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What, is. punctuation! for?

Thu, 11/09/2017 - 14:31

Are writing centers ideal spaces for writers to rediscover punctuation’s original purpose?

In the writing center, when we work with readers side-by-side, we read aloud. The first reason for this technique is practical: as readers, tutors must tune in to the text. The second is that the writer gets the advantage of hearing their work. Whether the writer or the tutor reads, or if we take turns, both of us interact with the text and each other, allowing us to hear and see aspects of the text that we might otherwise pass over.

Over my years of doing writing center work, I have noticed that some readers do not pause as long in some punctuated places as I do, and I began to wonder why. So I have a bunch of questions:

  • How does reading a text aloud affect our judgment of its punctuation?
  • How does reading aloud change how readers interact with a text?
  • How do we learn to punctuate?
  • When, where, and why do we pause when reading aloud?
  • When you read silently, how quickly do you read?
  • When reading for pleasure, do you hear your voice, or some other voice in your head, an imagined oral reader?

I do. And when I read this way, the punctuation matters to me, and I pause for it as if I were reading aloud. At least I think I do. I am reading to myself. But when I skim, I am not reading to myself. I’m reading for information. Certainly, this is a spectrum, and the more quickly I skim, the less attention I pay to punctuation.

Reading the text aloud changes it. When we read aloud, we convert the text into a form of spoken language, even though it does not actually resemble speech. Essentially, we are performing the text and testing if it meets an ideal, even if we can’t articulate what that is.

Here is the eminent linguist, David Crystal (2015), channeling my questions:

“Is punctuation a guide to pronunciation or a way of making a text easy to read? Is its purpose elocution and rhetorical, or is it to do with meaning and grammar?” (p. 55) I’ve been thinking about this dual role of punctuation recently.

Reading aloud is an old practice, essential in the age before literacy was commonplace. Punctuation had an oral orientation because many readers, such as priests, needed to read aloud. But in the mid-17th century, a shift began in English toward viewing punctuation as a syntactic feature of writing (Crystal, 2015). In other words, punctuation was becoming a marker of a sentence’s different bits, such as subordinate clauses, which the last two commas in this sentence exemplify. This shift intensified as literacy and silent reading spread through society over the following centuries.

However, folk wisdom on punctuation seems stubbornly pegged to oral reading. How many times have you heard the advice to put a comma where “the pause” is? This explanation is much simpler than telling students to place commas on clause boundaries. And yet, I commonly encounter students who read their writing without pausing to breathe, even for their own punctuation marks. I also sometimes encounter student texts that are punctuated for pauses that make sense if the text were performed by an orator.

I think that part of the issue is that academic writing is not a genre typically performed in public or social settings, except at academic conferences, where the general public does not tread. But the challenge may be bigger than that. How many times do most of us read aloud? We might read to children, as we were read to. We might read a card received at a party. But how many of us regularly read texts and attend to the way the text sounds? So students learn the rule of thumb along the way that punctuation is for places where we pause, yet seem to lack practice effecting these pauses.

In high school, my Shakespeare teacher played cassettes of the plays rather than just assigning them as reading. He would perch the cassette player on the lectern, then play a stanza or so. Then he’d stop the cassette and we’d pause to discuss what we’d heard. He always said that Shakespeare was meant to be heard, not read. I loved his class. Years later, I observed my colleague, Asao Inoue, teaching a first-year writing class. The students read a text aloud, which struck me as odd at first, perhaps  because I had so infrequently encountered reading aloud in a classroom since high school and my college German classes. I asked Asao why he values taking class time to read texts aloud. He had this to say:

Reading aloud together allows us to hear the sounds of words and play with how those words might be heard when strung together, hearing how different people with different voices realize words, make them real in the world between us. Words have an aural component to them. I want my students to experience this aural component of words and sentences and longer strings of Discourse. Language is not simply a static text on a page or on a computer screen…Reading aloud texts allows students to experience language viscerally. Reading becomes oral in nature too. Speaking the words on a page allows us, as readers, to experience language as an embodied practice. Reading out loud together dramatizes the way reading is always an embodied act…Hearing someone else read a text who has a softer timber to their voice, or hearing someone pause in different places in sentences, can help us hear ideas differently and see the multiple ways in which meaning is generated in the interaction of texts and readers and voices. Sometimes meaning comes from the spaces between words, what is not said, or assumed, and one way to access such tacit features of language and meaning is to feel the spaces between words.

If only the quarter system gave more time, maybe more students could experience reading aloud in their courses. But since we mostly do not read aloud in our courses, and since explicit instruction in grammar is generally frowned upon as remedial, I wonder if students have been left with neither a grammatical nor an oral/aural conception of punctuation. If I weren’t familiar with the grammatical or oral functions of periods, commas, and their associates, they would certainly seem like mysterious adjuncts presenting additional rules to ensnare me. How many students feel this way about punctuation?

The different functions of punctuation have evolved to suit the needs of readers––first oral, then silent, too. If writers––and readers––are to appreciate punctuation’s dual oral/aural and syntactic functionality, we need to practice both. The writing center is a natural setting to start.

So take a seat, and let’s get reading.



Crystal, D. (2015). Making a point: The persnickety story of English punctuation. New York: St. Martin’s.