Modern Language Association 2020 Convention


Washington State Convention Center


Session 100, Thursday, January 9, 3:30--4:45 p.m., Room 606


Presiding: Albert E. Krahn


Purposeful Perversions of Pointing


Usually, we think of punctuation as a set of rules for protecting the meaning of a text or making ideas explicit. The writers discussed in this session have another idea: they want to use punctuation (or avoid it) to create new meanings in their texts. When someone noticeably breaks what we think of as the accepted rules, the result can be considered art, but it must be seen as purposeful rather than by accident, ignorance, or carelessness. The authors discussed in this session stretch the rules related to punctuation differently while trying to achieve meanings that their writing in the usually accepted way might not reveal.


Gabrielle Kiriloff


 An Infinitude of Associations:

Computational Approaches to the

Rhetoric of Punctuation


The title reflects on Adorno’s comments on the use of ellipsis. In literary genres, punctuation is often used to represent emotional and psychological states, according to Anne Toner (2015). But the rhetorical effects of punctuation vary based on whether the punctuation occurs within dialogue or narration. An ellipsis within dialogue may signal a pause in conversation but within narration may hint at the associative nature of human thought. In order to see what was really happening, Gabrielle Kiriloff  looked at a corpus of 3,000 nineteenth and twentieth-century novels (the Chicago and Chadwyck-Healey corpora) to study ellipses, dashes, parentheses, and question marks.

            She found definite patterns of meaning which depended upon where they were used. Ellipsis increased between 1840 and 1920. Despite the association of the dash with more modern styles (Dickinson, Joyce), the use of the dash declined in the corpus. The link between punctuation and narration was the most suggestive. Each of the four forms of punctuation studied increased WITHIN NARRATION at the turn of the century, even if it diminished overall. Parentheticals and question marks often drew attention to the narrating voice and served a paradoxical function. The increase in the use of these forms of punctuation calls into question the notion that obtrusive narrators diminished at the turn of the century (Lubbock, 1921).

            A good example of the growing use of punctuation to elicit new meanings is a work by Brian Oswald Donn-Byrne (The Wind Bloweth: 1922) that contains 920 ellipses.


Busra Copuroglu


 Spectres of Punctuation:

Beckett Performing Erasure


Theodor Adorno in his article Punctuation Marks writes that they acquire an expression of their own. Jacques Derrida in Of Grammatology remarks that punctuation is the best example of a nonphonetic mark in writing. Martin Heidegger develops and conceptualizes the concept of UNDER ERASURE in his Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics as a writing practice and employs it as a device to demonstrate the multiplication of meaning in a text in some unusual way: he prints a word, but then crosses it out and leaves it. The word is both absent and present.

            Some works by Samuel Beckett are classic examples of Heidegger’s idea.

A number of Beckett’s works (Ping, Ill Seen Ill Said, and Worstword Ho) are devoid of commas and could be interpreted as an emancipation of reading space and rhythm that engenders a new mode of reading. (Says Gayatri Spivak, in the preface of Derrida's Of Grammatology: The verbal text is constituted by concealment as much as by revelation.) Beckett’s lack of commas can be interpreted as the emancipation of  space and rhythm that engenders a different mode of reading and makes the texts acquire different meanings as readers, possibly, add their own commas. Beckett performs writing UNDER ERASURE by cancelling the commas and letting the preceding and proceeding words instead set a different rhythm of reading.


Lindsey Seatter


 Accidentals and the Narrative Pause:

Affective Punctuation in the Female Authored Romantic Novel


An article by Jacqueline Labbe (2015) argues that the warp and weft of literary cross-reference is

 exemplified  in how the writings of one author are meshed and manipulated into the work of others.

Using Labbe’s theory  we can see that the foundation of Jane Austen’s style—the fabric of her text—can be

observed in the writings of Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth, and Mary Brunton. They use particular

sequences of punctuation to mimic vocal expression and stream of consciousness in their writing.

            Kathryn Sutherland (1999) argues for the significance of accidentals, such as punctuation, spelling,

capitalization, italicization, and contractions, as lexical and syntactical conduits for communicating aural

traces in a written text.

            While Sutherland asserts that irregular punctuation is a characteristic of Austen’s narrative discourse,

it is actually a trait shared by an influential network of Romantic women novelists. Using em-dashes,

ellipses, question marks, and exclamation points, these female authors attempt to simulate and amplify voice.

Employing accidentals judiciously, Burney, Edgeworth, and Brunton embody a narrative non-linearity in

their oscillation between the perspective of the character and that of the narrator—a narrative mode later

recognized as free indirect discourse that was developed and popularized by Austen. In effect, these authors

were using a narrative technique that helped facilitate the emergence of the modern novel.


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 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. Handbooks of writing are prone to consider punctuation as about as important as an oil change and list it under "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.

Sources and Definitions for Punctuation

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


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 easily found sites for a theoretical discussion of punctuation. But if you need a quick answer for a particular punctuation problem you are having, 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 Chicago Manual of Style Online offers some help. The Q & A section can be browsed without charge. Search on "punctuation" or one of the features of punctuation.

Paul Robinson offers an interesting philosophy of punctuation.

Other ways of approaching punctuation

    A dissertation which takes a new approach can be accessed at:

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. The following curiosity, for example, 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 have to frame it with single quotes, it just might look like it is raining: 'do's and don't's.' One frequent argument involves the series comma.


A web site for the discussion of punctuation also exists. To join, send an email to             

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

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