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Bewildering Stories

Bewildering Stories Discusses


Challenge 416 asks about Oonah V. Joslin’s “Clear Sailing”:

Do the line breaks make up for the absence of punctuation? Would standard punctuation help or distract the reader?

The question was inspired by a Review Editor’s remark. Oonah herself has replied at length, and the subject has been discussed in general by the Review Board.

The Review Editors’ discussion has not addressed Oonah’s poem or explication specifically. Rather, the question at hand seems to be: “Why do we have punctuation anyway?”

A historical note: here at Bewildering Stories we’ve seen punctuation ranging from excessive to sparse to chaotic to non-existent. In our early years we received a series of poems by a contributor of high-school age. He was firmly convinced that every line break had to be marked by a comma, whether the comma was appropriate or not. Our experience may explain some things.

In the following, the horizontal rules indicate new speakers.

Punctuation has a purpose: clarity and intelligibility. If your intention as a writer is to be obscure, then I suppose a lack of punctuation is to your purpose. But in my humble opinion, obscurity in writing is a useful means of covering up a multitude of faults while seeming “profound.” We have many emperors and empresses of the arts walking around without any clothes.

My question is: why do I write? Well, because I have something to say. So why write it in a form that requires a high intellect to decipher “I got my toe stuck in a drainpipe”?

And yet ancient Greek — I mean the really ancient stuff — was written without punctuation. And the words were all run together, too. In boustrophedon style, it was even written backwards on alternate lines; readers had to figure out whether they were coming or going. It’s an accident of history that Greek isn’t written from right to left. And it’s a wonder anyone could make sense of it whichever way it was written.

Speaking of which, ancient Hebrew scribes clearly had no idea what some passages meant in the texts they were copying. And they interpreted them with indifferent success. Vowel points were invented much too late. They would have been a wonderful help if someone had thought of them in time to do some good.

In fact, “pointing” Arabic texts is a brain-busting exercise beloved of schoolteachers: it keeps kids quiet for a while, much like the dictée in French or a spelling bee in English.

We recently received a poem written in partial text-messaging style: no capital letters, and even the pronoun “I” was written “i.” Otherwise the punctuation was all there.

No, that doesn’t work. Our rule is all or nothing, and the poet has to make up her mind. If “I” isn’t capitalized, nothing else may be capitalized either, not even proper names. And no punctuation at all may be used; line breaks have to make up for it.

In the first rewrite the author used the virgule ( / ) innovatively. No, that didn’t work, either; readers would wonder, “What the heck is that doing there?” Fortunately, the poet has reverted to standard style on the second rewrite, and the result really looks good.

Oonah’s explication of her own poem concludes:

So line breaks and stanza breaks are placed deliberately and are not simply there to make up for the lack of standard punctuation, they are where they are because the structure adds meaning to the poem.

In other words, punctuation may detract from meaning. Oonah’s examples are persuasive. Even so, I have to point out that Oonah implicitly agrees with us that line and stanza breaks are, themselves, a form of punctuation.

Music compositions were written without breaks and without measures — just a page full of lines and dots and dashes. It must have been hell on the poor musicians. I guess they figured it out soon enough. Good form facilitates accurate execution and it it turn facilitates communication.

In a sense, musical notation is all punctuation. It’s extremely intricate and very difficult — until you learn and practice the system. And it is not dependent on language, although a knowledge of some Italian words helps a lot.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an accomplished musician in his own right, invented a system of numerical notation. It was concise and great for saving paper. However, Rousseau eventually conceded that his system was, in the end, harder to read than the traditional one.

In the traditional style, which we have today, performers can see at a glance how a piece of music is supposed to sound; in a numerical system, they’d have to proceed note by note. In effect, Rousseau had created computer code for music before the invention of the computer.

In terms of writing, musical notation resembles French spelling. The system is intricate, but once you know the rules, you never have to look up the pronunciation of a word in a dictionary. In English, dictionaries are often indispensable for determining pronunciation.

If French spelling were phonetic, like that of German, Italian, Russian or Spanish, it would be unreadable; you’d have to declaim any writing aloud simply to be able to understand it. We see the exact opposite in Chinese writing. If a text were read aloud in a local dialect, the people in the next village might not understand it, but they would easily be able to read the text in their own dialect.

In the end, unpunctuated texts remind me of Rousseau’s numerical notation in music and of French spelled phonetically. They force the reader to proceed word by word and to experiment with oral production. As Oonah points out, that’s not necessarily bad in poetry. But standard punctuation includes both options: it can be read aloud or silently.

I surmise that we have punctuation because it allows us modern readers to follow the example of St. Jerome, reputedly the first copyist who could write without moving his lips.

Copyright © 2011 by Bewildering Stories

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