The Punctuation Page


Punctuation seems to be the last frontier in the study of the writing process. Many people, sometimes even teachers of writing, give punctuation short shrift. Some handbooks on writing are prone to consider punctuation about as important as an oil change and list it under something like "mechanics." Those who ignore punctuation or treat it with contempt may simply not understand its importance in the production of meaning in writing.

The purpose of this site is to promote the study of punctuation with a view toward understanding it better. To avoid confusion, however, the site is devoted particularly to punctuation in American English .

Definition: Punctuation in English is a linguistic system of symbols and spaces used in the graphic medium called writing for the purpose of displaying and preserving the integrity of the canonical sentence.

Abstracts for MLA 2016 session 129 titled "Style is Anywhere: Some Literary Applications of Punctuation."

(see below)

Common Descriptions and Silly Analogies

Over the years, writers of some books and handbooks on punctuation have attempted to describe what makes punctuation work. Unfortunately, many of them have compared punctuation to interesting but irrelevant concepts which often mislead a person seeking genuine help in understanding its purpose. 


Hot links for help

Although there is not much information available about the theory and principles of punctuation, there are some sites that will provide immediate help for answers to specific questions. The sites listed here are not necessarily being endorsed, but they may provide reasonably accurate help when you need it. Generally, there are no known sites for a theoretical discussion of punctuation. But if you need a quick answer for a particular punctuation problem, try one of the following.

This OWL is linked to by a number of colleges and universities.

The Capitol Community College site offers mostly well-reasoned advice.

NASA has an interesting site with plenty of examples.

The book version of the Chicago Manual of Style Online offers very good help. The Q & A section of their online version might be browsed without charge. Search on "punctuation" or one of the marks.

Paul Robinson offers an interesting philosophy of punctuation.

Frequently Asked Questions  

One goal of this site is to provide a forum for an on-going discussion of punctuation. Perhaps, in time, a longer list of frequently asked questions could be made available. Or explanations for pervasive punctuation problems could be provided. For example, the problem of its and it's might be a candidate for a FAQ. One nomination might be the problems sown by confused writers who use the apostrophe with ordinary plurals. Also, the following curiosity seems to be spreading: here are the do's and dont's or sometimes do's and don'ts. Some editors, apparently, are more interested in appearance than accuracy. Oddly enough, if you add all the required apostrophes and frame it with single quotation marks, it just might look like it is raining: 'do's and don't's'


A Journal Devoted to Punctuation.

Work is going on to establish a journal: Punctuation: A Literary and Linguistic Journal.

Discussion sites you can join

MLA Commons group: Punctuation

Dissertation on punctuation

A New Paradigm for Punctuation:

Abstracts for MLA 2016 session 129

Daniel Couch

The Syntax of Silence in “Bartleby, the Scrivener. A Story of Wall-Street”

The majority of scholarship on Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener. A Story of Wall-Street” (1853) focuses on Bartleby’s enigmatic statements and the narrator’s confused responses. This paper turns away from the famous statements that have drawn the most critical attention, and instead focuses on interstitial, non-linguistic moments in the story—specifically, the lawyer’s emphatic use of punctuation throughout
the story.

The lawyer uses irregular, unpredictable punctuation that registers his heightened emotional responses to Bartleby’s infuriating actions. More so than the lawyer’s explicit statements, his incessant use of dashes, semi-colons, commas, and colons index how Bartleby’s proclivities for silence and passivity find root in the lawyer’s writing. The absent, wordless space created by the lawyer’s punctuation generates a place where Bartleby’s presence can be implicitly felt in the story, because his silent body only truly exists within lapses of language.

Silence provides a space through which passive forms of identity can exist without clear-cut definitions, an approach especially important for Melville’s poetic prose in “Bartleby,” which relies heavily on verse elements like space.

Jacques Derrida identifies a related concern in the story with his comment that “the tense of this [Bartleby’s] singularly insignificant statement reminds one of a nonlanguage or a secret language,” [The Gift of Death, trans. David Wills (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 75]  and Branka Arsić describes Bartleby as “a smooth being outside of  language,” [Passive Constitutions of 7½ Times Bartleby (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007) 141],  but neither focuses on how Melville builds spaces of textual silence in which no single primary agent exists, providing neutral gaps that can play host to Bartleby’s presence.

In this way, Bartleby becomes physically present within, or rather between, the lines of the story, and through the halting punctuation Bartleby’s silences inhere themselves into the texture of the reading experience. Through these verse-like, semiotic gaps Melville creates a place of mixed agency where individual authority recedes, generating an absence in which the lawyer and Bartleby experience an inarticulate union.

                                                      Calista McRae    

                            Comedies of Underpunctuation in Recent Poetry

Now someone’s talking,” James Merrill says as he adds semicolons and question marks to his Ouija board in The Changing Light at Sandover. But this paper takes up underpunctuation,which runs throughout poetry of the last century. While under- or un- punctuation tends to be associated with an austere, minimalist mode, here I will examine it in recent comic poetry, where it upsets hierarchies, plays with stylistic and grammatical badness, and brings up questions of interpretation. Often underpunctuation teeters at the intersection of speech and thought: since one does not often mentally articulate a full range of tones, it’s a typographical equivalent for a mind humming along to itself. How do we read it aloud? When and to what extent to do we adopt the monotone that it suggests, and when do we ignore it and speak normally?

This paper will begin with Don Marquis’s “archy” serial. Archy, reincarnated in the body of a cockroach, types out ambitious free verse by jumping from key to key. But because he cannot manage the shift key, his poems lack exclamation points, commas, and capitals; he has to declaim in a comically flat voice. The free verse poet trapped in a cockroach’s body makes an apt emblem for human speech trapped on the underpunctuated page.

Beyond a travesty of self-important avant garde poetry, what else gives rise to this comic underpunctuation? How, for example, does it intersect with the concept of a monotone, which would soon become a source of complaint and amusement in early film reviews? To explore this elusive, clownish underpunctuation, I will turn to examples from a range of 20th-century poems, such as Edward Dorn’s faux-Western dialogues in Gunslinger, Frank O’Hara’s half-exuberant, half-slouchy exclamations, Stevie Smith’s run-on cadences, and Anne Carson’s blend of Greek translation and internet-inflected deadpan.

Tanya Zhelezcheva

The Limits of Non-Finito: Thomas Traherne and the Uses of Punctuation

 Traherne's punctuation is idiosyncratic and contributes to the features of the genre in which he writes.  Since most of his works are unfinished and because they exhibit features which suggest that they can never be finished, I identify his genre as non-finito.

One such feature is the punctuation Traherne uses. Unlike his brother, Philip Traherne, Thomas uses punctuation in order to disorient the reader and to exhibit the generative potential of any phrase. Philip's use of punctuation aims to clarify to the text. This distinction is evident in a manuscript known as Poems of Felicity in which Philip copied and edited Thomas' poems in order to prepare a posthumous publication of Thomas' poems.

Some of the poems from Poems of Felicity are available in another manuscript which is in Thomas' hand. This allows us to see the different layers of revision which Philip inserted. Among the punctuation which Thomas uses are capital letters, commas, semicolons, colons, italics; all of them contribute to the production of paratactic sentences which resist closure. 

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