So: to Canada, where the National Post recently reported on a PhD thesis that contains no conventional punctuation.1 Submitted to the University of British Columbia by architect Patrick Stewart, a member of the Nisga’a First Nation, each of the chapters of Stewart’s dissertation opens with a summary written in standard academic English but the bulk of the work is presented without uppercase letters, full stops or commas. Stewart holds a select few marks in reserve for more troublesome concepts — a forward slash “connects words of similar meaning / emphasis”; an ellipsis “indicates a continuity of thought”; and the question mark survives intact — but, on the whole, his thesis is, as he describes it, “one long, run-on sentence, from cover to cover”.
Here’s an example, taken from Stewart’s own explanation of his unconventional approach:
in my defense my style of writing is not laziness or lack of knowledge of proper usage of the english language it is a form of grammatical resistance as a deconstructionist in the manner of many writers especially american poet ee cummings he graduated with a master degree in english from harvard university and they called him experimental and innovative not words likely to be used to describe an indigenous writer who breaks all the rules of writing (the behavioural ethics board at the university of british columbia suggested that i hire an editor as it appeared that i did not know the english language) times though they are changing2
The most striking aspect of the text — at least at first glance — is its deliberately architectural layout. Indents and white space are liberally employed to shape the text, narrowing it where the reader’s focus is demanded, broadening it for a more expansive feel, and l e t t e r s p a c i n g words for emphasis. And though Stewart quotes Peter Cole, another indigenous writer, to the effect that “the idea of paragraph [sic] is meaningless”,3 for me the paragraph is very much in evidence in Stewart’s writing. If anything, I’d suggest that he has taken the idea of the paragraph and broadened it, augmenting the familiar single-level paragraph with super- and sub-paragraphs that depend on their level of indentation and placement on the page.
After I had read a few pages, however, I stopped noticing the shape of the text and started to appreciate how it was punctuated. This, I think, is where the National Post gets it wrong: there may be very few marks of punctuation in Dr Stewart’s thesis, but it is rich with punctuation in its most elemental form. Created by Aristophanes of Byzantium, librarian at Alexandria in the third century, the very first marks of punctuation — his ‘middle’ (‘·’), ‘under’ (‘.’) and ‘final’ (‘˙’) dots — marked pauses of increasing duration to help readers perform a text aloud, and Dr Stewart spaces out his clauses to varying degrees to exactly the same effect. As he explains: “writing this dissertation […] reinforced my culture by reinforcing my writing as spoken word part of an oral tradition that has existed since time immemorial”.
For my money, Dr Stewart’s approach has worked surprisingly well. As I read his thesis, I found myself mentally replaying his words, trying to decide how I would read them aloud and, in doing so, divining the logical structure of the text as I went. This is not lack of punctuation but rather an alternative means of punctuation and a thought-provoking one at that.
A tip of the hat to Mark Liberman at the ever-informative Language Log blog for sharing this story.
- Brian Hutchinson, “UBC Student Writes 52,438 Word Architecture Dissertation With No Punctuation — Not Everyone Loved It”, National Post, May–2015. ↢
- Patrick Robert Reid Stewart, “Indigenous Architecture through Indigenous Knowledge : Dim sagalts’apkw Nisim”, 2015 2015. ↢
- Peter Cole, Coyote Raven Go Canoeing: Coming Home to the Village, 2006. ↢