Making a Point: The pernickety story of English punctuation

D Crystal (Profile Books, 2015), 361pp, £12.99 (hbk)
ISBN 978 1 78125 350 2

Reviewed by Andrew Coulson

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David Crystal’s new book rejoices in the subtitle of ‘The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation’, which is an apt description. In its 360 pages you get an entertaining and informative history of how our system of punctuation has evolved. Starting at the Question Mark Tavern in Belgrade, we follow the emergence of punctuation (and word spacing), initially as an aid to reading. We then explore the different marks and how they came about and were standardised as the process and craft of printing and editing evolved. Finally, Crystal looks at how we are continuing to evolve our use of punctuation in the digital age by our use of emojis and typography. Throughout the book he uses ‘Interludes’ that step outside his narrative to explore a topic through an example, and these make for some interesting diversions.

As well as a historical journey, Crystal presents a pragmatic guide to the use of punctuation, delivered through the historical narrative. He does this using examples to demonstrate the subtleties of meaning conveyed by choosing bracketing commas over, say, parentheses or parenthetical dashes. He makes the case that it is not just about the meaning of the punctuation but also about exploring the factors that make the usage fluctuate and change. The final appendix is entitled ‘Teaching punctuation’ and brings together the threads of this pragmatic approach for teachers. As a former teacher, I love some of Crystal’s ideas for teaching punctuation and can imagine they would work well in the classroom. The approach has also made me think about the use of punctuation in the material I work with; I find myself analysing an author’s use of punctuation much more.

This book is a fascinating read and, despite what could be a dry subject, very readable. It’s not a reference book for everyday use but one that rewards reading from cover to cover, and should find its way onto any copy-editor’s or proofreader’s bookshelf.

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