westminster sentence. A colon, then, or semi-colon? Almost, but not, I think, quite – a vacation is too long a gap to be covered simply by a couple of dots stacked bunk-bed style, even if one is slightly squiggled. A vacation, to my mind, is a parenthetical interlude – a thought that leads with daring aplomb to another pair of punctuation marks, the parentheses.

Parentheses, or round brackets, mark off a side-track in the main line of thought: they hold a self-contained musing that can be left out without damaging the logical flow (a pair of commas can perform the same function, but if your musing itself requires punctuation then the parenthetical commas will get confused and so will your reader). For a brief period a few years ago the Wikipedia entry on parentheses was a delightful treasure trove of bracketed thoughts, stacked and nested, illustrating in form the ideas they were substantially conveying. The grown-up editors thought this too silly – a thought that I disdain: there is nothing too silly for thorough scholarship, we play with our thoughts and use them to tease and amuse at the same time as we use our words to say something serious about the world.

The vacation is a parenthetical phrase. It’s not in iambic pentameter, you don’t have the structure of the week or the lift at weekends but you do, I hope, have commas aplenty. You should also have another punctuation mark, the ellipsis, three dots that represent a trailing off, a fading, a passage of time in which what happens is undocumented. The vacation, you see, should include periods of proper rest – time that you do not need to account for when the reckoning comes. You shouldn’t, however, fill the parentheses with ellipses, that would make for a very boring piece of text and your vacation should not be boring. Make sure that along with your resting you read and review so that you are enriched by learning that is not necessary, not driven by the syllabus (truly parenthetical learning) and also so that you are ready and prepared, your ideas structured and loose ends tied up for the next term. Read, rest, and review in equal measure.

I am going to have to hurry on or I shall not reach the end of the sentence but I’ve just (in the written version of the assembly, at least) used a comma in a rather interesting and beautiful way and I would be remiss if I allowed such a comma to pass unmarked in an assembly on punctuation. At the end of the last paragraph, you see, was an Oxford comma. Commas are used to separate items of lists (semicolons can also be used this way, when a comma might be mistaken for part of one of the items) which leaves the question of whether one is needed between the penultimate item and the final conjunction (between “rest” and “and” in the phrase read, rest, and review, for example). A comma used in this way is called an Oxford comma. Americans love an Oxford comma, going so far as to call it a Harvard comma as though that establishes precedence. The English are more reticent, as is our way, and it is used only when it enhances meaning and reduces ambiguity. This is, of course, the main rule for punctuation, its purpose is to enhance meaning in written communication, an idea that allows me to introduce a punctuation mark that I’ve not yet mentioned but use all too frequently – the dash. This is another sentence breaker, but its use is frowned upon, it looks uncouth and unscholarly: the rule is that you should only use a dash when no other mark will do. Back to my Oxford comma, however. That is can be important is revealed by the joke about the panda who eats, shoots, and leaves (with a comma), startling the now severely injured restauranteur who had thought that it would eat shoots and leaves (no commas). In my tricolon I have no such need for a comma to avoid ambiguity and my only defence against the claim that its use is an affectation up with which we should not put is that there is a difference in emphasis between read, rest and review; and read, rest, and review and that I definitely mean you to hear the latter.

Time has flown and I’m unable to take my hardcore approach to punctuation to all the marks I’ve used today (both the hyphen and the apostrophe deserve more than this apologetic phrase) never mind such flamboyant and disputed punctuation as the interrobang.

On to the end, to the summer of Year 13 where we might hope to find a full stop to terminate our extended sentence (the Microsoft grammar nazi frequently takes me to task on the length of my sentences, which simply illustrates, in my view, how poor is its scholarship). I’m not sure the full stop is to be found even there – the exams are, it seems to me, a series of questions which, of course, have their own mark and leave one uncertain, seeking resolution (a state that fairly sums up the July of what I hope will be a glorious summer) and then there are the results which we hope will fairly justify an exclamation mark (a piece of punctuation that must be used sparingly lest its impact be lessened). The only place you can really guarantee a full stop is at the end of the assembly.