Punctuation is mark of common sense

11th August 2006 at 01:00
With a book on punctuation awaiting publication - what's more, a pop-up book for young children - I was expecting more people to tell me that punctuation was an obsolete part of language and that I was wasting my time.

I was prepared to answer that, in many ways, I agree: it takes too long to scroll around for punctuation when you are sending a text; ditto a speedy email. We manage without punctuation in speech, unless you feel that the Victor Borge solution (where every punctuation mark has its own sound) is an intriguing way to go.

But that's the point. You don't need punctuation when you are speaking, because the other person can tell from your intonation, pauses, emphasis, exactly what you mean. There is more room for misunderstanding with texts and emails - many a failed relationship can be blamed on the ambiguity - but we're still talking about what is essentially a conversation, where commas and colons and brackets are redundant.

But written language is a different story. Our written epistles and bons mots will live on when we are gone. And it should be important, if we are writing for an audience of one or more, that our words are absolutely clear and unambiguous. So, just as hundreds of years ago composers used a precise notation so that future musicians could interpret their music, we should follow suit with our written words.

The punctuation that we use today is a highly evolved and efficient - even elegant - form of notation. There aren't many punctuation marks to learn; their use depends on common sense. And once you have command of them, you have confidence. You will never again falter over the use of apostrophes or quotation marks; the few rules are very simple. So simple that a young child can learn them easily.

Which brings me back to a pop-up punctuation book for young children. Ten years ago, I wrote The Great Grammar Book because I felt that children (including my own) were not being taught grammar, chiefly because their teachers had been brought up in the 1970s when creativity was trumping form in children's writing.

It was perhaps a necessary swing in that direction, but it left a generation of teachers untutored in something they had a right to know. It also left the children they taught less literate than they deserved to be.

I felt, with two children about to enter secondary school without having been taught (except by me) what a plural was, that something had to be done.

I thought that it would be possible to make grammar exciting. I grew up forming letters of the alphabet from Plasticine and still believe that a tactile element helps in the learning process: a pop-up, pull-the-tab, turn-the-wheel book makes that possible. I also believe that learning is easier if the mechanism in some way reflects the lesson: in the grammar book the verbs on the verb page move about and the adjectives on the adjective page can be changed.

The Great Grammar Book has a page at the back on punctuation, but Jennie Maizels (my collaborator, who does the wonderful illustrations) and I both felt it didn't do justice to the subject. I have offered punctuation as a topic for a book on and off during the subsequent 10 years, but it took Lynne Truss to make the subject bankable and I am grateful to her for making it possible to get my new book, Perfect Punctuation, through all the hoops.

I think that children (and their parents) will enjoy pulling a little train to a full stop and making tadpoles swim into place as commas. I hope they'll remember that speech marks serve much the same purpose as speech bubbles, and that words in brackets can be lifted out of a sentence by a mechanical grab and leave the meaning of that sentence unchanged.

I hope that readers of my new book will gain confidence in their writing from learning a very few simple rules. What would football be without some rules? Where would we be without traffic lights? I rest my case.

Perfect Punctuation will be published next month by Random House

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