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Nunberg's "Punctuation"
Thursday, September 20, 2007   12:33 PM

I enjoyed Geoffrey's Nunberg's "Obscenity Rap," a look at the historical movement away from profanity and towards obscenity, so I was pleased to see that he has a number of other articles online. I spent most of this morning reading through a draft of the chapter on punctuation that he helped write for the 2002 Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.

Anyone who knows me shouldn't be too surprised to learn that it was the chapter's invention/use of a precise technical vocabulary to describe punctuation concepts that intrigued me the most. Below: some highlights.

Here's an early, crucial distinction between segmental and non-segmental punctuation.

The punctuation marks are all segmental units of writing — i.e. they fully occupy a position in the linear sequence of written symbols. There are, however, various non-segmental features which can serve the same kind of purpose as the punctuation marks. For example, titles of literary or other works may be italicised as an alternative to being enclosed in quotation marks.

Note that the Cambridge Grammar classes accents and umlauts as spelling, not punctuation — I don't have my own copy (yet), so I'm curious to see how they classify the New Yorker's use of diereses. That looks like non-segmental punctuation to me.

Before they get into the nitty-gritty of punctuation, the authors make a distinction between signifier and signified that would make Saussure proud:

In virtually all written material the apostrophe is physically — or, as we shall say, graphically — identical with a single quotation mark. We need, therefore, to distinguish between two kinds of concept which we will call indicators and characters. The characters are the graphical shapes, or symbols, that realise the indicators. Apostrophe and single quotation mark are then distinct indicators that may be realised by the same character.

In terms of specific punctuation, I enjoyed the lengthy discussion of How Commas Work, but it's much too long to quote here in any meaningful way.

However, there's a great part about the three types of hyphen.

At the first level we can distinguish three uses of the (ordinary) hyphen:

i. To join grammatical components in complex words: the hard hyphen

ii. To mark a break within a word at the end of a line: the soft hyphen

iii. To represent in direct speech either stuttering ('When c-c-can I come?') or exaggeratedly slow and careful pronunciation ('Speak c-l-e-a-r-l-y!')

The terms 'hard' and 'soft' are taken from word-processing: a hard hyphen is introduced into a document by a keystroke, while a soft one is inserted by the word-processing program.

Why — why? — did they not name that third hyphen type? The English geekery gods can be so cruel.

There's also a section on the en dash, which they call the long hyphen. I keep promising myself that I'll start using this consistently, but it's clearly the forgotten punctuation mark:

This is used instead of an ordinary syntactic hyphen with adjuncts consisting of nouns or proper names where the semantic relation is "between X and Y" or "from X to Y":


It can be used with more than two components, as in the London–Paris–Bonn axis. It is also found with adjectives derived from proper names: French–German relations. There is potentially a semantic contrast between the two hyphens, as in the Llewelyn–Jones Company (a partnership) vs the Llewelyn-Jones Company (with a single compound proper name). This hyphen is also used in giving spans of page numbers, dates or the like: pages 23–64, Franz Schubert (1797–1828).

Finally, there's a brief hat-tip to the separation apostrophe. This indicator category presumably includes the common-but-nonstandard greengrocer's apostrophe, but their examples mention only the form I've taken to calling the special-assignment plural apostrophe-S, the style choice that launched a thousand incorrections:

iii. separation: A's PhD's if's 1960's

A minor use of the apostrophe is to separate the plural suffix from the base, as in [7iii]; this occurs when the base consists of a letter (She got three A's in philosophy), certain kinds of abbreviation, a word used metalinguistically, or a numeral.

This book would probably be the perfect accompaniment to the $13 Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage (also on my Amazon wish list) if it weren't so definitively out of my price range.

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fyi but you probly know this: the special-assignment plural apostrophe-S is called standard by the Oxford Companion to the English Language.

I'm woefully short of dead tree reference materials, but I'm not too surprised.

It seems like at least some version of this apostrophe should be standard for everyone, and that the people who get upset by it wouldn't if they would just stop and think about it...

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