What is the most used punctuation mark in English? If you guessed the period or the comma, you’re right! But whether commas are used more often than periods seems to depend on whether incorrectly used commas are subcontracted out.
Commas are definitely the most misused punctuation mark. Why? Basically because there are two competing schools of thought about the use of punctuation.
The First School of Thought — Punctuation Is For Breathing
The first, and historically earliest, school comprises those who believe punctuation marks are similar to music rests—the pauses within music in which no note is played. This school takes the view that some kind of punctuation mark should appear wherever a reader would pause for breath if reading something aloud.
How long the reader should pause is dictated by what kind of punctuation is used. End punctuation such as periods, question marks, and exclamation points equal a long pause. Semicolons and colons equal a medium pause. Commas equal the shortest pause—just long enough for a quick inhale.
In the first school of thought what punctuation to use is mostly determined by the ear and breathing capacity of the writer. If the writer thinks a reader should briefly pause, use a comma. Want a long pause? Use a period.
Most people need to breathe if reading a long sentence aloud. Everyone who has passed grade school knows that you should not write a long sentence like this one without some kind of punctuation to help the reader know when to stop and take a breath before continuing on to read or else the reader will keel over for lack of oxygen and whoever writes a sentence like this just doesn’t care about their reader. Gasp!
The Second School of Thought — Punctuation Is For Clarity
The second school of thought developed fairly recently. In 1575, Aldus Manutius the Younger is reputed to have written the first book in support of the idea that punctuation should be used to clarify syntax. Syntax is the part of grammar concerned with how words are arranged in sentences to convey meaning.
Over time, the rules of this second school gave punctuation marks specific grammatical purposes. For example, use a comma to set off an introductory phrase as this sentence and the previous one do. Use a colon to introduce a list as discussed in the How to Use Colons post. Use a period to indicate the end of a thought.
The rules of the second school standardized punctuation and, so long as writers and readers understood the same set of rules, writers could create wonderfully varied sentences with clearly conveyed meanings.
Miscommunication Runs Rampant
Unfortunately, if writers and readers are not following the same set of rules—or even the same school of thought about punctuation—miscommunication runs rampant. Since English is a required subject in school, most readers have learned there are rules for punctuation and expect writers to follow them. So, in general, readers expect punctuation to follow the second school of thought.
Because English is a complex language, it’s easy to forget, misremember, or imagine some punctuation rules. That makes following the first school of thought appealing to some writers; especially those who feel constrained by time or lack reference resources to look up the rules.
When it comes to punctuation, which school of thought do you follow?
As Writing Jim, Jim Driggers provides copywriting and business process writing to owners of small and medium-sized businesses. His clients gain sales through marketing text that better resonates with their customers, and they save money when their employees follow guides rather than impulses. His clients give themselves the time to focus on what they do well when they leave their writing to Writing Jim.
For copywriting help with your print or online content or for help systematizing your business processes, contact Writing Jim at [email protected] or 925-231-5825. Visit www.writingjim.com for more information.
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