Beguiling Grammar

By Tim Wynne-Jones

The inimitable Coe Booth sent around a website, recently, that featured a great new array of punctuation marks that might help a writer in the never ending business of trying to make text on the page get across what we really mean it to say. Will the “Sinceriod,” the “Sarcastices,” and the “Andorpersand” ever rise to the rank of question mark or exclamation mark in usage? Not likely. What about that expressive new kid on the block, the interrobang!?  Who knows? But who would have guessed that the emoticon would ever be taken seriously as Lynne Truss does in her wonderful book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation? See what you think of these pretenders to the punctuation game:

Anyway, this website got me thinking about punctuation and grammar in general. But hey, when I’m not thinking about words then I’m inevitably thinking about “…classes of words; their inflections, and their functions and relations in the sentence,” which is what Misters Webster and Merriam, tell us grammar is. And folded into that useful syntactical set of rules to follow or break (knowing that Strunk and White are watching and are probably not amused!), is the “…act or practice of inserting standardized marks or signs… to clarify the meaning and separate structural units,” which is the definition of punctuation.
To tell you the truth, I was never all that good at it – punctuating I mean – when I was at school. I had a rather imaginative attitude to usage, and a downright crush on the semi-colon for a number of years. But I’ve come to a place where these little squiggles and splotches are important friends and cohorts that I never take for granted. If you want to imagine life without punctuation, try reading this excerpt from a famous story, as it might have looked carved gloriously into a Roman wall:


 The romans didn’t know from spacing, let alone punctuation. Quotation marks? Forget it. They only way to nudge meaning out of the text above is to sound it out, taking breaths as need be. Because in their day, the written word was still intimately connected and dependent upon its oral roots.

The lower case didn’t make an appearance for a very long time, evolving from the writing of upper case letters by hand. The letters became rounded, until they assumed a quite new look, the so-called uncial hand. And it was longer still before a semi-uncial letterform came about, notably, the Carolingian minuscule developed in the ninth century, by the extraordinary scribe, Alcuin of York for his boss, Charlemagne.

Think of how much easier the quote above from Charlotte’s Web would be even if we simply had capitals to start the sentence. That would make it a bicameral script, by the way. This blog is actually tricameral; I wrote the title of Lynne Truss’ and E.B. White’s book in Italic, which is a common case on word processors, nowadays. When I started my career, typing on a typewriter, if we wanted to stress a word or acknowledge a book title we could only underline it. But anyway, Italic wasn’t really codified until the fifteenth century by Ludovico degli Arrighi.
Why am I indulging in this little history lesson? Well, it’s good somehow to know that this thing we do every day, expressing ourselves to the very best of our ability, is aided and abetted by a system of forms and symbols that we take for granted and yet have come into existence over literally thousands of years and were only brought about for the express purpose of making what we write as readable, and our intent as transparent, as possible: to indicate to our reader when to pause; or out and out stop; when something is urgent!; when something – out of nowhere – interrupts our train of thought; to indicate when a speaker, for one reason or another, just can’t go on…
It’s kind of magical, isn’t it? And having ability with language and all these squiggles and blotches, knowing how to put them together into a pleasing and clever and shapely thing, is powerful in its way — magically so. And you know what? Grammar, the word, comes from the same old Scots root word as Glamour, meaning the ability to beguile. Kind of makes it all seem a little bit enchanting when you think of it that way, doesn’t it?


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5 responses to “Beguiling Grammar

  1. Martine

    It is kind of magical, Tim – especially the way you express it. Wait – do I feel an interrobang coming on?!

  2. I may legally change my name to Carolingian minuscule.

  3. Pingback: Punctuation Precision, Humorously Proven by “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” | Facilitative Leadership & Facilitator Training

  4. Pingback: Punctuation Precision, Humorously Proven by Eats, Shoots and Leaves

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