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Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation

de David Crystal

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1235170,357 (3.86)6
"The triumphant concluding volume in David Crystal's classic trilogy on the English language combines the first history of English punctuation with a complete guide on how to use it. Behind every punctuation mark lies a thousand stories. The punctuation of English, marked with occasional rationality, is founded on arbitrariness and littered with oddities. For a system of a few dozen marks it generates a disproportionate degree of uncertainty and passion, inspiring organizations like the Apostrophe Protection Society and sending enthusiasts, correction-pens in hand, in a crusade against error across the United States. Professor Crystal leads us through this minefield with characteristic wit, clarity, and commonsense. In David Crystal's Making a Point, he gives a fascinating account of the origin and progress of every kind of punctuation mark over one and a half millennia and offers sound advice on how punctuation may be used to meet the needs of every occasion and context"--… (més)
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This is my second book by David Crystal; the first one was [b:Spell It Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling|20343502|Spell It Out The Singular Story of English Spelling|David Crystal|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1388331333s/20343502.jpg|21708125], of which you can find my review here. As you'll read at the end, I really liked this work, because I like language(s) and related works.

Reading this "sequel" - if you can call it that, even if all books are not at all directly linked - was only a logical decision. Mr Crystal is an expert on the English language and has written many books about it.

Like the aforementioned one, [b:Making a Point: The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation|31394194|Making a Point The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation|David Crystal|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1470772646s/31394194.jpg|43458109] is written in a very accessible way, so as to make the subject comprehensible for a large audience. By the way, if you don't know what "pernickety" means, see e.g. the Oxford Dictionary.

The central theme is punctuation: full stop, comma (including the serial or Oxford comma, indeed), colon, semi-colon, apostrophe, hyphen, brackets, question mark, exclamation mark, and so on and so forth.

Each type of punctuation is treated in a few pages (8-15 pages, on average; one type more than the other). Mr Crystal himself wrote it was impossible to go into full detail, because that would require many more pages and books, as each case needs its own explanation.

There's also a bit of historical background on each type. When were they first used? In which kinds of texts? What was the reason for this or that type to have been created? Why were there different views (authors vs editors vs printers vs ...)?

In addition to the fixed set of rules in the world of grammar, it seems that it's not always easy to know when to use a point, a comma, a semi-colon, ... or, no punctuation at all. Added to that: the difference between US English and British English (the latter being the focus for this theme).

Many times, punctuation (also) depends on semantics and a pragmatic approach, as Mr Crystal himself admits. Many times, the classic grammar rules need to be set aside in order to convey the right meaning of a phrase or avoid misunderstandings.

Last but not least, punctuation also depends on the medium: A text on paper? Something written online? A poem? A play? And so on. Other rules apply for each of these.

David Crystal has a fluent pen (or keyboard) to present linguistics and related themes to a larger audience. Or, he knows how to make a dry subject interesting. This (and other) book(s) should not be read like a novel, but taken up from time to time read up on a certain type of punctuation or one of the many historical anecdotes.

For anyone into language and especially the English language, while also being interested in grammar - you don't have to be a grammar-Nazi, no worries -, [b:Making a Point: The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation|31394194|Making a Point The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation|David Crystal|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1470772646s/31394194.jpg|43458109] is very much recommended. David Crystal makes a clear case about why punctuation is necessary and why it's mandatory that it's taught properly in school. ( )
  TechThing | Jan 22, 2021 |
Episodic yet tedious, and not as much fun as others of his I've read. Also, it focuses on English rather than US style, and so I therefore spent some of my time reading in a rather confused state and flatly disagreeing with what he said (two countries separated by a common language indeed). Others may enjoy it more than I did. ( )
  dmturner | Jun 29, 2020 |
Honestly, after I got into it, I enjoyed it so much that I was tempted to give it a higher rating, but I think I’ll stick to four stars. Because it did take me a little while to get into.

I’m not sure whether it was actually slower at the beginning, or whether I just wasn’t in the mood for it, but it took a while. Of course, after that it was hard not to notice the way Crystal’s humour infused the text and made a potentially dry read about punctuation into an amusing one. Some of it comes from relating personal stories, like the ones about how young children incorporate what they’ve learned about the punctuation system into their own writing in interesting ways on page 114:

“I recall one youngster (age about seven) who put a full stop at the end of every line of his story, regardless of sense. Another who put one between each word of the story title. Yet another had a fascination with semicolons. When I asked her why she used them so much, she replied that she liked the size and that they were pretty. And when I suggested a full stop was the normal way of ending a sentence, she looked very dubious, and observed that if you wanted to show something had come to an end, then surely the bigger the better?”

He also got points for referencing Terry Pratchett in his section on exclamation points. I was amused by some of the examples he used for when line break hyphenation rules could create miscues (e.g. the-rapists) or where you wouldn’t expect a phrase to be written as solid text due to pairs of vowels creating momentary uncertainty: freeenterprise amused me in particular. Hyphen hysteria made me smile too (p 264):

“And if you were in the habit of using the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, and had internalized its recommendations, you would have had a real shock in 2007, when the sixth edition was published and you saw that around 16,000 items had had their hyphens removed. Most of the changes had the hyphen replaced by a solid setting (pigeon-hole > pigeonhole, cry-baby > crybaby, bumble-bee > bumblebee), but quite a few ended up spaced (test-tube > test tube, ice-cream > ice cream, hobby-horse > hobby horse). Reactions ranged from the hysterical to the bemused. Some observers called it ‘hyphengate’.”

And with regards to the amalgamated town East Carbon-Sunnyside, I think the name “East Carbon Sunnyside” would be way cooler. It sounds like it would be good for a science fiction setting. C’mon, writers!

All in all, this was an amusing and informative read that didn’t try to lay down the rules (which are variable) so much as try to explore the different punctuation options available and how they can be used to effect in “making a point”. It also covered some of the history of US vs. UK usage and that of different publishing houses. He didn’t neglect the Internet usages and made some interesting points about the default lack of ending punctuation in most text messaging leading to the ability to convey subtleties in tone by purposefully including it in certain situations.

Recommended.

[Aside: There seems to some variation as to whether the subtitle says “pernickety” or “persnickety”. My copy reads Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation. Now, is that UK vs. US usage? I would say “persnickety”, personally. I’m also now overly conscious of when I decide to use quotation marks over italics.]
( )
  natcontrary | May 21, 2018 |
Best read I have had this many a long year ...

Seriously engaging and enjoyable at the same time, with so many signposts to interesting paths to follow.

I must now pay close, and particular, attention to my emendments.

Highly recommended! ( )
  grahamhay | Aug 22, 2017 |
This is an excellent book about punctuation, how it is used, and how its use was governed in the past. Crystal uses passages from Caxton and Shakespeare to illustrate printers who didn't know what they were doing, discusses the trend of "zero default" punctuation in text messaging (i.e. not ending your message with a full stop), explains the punctuation hierarchy, and lays out some guidelines for how teachers can teach punctuation in a way that helps students make sense of all of the rules and their exceptions. The book contains plenty of nuggets of humour, and the examples clearly illustrate Crystal's points. This book is well worth a place on any editor's, English teacher's or language buff's reference shelf. ( )
  rabbitprincess | Sep 1, 2016 |
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"The triumphant concluding volume in David Crystal's classic trilogy on the English language combines the first history of English punctuation with a complete guide on how to use it. Behind every punctuation mark lies a thousand stories. The punctuation of English, marked with occasional rationality, is founded on arbitrariness and littered with oddities. For a system of a few dozen marks it generates a disproportionate degree of uncertainty and passion, inspiring organizations like the Apostrophe Protection Society and sending enthusiasts, correction-pens in hand, in a crusade against error across the United States. Professor Crystal leads us through this minefield with characteristic wit, clarity, and commonsense. In David Crystal's Making a Point, he gives a fascinating account of the origin and progress of every kind of punctuation mark over one and a half millennia and offers sound advice on how punctuation may be used to meet the needs of every occasion and context"--

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