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.