In Praise of the Humble Comma
The gods, they say, give breath, and they take it away. But the samesaid-could be said-could itnot?-of the humble comma. Add it to the present clause, and, all of a sudden, the mind is,quite literally, given pause to think; take it out if you wish or forget it and the mind is deprivedof a resting place. Yet still the comma gets no respea. It seems just a slip of a thing, apedant's tick, a blip on the edge of our consciousness, a kind of printer's smudge almost.Small, we claim, is beautiful (especially in the age of the microchip). Yet what is so often used,and so rarely called, as the comma-unless it be breath itself?
Punctuation, one is taught, has a point: to keep up law and order. Punctuation marks are theroad signs placed along the highway of our communication——to control speeds，providedirections and prevent head-on collisions. A period has the unblinking finality of a red light,the comma is a flashing yellow light that asks us only to slow down, and the semicolon is astop sign that tells us to ease gradually to a halt, before gradually starting up again. Byestablishing the relations between words, punctuation establishes the relations between thepeople using words. That may be one reason why school teachers exalt it and lovers defy it("we love each other and belong to each other let’s don’t ever hurt each other Nicole let's don'tever hurt each other,” wrote Gary Gilmore to his girlfriend )A comma ，he must have known, "separate inseparables" ，in the clinching words of H. W. Fowler, King of English Usage.
Punctuation, then, is a civic prop, a pillar that holds society upright. (A run on sentence, itsphrases piling up without division, is as unsightly as a sink piled high with dirty dishes.)Smallwonder,then,that punctuation was one of the first proprieties of the Victorian age, the age ofthe corset, that the modernists threw off the sexual revolution might be said to have begunwhen Joyce's Molly Bloomis spilled out all her private thoughts in 36 pages of unbridled, almostunperioded and officially censored prose: and another are bellion was surely marked whenE.E.Cummings first felt free to commit "God" to the lower case.
Punctuation thus becomes the signatrire of cultures. The hot-blooded Spaniard seems to berevealed in the passion and urgency of his doubled exclamation points and question marks ( "iCaramba! LQuien sabe?"), while the impassive Chinese traditionally added to his so-calledinscrutability by omitting directions from his ideograms. The anarchy and commotion of the60s were given voice in the exploding exclamation marks, riotous capital letters and Day-Gloitalics of Tom Wolfe's spray-paint prose; and in Communist societies, where the State isabsolute, the dignity-and divinity-of capital letters is reserved for Ministries, Sub-Committeesand Secretariats.
Yet punctuation is something more than a culture's birthmark; it scores the music in ourminds, gets our thoughts moving to the rhythm of our hearts. Punctuation is the notation inthe sheet music of our words, telling us when to rest, or when to raise our voices; itacknowledges that the meaning of our discourse, as of any symphonic composition, lies notonly in the units but in the pauses, the pacing and the phrasing. Punctuation is the way onebats one's eyes, lowers one's voice or blushes demurely. Punctuation adjusts the tone andcolor and volume till the feeling comes into perfea focus: not disgust exactly, but distastes; notlust, or like, but love.
Punctuation, in short, gives us the human voice, and all the meanings that lie between thewords. "You aren't young, are you?" loses its innocence when it loses the question mark.Every child knows the menace of a dropped apostrophe (the parent's "Don't do that" shiftinginto the more slowly enunciated "Do not do that"), and every believer, the ignominy of havinghis faith reduced to "faith." Add an exclamation point to "To be or not to be..." and thegloomy Dane m has all the resolve he needs; add a comma, and the noble sobriety of "Godsave the Queen" becomes a cry of desperation bordering on double sacrilege.
简言之，标点给我们传来话音，传来字里行间的全部含义。“你不小了，是吧?”这话去掉问号，无心便成了有意。做父母的先是说“Don't do that”(“别做那事”)，转而又慢声慢气交代清楚：“Do not.dothat”(不要做那事)，每个孩子都听得明白，拿掉了撇号可就把话说绝了。每个信徒也都明白，把他的信教加上引号，所谓“信教”，那可是在污辱他。给“生存或者灭亡……”一句添上个惊叹号，那位忧心忡忡的丹麦人便是毅然决然万死不辞之士。在“上帝保佑女王”中间加个逗号，那崇高的庄严则成了绝望的呼号，简直是对双方的亵渎。
Sometimes, of course, our markings may be simply a matter of aesthetics.Popping in a commacan be like slipping on the necklace that gives an outfit quiet elegance, or like catching thesound of running water that complements as it completes the silence of a Japaneselandscape. When VS.
Naipaul , in his latest novel, writes, "He was a middle-aged man, with glasses," the first commacan seem a little precious. Yet it gives the description a spin, as well as a subtlety, that itotherwise lacks, and it shows that the glasses are not part of the middle-agedness, butsomething else.
Thus all these tiny scratches give us breadth and heft and depth. A world that has only periodsis a world without inflections. It is a world without shade. It has a music without sharps andflats. It is a martial music. It has a jackboot rhythm. Words cannot bend and curve. Acomma, by comparison,catches the gentle drift of the mind in thought, turning in on itselfand back on itself, reversing, redoubling and returning along the course of its own sweet rivermusic; while the semicolon brings clauses and thoughts together with all the silent discretionof a hostess arranging guests around her dinner table.
Punctuation, then, is a matter of care. Care for words, yes, but also, and more important, forwhat the words imply. Only a lover notices the small things: the way the afternoon lightcatches the nape of a neck, or how a strand of hair slips out from behind an ear, or the way afinger curls around a cup. And no one scans a letter so closely as a lover, searching for its smallprint, straining to hear its nuances, its gasps, its sighs and hesitations, poring over the secretmessages that lie in every cadence. The difference between"Jane (whom I adore)" and "Jane,whom I adore," and the difference between them both and "Jane-whom I adore-" marks all thedistance between ecstasy and heartache. "No iron can pierce the heart with such force as aperiod put at just the right place," in Isaac Babel's lovely words; a comma can let us hear avoice break, or a heart. Punctuation, in fact, is a labor of love. Which brings us back in a way togods.