A post from Shady Characters

Miscellany № 62: the absence of punctuation

Just the one punctuation-related link this week: Shady Characters is upping sticks and moving to London this coming week, and blogging time is scarce!


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.

1.
Unknown bibtex entry with key [Hutchinson2015] ↩︎
2.
Unknown bibtex entry with key [PatrickRobertReidStewart2015] ↩︎
3.
P. Cole, Coyote Raven Go Canoeing: Coming Home to the Village, McGill-Queen’s Press – MQUP, 2006. ↩︎

8 comments on “Miscellany № 62: the absence of punctuation

  1. Comment posted by Bonnie on

    The “paragraph” you used as an example was surprisingly easy to read. So he’s replacing some current rules with his experimental rules, and not just arbitrarily and thoughtlessly mangling English as we know it.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Bonnie — exactly! I was surprised at how easy it was to read Stewart’s words. Conversely, I found Peter Cole’s Coyote Raven Go Canoeing (cited by Stewart) to be quite challenging. Stewart’s spacing seemed to match how I would have read his words, but Cole’s system felt a little arbitrary by comparison.

  2. Comment posted by Michael Anthony on

    It seems as long as the reader can read it and the author conveys their thought … well … it’s a successful venture

  3. Comment posted by Rondina on

    however_____your blog rejects the cause___and mauls
    underscores are used to indicate_______pause

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Rondina — I think HTML itself may be to blame. Anything more than a single word space between two words is compressed to a single word space, so for my examples I used em spaces between clauses. Transcending punctuation is a tricky business.

      Thanks for the comment, and I’m glad that the___underscore___served your purpose!

  4. Comment posted by Judith Fitzgerald on

    Yes. Stun Lovely.

    One interesting historical fact? When E. E. Cummings applied for a Guggenheim? No less than Edna St. Vincent Millay said, “Ixnay.”

    Let me recall where history reaches when one stoops to conquer and the other rises to communicate.

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