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Professor Thorndike on Punctuation

by Elvion Owen - 1949

The author is suggesting that despite his distrust of conventional rules, Professor Thorndike, to the extent that he is himself at all unconventional, becomes so only through excess of conservatism. The question that arises is whether some connection can be traced between his practice and his opinions.

A RECENT issue of Teachers College Record1 contains a remarkable article on the subject of punctuation by Professor E. L. Thorndike. Having explained how medieval manuscripts and early printed books were punctuated, Professor Thorndike draws attention to the chaotic punctuation of Shakespeare and of the Authorized Version of the Bible and gives a very striking demonstration of the difficulty that modern readers would find in agreeing on the proper way to punctuate a Shakespearean or Biblical passage. After briefly referring to the great changes that have taken place since 1600 and in particular to the increasing attention paid since the days of Meredith, Ibsen and Shaw to punctuation as an element of style, Professor Thorndike attempts to expose what he calls the fictions used in the teaching of punctuation and to indicate how teaching on both elementary and advanced levels might profit by a more inductive or functional sort of approach. He then proceeds to formulate some rules which he considers more helpful than those now to be found in textbooks and concludes the article with a concise and admirable statement of the main objectives at which teachers must aim if the cardinal sins of bigotry and pedantry are to be avoided. The whole article deserves the most careful study, particularly by persons like the present writer who have been engaged for years without serious misgiving in inculcating conventional doctrines.2

It must be noted first of all that there is nothing in any way revolutionary about Professor Thorndike's own practice. On the contrary, he takes no chances; he would have satisfied a nineteenth-century schoolmarm. The trouble is of course that if you grimly keep all the old rules, you are likely, in punctuation as in table manners or contract bridge, to be a stickler for a few that are no longer much heeded by the best people. And this has been the paradoxical fate of Professor Thorn-dike. He regularly inserts a comma before a conjunction preceding the last member of a series. Children, I believe, are still instructed to do so, but most professional writers have long ago given it up. He uses a comma to separate two contrasted verbs of a compound predicate. He does not do this consistently, however, and if he wished to be fashionable he would not do it at all. In one sentence he has a comma before a direct quotation that is the object of a preposition. This seems odd to us today, but you would hardly dare to omit it if you believed that the old rule about a comma or a colon before a quotation admitted of no exception. Professor Thorndike also sets off with commas a restrictive appositive, a practice common a few generations ago but no longer in good odor even among the pedantic. And, finally, in one sentence he uses commas, as might have been done in the eighteenth century, to separate brief items in a series though each member of the series is connected with the next by or.

My purpose is not in the least to question Professor Thorndike's right to punctuate his sentences in his own way. Had I not been looking for some clue to the implications of what he says, I am sure that I should have noticed nothing unusual in what he does. I am merely suggesting that despite his distrust of conventional rules Professor Thorndike, to the extent that he is himself at all unconventional, becomes so only through excess of conservatism. The question that arises is whether some connection can be traced between his practice and his opinions.

Such a connection can, I believe, be discovered. Professor Thorndike himself uses what is called close punctuation, as contrasted with the open punctuation that most of us now normally prefer. Since, however, he commands an incisive expository style with a simple, straightforward sentence structure, the fact that he uses more marks than are needed does not as a rule slow up his tempo or produce an impression of excessive formality. He has therefore never been brought to feel that when it comes to punctuation marks it is possible to have too much of a good thing. And being a consistent and broad-minded man, he has begun to wonder whether, if other people are as fond of colons, dashes, exclamation points and rows of dots as he is of commas, it is not pedantic and unreasonable to subject them to conventional restrictions. There is, he maintains, for a given piece of writing no one best punctuation that is a logical consequence of principles of grammar and rhetoric. He illustrates this point by listing the twenty-three different ways in which a group of college graduates punctuated the first line of Hamlet's soliloquy and the thirty-two different ways in which they punctuated the first twenty-four words of the Lord's Prayer.

On the face of it this may look like a mere defense of license, but it is not so intended. Professor Thorndike considers that the comics are deplorably punctuated and he not only states that sound rules of punctuation should be formulated but attempts to draw up a few elementary rules himself. I do not find his rules very novel or very helpful, but what is important is that they are there. And of course if punctuation is to have any rules at all, those rules are inevitably based on principles of grammar or rhetoric. What else can they be based on? Professor Thorn-dike, however, is confronted with a dilemma: he would like to encourage individuality, yet he would also like to reform the rules. But the rules that we now recognize are so elastic that any restatement of them that aimed at greater precision would emancipate nobody. The tiro would be baffled and the expert would, as at present, be unconcerned.

It will, I imagine, be generally agreed that both textbooks and teachers are now tending more and more to favor the omission of all punctuation that is unnecessary. Nobody of course would deny that a certain style may demand a more elaborate kind of punctuation; and it may be that this is what Professor Thorndike has in mind when he lists among "punctuational fictions" the belief that the reasons for punctuation marks within a sentence are to be found by examining that sentence alone. It would, I think, be rash to deny that the context should determine whether open or close punctuation is appropriate for any given sentence or that in certain contexts open punctuation may be inappropriate. A question that may fairly be asked is whether teachers and textbooks by concentrating on the minimum essentials are not likely to oversimplify the whole business and prevent pupils from realizing that punctuation may also be used in more subtle ways. I believe that this may sometimes happen, but even if it happened quite often I do not believe that it would greatly matter.

Simple expository writing, which is the main concern of teachers, does not normally call for close punctuation. Nor is a writer's ability to make his meaning plain with the aid of a minimum of commas and dashes a bad criterion of his expository effectiveness. When it comes to narrative and descriptive writing, though here too a swiftly moving style demands open punctuation, the structure is likely to be looser and less formal. There will be interruptions and afterthoughts, and if dialogue is introduced there enter with it ellipsis and aposiopesis and the characteristic incoherence of ordinary speech. Can it be that failure to give systematic instruction in the elaborate punctuation of this kind of writing should be considered a grave omission? I hardly think so. It is true that children in the elementary grades write a good deal of narrative, but it is narrative of a simple kind containing few appositive phrases or subordinate clauses and very few parenthetical elements. In a composition of this sort, if the writer has succeeded in indicating properly the ends of his sentences, he has achieved about as much as can be expected.

Even at this level, however, the quality of the child's punctuation, despite Professor Thorndike's protest, must surely depend upon the degree of clarity with which such concepts as sentence, clause, phrase and conjunction have been apprehended. It is not of course necessary for the child to be familiar with these terms, but it has certainly yet to be shown that anything is gained by ignorance of what they stand for. The proper use of the period depends upon the ability to compose and to identify a sentence. Perhaps you need not call it a sentence, but it saves a great deal of trouble if you do. Professor Thorndike, who prefers not to talk of sentences, formulates the following rule for what he calls the terminal punctuation of a statement:

If you make only one statement, put a period after it. If you make two statements, one right after the other, put a period after each, or put a colon or semicolon after the first and a period after the second. If you make two statements joined by such a word as and, but, also, or however, put a semicolon or a comma after the first and a period after the second.

He admits that the rule is "somewhat ambiguous" and that the extension to sequences of more than two statements is clumsy. Actually it is not only ambiguous but false. What exactly is meant by a statement? Is it self-evident that a complex sentence consists of a single statement? Are we really to teach that also and however affect the punctuation in the same way as and or but? Is it really helpful to suggest that a semicolon is just as likely to be used as a comma to separate clauses connected by a coordinating conjunction? Is any punctuation mark obligatory between two short coordinate clauses closely connected in meaning? And when Professor Thorndike tells us to punctuate commands as we punctuate statements, does he mean that a comma—or a semicolon—is in order between two simple imperatives as in "Go (,) (;) and find it"? The whole statement, in fact, is inadequate, confusing and futile.

That Professor Thorndike should be reduced to this untenable position results from his devotion to close punctuation on the one hand and his reluctance, on the other, to associate the teaching of punctuation with any formal instruction in sentence structure. He has always been suspicious of generalizations, and what he is now boldly attempting is to provide detailed guidance on formal punctuation for those who have not been taught what a sentence is and are, in fact, quite ignorant of formal grammar. It is safe to say that such persons confronted with his bewildering list of acceptable alternatives would draw from it about as much comfort as a simple believer faced with an elementary problem of conduct would derive from the Summula of Escobar. What we must never allow ourselves to forget is that punctuation is essentially an incidental business. If we know what a sentence is we know enough to punctuate a sentence, and the same holds for the various kinds of phrases and clauses. If we know nothing about sentence structure, our sentences are almost certain to be bad, and a bad sentence, whatever we call it and however we punctuate it, remains a bad sentence. What we must decide is not so much whether we are going to require correct punctuation of our pupils as whether we are going to insist upon decently constructed sentences. To rest content with the former is futile; if we can accomplish the latter, the commas will almost take care of themselves.

It is not only because he deplores the association of punctuation with formal grammar that Professor Thorndike is anxious to have the rules of punctuation revised. He also maintains that our rules are obsolete and bear little relation to the practice of our best writers. He asserts that an examination of almost any long passage from any modern author will show the impossibility of getting the units of a writer's flow of words by cutting up passages into pieces beginning with a capitalized word and ending with a period, a question mark or an exclamation point. This statement, as a glance at the passage from Bernard Shaw that is introduced to illustrate it will show, merely begs the question. The illustrative quotation consists of three sentences, with a capitalized word at the beginning of each and a period or question mark at the end. The first of the three sentences, however, is rather long, and the other two contain colons. All that Professor Thorndike can mean, therefore, is that when a competent writer uses a colon or semicolon, he has probably a good reason for not preferring a period. But if this is true, the converse is equally true: when a good writer uses a period, a period is the right thing to use. This point must be emphasized, for Professor Thorndike's proposals assume that contemporary authors are becoming more and more unconventional in their punctuation and, in particular, are showing a growing antipathy for the full stop. This is simply not so. Mr. Steinbeck is fanatically partial to periods. You can read whole pages of Caldwell without running into a colon or a semicolon. And my search for rows of dots in the current issue of The New Yorker was conspicuously unrewarding. As for dashes, I confess to having today received a letter from a lady who has one dash on the average for every twenty words. But that is what women's letters have always been like, and the practice is governed by a simple rule, namely, when in doubt, use a dash. I need say no more on that point except perhaps that nothing really new has been done with the dash since the last volume of Tristram Shandy appeared in 1767.

It is indeed most difficult to see why Professor Thorndike, who is at pains to show how for four centuries punctuation kept growing simpler, more logical and more consistent, should think that the tide has now suddenly started to run in the opposite direction. One kind of freakish punctuation that does have a rather disturbing vogue among reputable writers is the excessive use of the period, but that is only an exaggeration of the modern tendency towards simplicity and is by no means a new phenomenon. Though Professor Thorn-dike does not mention it at all, it was denounced by the Fowlers in The King's English over forty years ago. Another symptom of the cult of simplicity is found in the writing of Mr. Saroyan, who in his short story The Broken Wheel uses periods, commas and question marks, but no colons, quotation marks, exclamation marks or dashes, and only four semicolons. The omission of commas before coordinate conjunctions in such sentences as the following is a characteristic mannerism:

All those things had happened and yet we were still living together in our house and we still had our trees and in the summer the city would send out the long tractor again and we would hear it and old Casparian would pass before our house in his wagon, crying watermelon in Armenian.

What is to be noted here is that the writer achieves a rather fetching effect of naivete by the overuse of connectives and the avoidance of punctuation marks. This unsophisticated touch would be much impaired if the conventional commas were correctly inserted. One is tempted to ask whether close punctuation would have improved this passage at all if it had actually been written by a child and not by a professional man of letters assuming a childish pose. It is clear enough that this type of sentence soon becomes monotonous and that even a child must learn to inject more variety into his writing. But it is far from clear that the mere addition of commas is in itself of much use. It could, in fact, be argued that a still more open type of punctuation than even our advanced textbooks would approve of might fairly be tolerated when the sentences themselves are totally lacking in complexity. So far from pestering the child with subtle distinctions between colons and semicolons, we should be mainly concerned to impart only such instruction about punctuation marks as is necessary if the child's own written expression is to be neither obscure nor absurd. Anything beyond that is a mere refinement.

The whole trend of Professor Thorndike's article is to encourage a sort of self-consciousness based upon the belief that one's writing requires artful and elaborate punctuation before it can be properly understood or properly enjoyed. His thesis would seem to be that, while authors have during recent generations become increasingly aware of punctuation as an element of style, teachers and textbooks have failed to keep up with the best contemporary practice and continue to make punctuation subservient to grammar. It would be more nearly correct to say that authors have during the present century come to depend less and less upon punctuation as a deus ex machina to extricate them from an otherwise desperate entanglement or as an artifice for imparting to their words an adventitious flavor of mystery. To this we might add that teachers and textbooks by and large have gladly endorsed the current trend towards simplicity and informality. The first purpose of a teacher of composition should be to develop in his pupils an ability to express themselves in simple and straightforward English. Such English can be punctuated with a minimum of effort. Having few breaks in the thought, it can dispense with dashes. Being itself vivacious, it needs no exclamation points to relieve it of dullness. Being swift and direct, it can almost dispense with colons and semicolons and can do without many of the commas that a meticulous regard for the rules would quite inappropriately insist upon. The first question that we should train our pupils to ask when in doubt is not "What punctuation mark should I use here?" but "Must I here use any punctuation at all?"

1 Teachers College Record, Vol. 49, No. 8, May 1948, pp. 531-37.

2 The reader is also referred to an article b) Professor Thorndike entitled "The Psychology of Punctuation" in The American Journal of Psychology, April 1948, Vol. 61, No. 2, pp. 222-228, where detailed statistics are presented regarding the relative frequency of the different punctuation marks in various writers from the eighteenth to the twentieth century.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 50 Number 4, 1949, p. 258-263
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 5352, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 10:35:20 AM

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