Macmillan defines it as “the use of marks such as full stops or commas in order to write in a clear style”.
Oxford's definition is slightly wordier: “the marks, such as full stop, comma, and brackets, used in writing to separate sentences and their elements and to clarify meaning”.
Edgar Allan Poe, the 19th century American poet and writer has been quoted as saying “The writer who neglects punctuation, or mispunctuates, is liable to be misunderstood.... For the want of merely a comma, it often occurs that an axiom appears a paradox, or that a sarcasm is converted into a sermonoid.” (Source: Dictionary.com)
Yet, punctuation has caused endless debates over the years, and one of the main culprits is the apostrophe.
Serious “apostrophers” walk around with a marker, correcting signs and notices; websites and organisations, such as TheApostrophe Protection Society and Kill the apostrophe have been created; and in 2009, Birmingham City Council removed apostrophes from all its signs! (Source: TheTelegraph)
Do you know that there is even an International Apostrophe Day (18th Aug)?
So, when I was asked to review a little book on punctuation, it didn't take much to convince me.
Simply titled, “Punctuation..?”, it is written by Thomas Bohm, who also did the childlike illustrations, adding a touch of wit to the otherwise dryish but clear explanations. The book is available in Central Books, Waterstones and Amazon.
“Punctuation..?” seeks to explain the functions and correct uses of 21 of the most used punctuation marks in alphabetical order, starting from the controversial apostrophe and ends with one of the most confusing for a lot of people – the semicolon.
Why does the apostrophe cause so much distress? Bohm says that the most common use of an apostrophe is to indicate possession although he didn't cite his source for such a conclusion. He's probably right but I can't help but think that it might be a close call with its use to show omission, eg can't, doesn't, etc.
What is more important, however, is Bohm's failure to mention what happens when the name of the person ends with an s, such as Dickens or Frances, or when talking about a singular noun which ends in s, eg class.
On the other hand, it is interesting that Bohm should mention “the apostrophe has largely vanished from company names”. Waterstones, for example, removed their apostrophe as recent as 2012!
Bohm mentions the round, curly and square brackets. Apparently, there are rules attached to them. Most of us, me included, use only the round brackets, but I sometimes use a different one if I need brackets within brackets and I also use the square brackets to denote if a verb is transitive or intransitive, or if a noun is countable or uncountable, as in the dictionaries. The curly brackets are supposedly for showing “a series of equal choices” whatever that means and square brackets are for showing a different tone or to clarify information.
Aside from the use of brackets, Bohm insists that the dash, the em dash and hyphen are all different. There is also something called interpunct, which is a small dot vertically centred between words. I don't know where to find this on my keyboard.
Bohm also states that the double quotation marks are reserved for quotes within quotes and the single are now mainly used.
I'm not too sure about this because I still see double quotes everywhere.
As you notice, there are bits of interesting information scattered about in this booklet; some, you may know while others may come as a surprise. Rules about the usage of punctuation are readily available on the Net, but if you are one of those who prefer a hard copy at hand, I can heartily recommend this book. It's handy and small (35 pages) and does well what it sets out to do. I can't help but think, however, that an e-book version would serve as a better vehicle.
Thomas Bohm can be contacted at: http://www.userdesign.co.uk/books/