You Have a Point There: A Guide to Punctuation and Its Allies

By Eric Partridge | Go to book overview
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Chapter 12

'NOT TOO LITTLE, NOT TOO MUCH': CLOSE PUNCTUATION AND OPEN PUNCTUATION; OVER-PUNCTUATION AND UNDER-PUNCTUATION

OVER-PUNCTUATION AND under-punctuation, or overstepping and understopping, form the extremes of the two systems known either as heavy and light punctuation or as full and slight punctuation (the Fowler brothers' dichotomy), or again-though perhaps rather in the United States than in the British Commonwealth of Nations-as close and open punctuation, are analogous to industrial over-production and under-production. Neither fault is quite so easy to avoid as, by those who rarely have to punctuate and never have to produce, we are told it is.

Let us see what four authorities say about the matter.

In The King's English, 1906, the brothers Fowler, H.W. and F.G., make 'three general remarks':

'The work of punctuation is mainly to show, or hint at, the grammatical relation between words, phrases, clauses, and sentences; but it must not be forgotten that stops also serve to regulate pace, to throw emphasis on particular words and give them significance, and to indicate tone….

'Secondly, it is a sound principle that as few stops should be used as will do the work.' Having remarked that 'Whereas slight stopping may venture on small irregularities, full stopping that is incorrect is also unpardonable', they conclude the paragraph by saying, 'The objection to full stopping that is correct is the discomfort inflicted on readers, who are perpetually being checked like a horse with a fidgety driver': but better a slight irritation than the grave doubt which often results from the ambiguity caused by understopping.

'Thirdly, every one should make up his mind not to depend on his stops.' They do not take the place of words, nor yet of construction: properly used, they should merely clarify the former and therefore simplify the latter.

It may have been noticed that the Fowlers employ rather more

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