Teaching Punctuation in Early Modern England

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ABSTRACT

Much has been written on the punctuation practice of late sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English writers in order to work out the ultimate function of marks of punctuation. The main point of discussion has almost ever been whether punctuation indicated syntactic relationships or represented speech pauses either to give emphasis in oral delivery or just to be able to breathe. The focus of this paper, however, is the theory rather than the practice, in particular, the set of rules and conventions used by schoolmasters to guide students in their use of stops. Thus, textbooks used at the time to teach reading and writing will constitute our main sources of information to achieve the following aims: (i) to offer a classification of the different marks of punctuation described, (ii) to establish the functions schoolbooks assigned to punctuation marks in general, and (iii) to assess the importance schoolmasters gave to pointing. The results of this study--which follows the works by Ong (1944) and Salmon (1962, 1988)--will contribute to shed light on the ever-lasting debate on the principles guiding Early Modern English punctuation usage.

1. The scope of this paper within earlier discussions on Renaissance punctuation theory

The use of marks of punctuation in the Renaissance has been the source of inspiration of many scholarly discussions which have attempted to discern the function of punctuation marks, the key issue being whether they could be considered aiding tools for oral delivery or marks to indicate syntactic relationships (Baron 2001). In order to answer this question, the punctuation in the works of Ben Jonson, William Shakespeare, and other contemporary authors as well as their printer's practice have been subject to scrutiny in a number of works (e.g. Maxwell 1953, Graham-White 1982, Simpson 1911 and Howard 1930) which have mainly concluded that there is a correspondence between punctuation marks and performance indications. (2) The results of these studies, however important they are, do not settle the problem, since the analyses are, in a way, corpus-biased due to the oral nature of the works studied, and as Jenkinson (1926: 53) puts it, "did a writer of Essays or History think always of his work being read aloud?"

Other authors, such as Fries (1925), Ong (1944) and Salmon (1988), have focused on the theoretical accounts and rules taught in the late 16th and early 17th centuries reaching different conclusions. The importance of Fries's work lies in his belief that the practice of Renaissance punctuation somehow followed a general system of rules contained in contemporary handbooks:

Although the practice of the times might easily not strictly conform to the theory of the grammarians (and very probably in any case only loosely conformed) it seems unlikely that that practice could have been unconsciously based upon another principle differing so fundamentally from that expressed in contemporary grammars (...) (Fries 1925: 81).

Indeed, authors, as subject to the educational system of the time, could not be ignorant of the punctuation rules taught and practised in schools, and we logically assume that points used by playwrights should have a sense for somebody else apart from the author. This idea guided Fries in his attempt to find general common principles behind the use of Renaissance punctuation and led him to propose a syntactic and structural basis of punctuation marks.

Walter J. Ong, in his 1944 paper, refutes Fries's (1925) ideas by showing the classical and medieval sources of Renaissance treatments of punctuation and their influence upon them. His work defends the prevailing status of breathing, rather than syntax, in punctuation, as is made clear in the following quote:

From the evidence in texts which between 1582 and 1640 treat of punctuation, there is little doubt that there survived not only (...) the terminology of the earlier systems (. …