Seven Things You May Not Know About Punctuation

In this special guest post, Caroline Taggart offers some little-known facts about punctuation marks, to mark the publication of her new book, The Accidental Apostrophe: … And Other Misadventures in Punctuation

Did you know

1. The Victorians were crazy about hyphens?

Jane Austen’s nephew Edward Austen Leigh, composing a biography of his aunt in the 1860s, had occasion to mention the joys of spring in the country, including early primroses, anemones and the first bird’s-nest. That hyphen makes it absolutely clear that he means the first nest (of the season) belonging to a bird, rather than a nest belonging to the first bird. A bit over-precise by today’s standards, you might think.

2. Charles Dickens could work six semi-colons into a single sentence?

It’s right at the beginning of Great Expectations, and it’s a masterpiece:

At such a time I found out for certain that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dikes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.

3. We used to put apostrophes in words like ’cello and ’bus, and full stops after gym. or deli. to show that they were abbreviations?

As recently as the 1940s, the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, then an undergraduate at Oxford, wrote mag. and exam. to indicate that he meant magazine and examination. It’s just possible that he was being pretentious. Or he might have been being meticulous. Or a bit of both.

4. We used to put a full stop in Mr. and Mrs. too?

Modern British thinking tends to be that an abbreviation (Co. for company, p. for page) has a full stop whereas a contraction such as Mr or Mrs doesn’t. The distinction is that an abbreviation has the end of the word chopped off, a contraction has the middle left out. But this has only been the case for the last fifty years or so. P D James wrote Mr. in Unnatural Causes, published in 1967, but had dropped the full stop by the time of A Taste for Death (1986). Admittedly she’d also changed publishers, so the decision may have been theirs rather than hers, but it shows that styles were changing.

5. The use of em dashes (—) and en dashes (–) has changed over the last half-century?

One 1950s edition of an Agatha Christie novel is full of dialogue like this:

‘I have come across certain things which are, I may say—very curious—very—how shall I put it?—suggestive?’

Those em dashes look odd to a modern British reader, and in the 1980s Dame Agatha’s publisher obviously thought so too. They repunctuated the whole book when they reissued it, so that that sentence came out as:

‘I have come across certain things which are, I may say – very curious – very – how shall I put it? – suggestive?’

Much better.

6. Jane Austen used em dashes in a way we would think was wrong?

In Pride and Prejudice, in the scene when Miss Bingley is praising Darcy’s writing, we find:

“That will not do for a compliment to Darcy, Caroline,” cried her brother—“because he does not write with ease. He studies too much for words of four syllables.—Do not you, Darcy?”

Today’s meticulous copy-editor would have no use for those dashes, but in Jane Austen’s dialogue they crop up a lot.

7. Lots of twentieth-century authors obviously just thought ‘To hell with punctuation’?

Most notably James Joyce in Ulysses. Many people regard this as the greatest novel of the century, but it certainly isn’t the easiest to read. Joyce referred to inverted commas as ‘perverted commas’ and didn’t use them – he introduced a piece of dialogue with an em dash, and did nothing to indicate where the dialogue ended and narrative resumed. He didn’t care for hyphens, either, writing wonderful words such as bullockbefriending and gigglegold, but also baffling ones such as hangerson and halffed. Oh, and he left out the apostrophe in I’ll, I’ve and I’d. More recently, Will Self’s Shark, published in 2014, begins (without a capital letter) in the middle of a sentence and is written as one 466-page paragraph, with no chapter breaks and again no quotation marks. Who knows? It may catch on.

The Accidental Apostrophe: … And Other Misadventures in Punctuation by Caroline Taggart is published by Michael O’Mara Books, priced £9.99.

18 thoughts on “Seven Things You May Not Know About Punctuation”

  1. Risking being labeled pedantic, I fear I’m a fan of sensible punctuation. What’s the point of writing prose made ambiguous because of missing commas,periods and quotation marks? Isn’t the work of the writer to speak to the reader with a clear voice rather than to confuse him/her?

  2. I’m just 26 years old. When I was in primary school, I was taught to use a full stop after Mr. and Mrs. In fact, the full stop is still used in my country which was a former British colony. So even if the British have stopped using it, we haven’t.


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