I readily admit that I couldn’t punctuate my way out of a paper bag. It wasn’t something that I was taught at school and I don’t seem to have really picked it up along the way. I remember when I first started teaching, I tried to memorize punctuation rules, but that didn’t go very well!
This week an advanced teenage student of mine asked me if she could use “however” in a mid clause position after a comma and before another one. I told her that my punctuation wasn’t up to much and that I’d double check with my friend Sally, who is most definitely, a punctuation “Stickler”.
I’ve just finished re-reading Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss and, I can now safely say that the answer is a resounding NO. If you haven’t read this book I can heartily recommend it. It’s a witty, no-nonsense, zero tolerance approach to punctuation. I now know, that linking words such as “however” and “nevertheless” require a semi-colon.
The problem is, that I don’t think I’ve used a semi-colon since university, and even then, I think I may have just thrown the odd one or two in for luck. When was the last time you used a semicolon or a colon? Are they outdated and old-fashioned or are they the crème de la crème of punctuation?
Here are some facts from the Eats, Shoots & Leaves that tickled my fancy about punctuation:
• The earliest know punctuation dates back to 200 BC which involved a series of single points at different heights on a line.
• For more than a millennium the job of punctuation was to guide actors, chanters and readers-aloud.
• The first printed semicolon was in 1494.
• The exclamation mark was introduced by printers in the 15th century and was called “the note of admiration” until the mid 17th century.
• In newspaper circles the exclamation mark is known as a screamer, a gasper, a startler or a dog’s cock!
• The first word of a sentence was first capitalized in the 13th century but it didn’t become uniform until the 18th century.
• The question mark started out in the 8th century and was called punctus interrogativus.
• There is such a thing as an Oxford comma.
• The apostrophe dates back to the 16th century.
How many punctuation errors have I made in this post? Come on, you punctuation sticklers, I’m sure there are tonnes!
Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss - Profile Books - 2003