Why Do People Say Punctuation Out Loud?

Syelle Graves explains why people say things such as "We never leave any soldier behind. Period," and more generally, the relationship between speech and writing.

Syelle Graves, read by Mignon Fogarty,
October 16, 2014
Episode #438

say punctuation.


Today’s topic is a reply to some interesting questions and observations posed by reader Frank T. His inquiries are numbered below, so we can address them one at a time:

Observation 1: Recently, President Obama said something like, “We never leave any soldier behind. Full stop.”

Observation 2: Sometimes someone will say something like, “Let’s go to the store comma and then eat dinner.”

Question 1: Which came first, the voice or punctuation?

Question 2: What is the relationship between punctuation and speaking aloud?

Question 3: Is there punctuation that the human voice cannot replace, and are there voice tones that punctuation cannot capture?

Spoken Language is Very Different from Written Language

Let’s start with question 1: “Which came first, the voice, or punctuation?” That’s easy: voice! Linguistic research suggests that human languages have been spoken for at least 50,000 years, but that the earliest writing systems didn’t appear until about 5,000 years ago. Many languages in the world today still have no writing system at all—they’re only spoken—yet they’re just as rich and complex as written languages.

In addition, we acquire spoken language by mere exposure, with virtually no instruction, and when we are so young that we don’t even remember it. In contrast, reading and writing (as you’ll remember from grade school) require many years of explicit instruction and practice. In this way, writing systems (including spelling and punctuation conventions) are an artificial extension of—or means of recording—speech, which is a natural human phenomenon. 

Now, on to Frank’s question #2, “What is the relationship between punctuation and speaking aloud?” The answer is that the relationship is a very imperfect one! In some ways, punctuation is designed to “replicate” speech features, but only some. All native speakers of a language follow unconscious “rules” (which we were never explicitly taught) about the way that your voice goes up and down in pitch, along with other things such as pausing, or stressing certain words louder and longer than others (which is why we don’t talk like robots). As we all know, written text doesn’t indicate tone, though punctuation sometimes indicates some tonal features.

However, punctuation frequently does not match the voice, which leads to the answer to double-question number 3, “Is there punctuation that the human voice cannot replace, and are there voice tones that punctuation cannot capture?” The answer is yes, absolutely, to both! Punctuation rules have been established out of need to clarify sentences that would otherwise be confusing when written out, and then made regular by convention. 

Because Old English was hand-written instead of printed, punctuation was inconsistent. Periods were sometimes placed at mid-line height, and question marks were optional, as was capitalizing the first word of each sentence. Middle English made only slight improvement on this, so we have come a long way today! Yet, punctuation still cannot tackle every possibly-confusing-when-written-out sentence, which we’ll come back to. 

Sometimes, Punctuation Aligns with Speech

Correct punctuation does sometimes replicate spoken language closely. For example, some mandatory commas do show where you should pause when speaking. There was a comma after the phrase “for example,” in the last sentence, and there was also a natural pause there in the spoken version. Notice that it is possible to remove the pause there, but it is less common. Try it!

Another case where commas align with voice patterns is when both are needed to make your meaning clear. For example, in the following sentence, there is no comma, and also no pause:

(1) “I don’t think I know.”

The meaning is that the person is pretty sure about not knowing the answer, but there is some doubt, or possibility that the person might know it.

In contrast, if we add a comma, which is also read aloud as a pause, we get this:

(2) “I don’t think, I know.”

The meaning this time is that the person is 100% positive about knowing the answer and wishes to indicate that there is no hesitation or room for doubt. They’re the same words, but the comma and the spoken pause completely change the meaning. 

The Relationship Between Punctuation and Speech Can Be Deceiving

Even when punctuation seems to exactly copy voice patterns, it is often surprisingly limited. Consider the three versions of the following sentence. The first one ends with a period:

(3) “Squiggly doesn’t like chocolate.”

The natural way to read this sentence aloud is by not really raising or lowering the voice at the end. Now, consider the same sentence with a question mark:

(4) “Squiggly doesn’t like chocolate?”

The question mark is used to show that the voice goes up at the end, to make it an “echo question,” which is a question used when someone needs clarification.

Finally, an exclamation point makes us read it louder, without raising the voice at the end:

(5) “Squiggly doesn’t like chocolate!” 

However, notice that the punctuation still doesn’t perfectly narrow down all the ways the human voice can express nuance, or respond to specific contexts; you can still say this last version of the sentence in multiple ways, even with the exclamation point. For example, it can be read aloud with slight stress on the word like (“Squiggly doesn’t LIKE chocolate!”), which may mean that someone has suggested a chocolate cake for Squiggly’s birthday, and the speaker is exclaiming a reason to pick a different flavor. It can also be read aloud with slight stress on the first part of the word chocolate (“Squiggly doesn’t like CHOColate!”), which would make sense if the speaker were very surprised by this fact about Squiggly. 

Furthermore, some punctuation marks, like the hyphens in sister-in-law, don’t change how you say or emphasize anything; they’re just road signs for the reader; they alert us to what is coming after sister. 

Conversely, we stress the first syllable in words like record, when the word is a noun, but we stress the second syllable, record, when the word serves as a verb in the sentence, with no punctuation marks to indicate which is which. For reading stress within a written word, English depends on context. Languages such as Spanish, in contrast, make use of an accent mark to indicate syllable stress, but in both languages, speakers stress the intended syllable automatically when they talk. The point is that the relationship between written and spoken language is fluid; you can’t expect them to match perfectly. 

Writing Conventions: Sometimes, Punctuation is Required for Cues that Are Optional in Speech

One reason they don’t match is that written language is a different “genre” from spoken language, or what linguists call “register” (like a language style). To explain this, here is an example of correct punctuation that does not match speech: Many people believe that commas are only used where pauses are found, but in the following sentence, a comma is required by traditional writing rules, even though pausing there or not pausing there both sound natural in speech:

(6) It’s a nice day, isn’t it? 

Conversely, in casual speech, many people pause in hesitation after the word although, using it more to mean however, but commas after any subordinating conjunction like although are strictly prohibited in writing. (For more on comma rules, check out Where do I Use Commas?)

(7) “I want to go to the beach, although I do need to finish the laundry.” [Note: some writers would be tempted to put a comma after although, but that would be incorrect.]

Spoken Language Often Trumps Writing

Sometimes, the way we say something makes it clearer than we can make it by using just text or punctuation. Consider this sentence:

(8) “Janet told the story to Lisa, and then she told it to Mary.”

Who committed the second telling act in this sentence? In writing, it could be either Lisa or Mary, but if we speak it spontaneously, we are very likely to emphasize specific words to make it clear:

(9) “Janet told the story to Lisa, and THEN she told it to Mary.”

That time, Janet told the story both times. To make it clear, however, that Lisa told the story to Mary, it would sound like this:

(10) “Janet told the story to Lisa, and then SHE told it to Mary.”

What is interesting here is that we do have formatting options that would let us show which word to emphasize, such as italics, bold, or capital letters. Yet, these formatting conventions vary by writing genre; italic stress is used frequently in dialogue, for example, while boldface is often employed in textbooks. What happens to writers—in every writing genre, from college essays to e-mails—is that we read the intended intonation or contrastive stress in our heads as we write, but don’t realize that the reader won’t know which version we intended, unlike in speech where we can stress any word we like, in order to express the meaning we want. Plus, because formatting for word stress is not required, like those hyphens in sister-in-law are, using it can be a cop-out anyway; some writing instructors say you should avoid using formatting to make your meaning clear. If you need special formatting, what it often means is that you should rewrite your sentence.

A final example of the remarkable superiority, so to speak, of spoken language is a problem we have all had, with e-mail in particular: Sarcasm! Anecdotally, most of us have experienced arguments by e-mail that escalate quickly, often because the reader “hears” negativity the writer may not have intended, or misses sarcasm where the writer did intend it. Sarcasm is something the voice often captures fairly clearly, but for which we have no punctuation. Some people have even proposed adding a symbol to show sarcasm, such as the “SarcMark” that you can download, but none of them have caught on yet.

Sometimes, Punctuation Trumps Spoken Language

Here is an example of punctuation that can make things clear when spoken English cannot: The possessive apostrophe at the end of a plural word. In the phrase my brother’s house, we can see in writing that there is only one brother, because the apostrophe comes before the final -s. But, if several brothers live together, we can write my brothers’ house, with the apostrophe after the -s. In speech, both phrases are pronounced the same way.

Finally, there are some sentences that have more than one meaning and cannot be clarified—with punctuation or voice. For example, “Flying planes can be dangerous” can refer to the gerund flying, meaning that pilots have a risky job, or to the adjective flying, meaning that the planes in the air are dangerous to others. Any way you say it, it’s still ambiguous, so in that case, explaining out loud or re-writing would be the only options!

How Do Punctuation Symbol Names Enter Spoken Language?

Now, what about speaking punctuation aloud, as reader Frank observed? It is actually a separate topic from the general match and mismatch between spoken and written language. Let’s start with observation #1, courtesy of President Obama. Frank reports him as saying something like, “We never leave any soldier behind. Full stop.” First of all, full stop is just a British English term for the punctuation mark period. A similar regional variation is that British English uses exclamation mark while American English tends to use exclamation point. Although Obama is not British, full stop has become common in American English, too. If we replace it with period in the paraphrase of Obama’s example, it sounds equivalent: “We never leave any soldier behind. Period.” 

Now that the terminology is out of the way, on to the meaning: Obama is not superfluously adding punctuation because his listeners might be unable to process the meaning of his statement without it; he is simply using full stop as a euphemism to emphasize the idea that there is no room for argument or discussion. In that way, he is using the name of the punctuation symbol to express something akin to, “and there are no exceptions to that rule.” He is not, however, using punctuation to capture a nuance that spoken language cannot capture. If an exception were to be added to the end of the sentence, a comma would probably introduce it—not a period—like this:

“We never leave any soldier behind, except in certain extenuating circumstances.”

On the other hand, Frank’s observation #2—“Sometimes someone will say something like, ‘Let’s go to the store comma and then eat dinner’” —is something a little different. Sometimes saying required punctuation symbols in speech is used as a comic device. Some great examples have been uttered by 30 Rock character Tracy Jordan, like this one: Character Jenna Maroney despairs, “He’s evil, Tracy!” to which Tracy replies, “He’s Evil Tracy? Ohhh. He’s evil ‘comma’ Tracy.” It is true that, in writing, a comma must come before a proper name when the utterance right before it is directed at that person, which is called “direct address.” However, in speech, there is no pause where that comma goes, and no difference in intonation between (1) describing an evil version of Tracy, meaning “Evil Tracy,” a bit like, say, “Happy Sally,” and (2) simply using the name “Tracy” to address Tracy Jordan. The reason that Tracy’s comment sounds so ridiculous is due to the part of linguistics that includes non-linguistic context, or situational factors; if Jane looks right at Bob and says “Bob,” Bob assumes that Jane is addressing him directly, due to unconscious social rules and conventions—such as eye contact. These play a role in successful communication between speakers; therefore, Tracy intentionally ignores the convention, and then exploits the fact that the sentence is technically both (1) ambiguous, and (2) pronounced the same way no matter what you mean. For Jenna Maroney’s intended meaning, a comma is required in writing; for Tracy Jordan’s initial, incorrect interpretation, you wouldn’t write it with a comma. You’d probably use a capital letter for “evil,” making it read like the name “Evil Tracy.” But either way, you don’t pronounce the capital letters or the comma, because the direct address takes care of the clarification.

People also say punctuation out loud to creatively express certain subtleties. For example, in writing, quotation marks are used for reported speech, and can sometimes indicate sarcasm (which we saw earlier is difficult to express in writing), or, assign a virtual property to a term. Let’s say Jane wants to indicate that Bill said something really ridiculous; she can say it like this:

“Then, Bill accused me of quote-unquote sabotaging his career.”

Jane can even use air quotes, instead of saying “quote-unquote”… unless she is speaking to someone on the phone. In fact, Tracy Jordan puts air quotes around the word comma when he says “evil comma Tracy” in the 30 Rock episode! 

You may remember that last year we wrote about people saying someone is an “actor-slash-model” or even using the word slash as an adverb. Certain expressions such as quote-unquote and actor-slash-model have become widely understood, and can be acceptable in even formal spoken language. Obama’s use of full stop, for example, does not create a feeling of informality at all; rather, it comes across—stylistically—as a relatable idiom; something that everyone in his audience can understand.

In conclusion, punctuation is complicated and takes some time to learn, unlike using our audible voice and intonation, which we do instinctively to clarify utterances that can have several meanings. Punctuation sometimes mimics speech, and sometimes it does not (and should not); it is occasionally advantageous over speech, but more often it is less able to express nuance that speech expresses beautifully. As for saying punctuation symbols out loud, doing so is style-specific, and often contributes both clarity and nuance; it’s fine as long as it’s done in the appropriate context.

Syelle Graves is a linguist and professor at the City University of New York at LaGuardia Community College.  http://syellegraves.ws.gc.cuny.edu/


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Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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