Early in life we often moan and groan about punctuation.  What is the point, we think.  Who cares where you put the comma?  In fact people hardly used punctuation at all in the early years of writing and it was only when Gutenberg’s press got going and things were printed as opposed to transcribed by hand that it became common to punctuate.

I'm an author so of course I have a vested interest in punctuation. A fascinating book on the subject I’ve just been reading, Hyphens and Hashtags by Claire Cock-Starkey (Bodleian Library, 2021), makes plain how necessary punctuation is to our understanding of the text.  Punctuation tells us when to pause if we're reading aloud. It separates related items in a list, tells us when a clause is subordinate (can be left out), makes plain where items are related to each other and how.It tells us when an item is a question and when not. Some writers can hardly do without the exclamation mark!  Wrongly used punctuation can alter substantially our understanding of a text as in Eats, shoots and leaves (spot the misplaced comma). I’ve always enjoyed the following example of this, a transcription of the first line of one of Shakespeare’s  poems from The Two Gentlemen of Verona.

Who is Sylvia, what is she,  (That all her swains commend her)

However, if the first line is written as  a conversation the differing punctuation gives it a completely different meaning.

‘Who is?’


‘What!  Is she?’

Depending on the level of surprise borne by the question and exclamation marks, you have to decide whether Sylvia is  or is not pregnant, – the latter more likely, of course, if all her swains commend her.


We’ve all swithered over whether to use a comma or not (there’s much debate as to the so-called Oxford comma) or whether we should use brackets or em dashes instead.  Brackets, the big brothers of the comma, seem a little more intrusive so are sometimes used if you want to draw attention to their content rather than merely add substance to the original text.  Sometimes they are used to indicate a connected but not integral thought, but more often to enclose an associated fact or reference as I have done with Cock-Starkey’s book.

Em dashes are thought to be less formal and are used similarly to add an associated fact or idea.  For years I thought a hyphen was an em dash but in fact they are different in length, the em dash in theory being longer.  In practice most of us use the keyboard key we use for hyphens and in the case of the single em dash prior to the end of a sentence the word processor lengthens it without our even noticing it.  (Try it).

 We use the hyphen to connect two words together, although this is getting rarer, leaving either the words separate or completely conjoined.  So pot-belly reverted to pot belly and leap-frog became leapfrog. It appears in double-barrelled surnames (Sir Harold Spencer-Jones, a former Astronomer Royal) and is used to clarify meaning.  They sent the odd-man-out to do the job, for example, as opposed to They sent the odd man out.

 Simon Armitage writes beautifully in an essay on Emily Dickinson’s poetry about the em dashes for which she was famous (The Vertical Art: Oxford Lectures, Faber, pp376).  He calls Dickinson’s use of the dash an elevated form of musical notation, one that creates momentary suspensions, ‘little leaps and trapezes’, he says, ‘wingbeats,  airborne cognitive deferrals, miniature magic carpet rides …… during which the reader glides from one idea to the next without ever touching the floor, without having to steeplechase along a series of commas,  pause at the amber light of a semi-colon, totter over the cattle grid of an ellipsis or be wheel-clamped by a full stop.’

I just love that idea of being wheel-clamped by a full stop. I regularly discover I’ve written a sentence of inordinate length because I didn’t  want to be wheel-clamped and so have sprinkled the text with every kind of conjunction and relative pronoun in order to avoid  the full stop. The ellipsis he refers to is designed to show that something is missing. I inserted one  in Armitage’s text for that reason, and also to show you what he means by the cattlegrid.

Well, I could go on but I suspect there’s only so much punctuation that people can bear.  Do look upon it in kindly fashion though and it will serve you well.




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