Chapter VI. Punctuation, An Art
§ 26. Chapters on punctuation are usually assigned to the end of the book and printed in small type. The subject is so elementary, you know. And yet Nathaniel Hawthorne called punctuation a fine art, and Hawthorne is still our greatest American master of prose. If he is right, the real danger is that punctuation is too hard a matter to be taught.
The elements of punctuation are of course elementary. What is more, readers will usually make out your meaning, no matter how badly you write. They may be amused or disgusted, but they will follow on. There was a time when English manuscripts had no punctuation to speak of, and our first printed books had little. They had the paragraph, however, and that was worth more than any set of punctuation marks. They could get on very well with one mark, the virgule, or oblique line. In the following paragraphs printed by Caxton in 1481, you will have more trouble with the spelling than with the punctuation: aunte said the foxe I am now glad/god thanke you ye haue don to me suche good/I can neuer deserue it fully agayn/me thynketh ther may no thynge hurte me syth that ye haue said thyse holy wordes ouer me/
Tho wente he and leyd hym doun vnder a tre in the grasse and slepte tyl the sonne was rysen/tho cam the otter and waked hym and bad hym aryse/ and gaf hym a good yong doke/and said/dere cosyn I haue this nyght made many a leep in the water er I coude gete this yonge fatte doke/I haue taken it fro a fowler/take and ete it/
Reynart sayde this is good hansele/yf I refused I were a fool/I thanke yow cosyn that ye remembre me/yf I lyue I shal rewarde yow/
The foxe ete the doke with oute sawce or breed it sauourd hym wel/And he dranke therto iiij grete draughtis of water/ Thenne wente he to the bataylle ward and alle they that louyd hym wente wyth hym.
That is not very hard to read. Still, if the spelling and punctuation were modern, you would read it faster. And that is the chief point about punctuation and capitals. The skilful use of them saves time for the reader. Instantly, then, punctuation becomes a business proposition. Anything that economizes the other man's mental energy is worth while.
Economy of the reader's energy is the force which has ousted some millions of commas from business prose in the past hundred years. Eighteenth century prose was spattered with them; they look as if they had been distributed by a pepper-box. That piece from Caxton's "Reynard the Fox" is easier to read than some prose written four hundred years later. The eighteenth century loved to pause and qualify and mince and fuss. It was the age of periwigs and minuets.
All that is changed. Prose goes straight ahead unless there is need for a pause. The word prose means -that; it means straight ahead (Latin prorsus) and it is beginning to live up to its meaning. We cannot yet quite lay down the rule Avoid the comma except as a danger signal, but we are moving toward that rule.
In the phrase No, price too high the comma js a signal of danger. Omit it and you have No price too high A California man once wired the former phrase to his agent; the telegraph company omitted the comma; and the error cost the sender some thousands. But the fault was his. Telegraph companies do not contract to transmit punctuation. He should have worded his message so that it would be punctuation tight.
Make your copy as nearly reader-proof as possible. Let that be our first rule. You will not find it in any book on punctuation, but an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of commas. Construct your sentences so well that they will need but few punctuation marks.
Note the following sentence: "A salesman who is always taking up the time of his busy customers with long personal stories about his own employer and his employer's wife and children or about his own wife and children and their interests and their general superiority to other men's wives and children, will not sell much." A comma is placed after children to show where the subject of the sentence ends. It is a red light hung there to prevent the train of thought from crashing into the predicate. This kind of sentence is so common that in all the books you will find a rule to this effect: "Mark the end of a long subject by a comma." And sometimes it is a good rule. But it would be better to avoid writing so long a subject. What is the paragraph for except to substitute two or three short sentences for a long one? The worse a railway service is, the more red lights it needs.
But even the best service needs some red lights and semaphores and switches. They make for rapidity and safety. Let us draw up a few simple rules for the various marks of punctuation, avoiding abstract grammatical distinctions as far as possible. Some of these rules and their applications may seem elementary, but let us treat them as seriously as any other chapter in the book.
§ 27. Period, Semicolon, Colon
1. A dependent clause must not be punctuated as if it were an independent statement. It is primarily the function of the period and the semicolon to set off independent statements; that of the comma is to set off dependent statements and other dependent elements.
2. The mastery of the full stop and the semicolon depends upon mastery of the paragraph. Bead again what is said on this matter under section seventeen. The distance between periods is inversely as the emphasis of each included proposition. Long sentences have bulk rather than emphasis, for it is their business to gather up a considerable number of details.
The semicolon is a kind of weak full stop. So far as grammar is concerned, it may be used instead of the period. Any complete statement may take a period; any complete statement may take a semicolon. Join short statements together and you indicate that they go together as similar and unemphatic assertions. They are similar; they are short; they often repeat the thought in different words; they are only semicolons.