How Do You Solve a Punctuation Puzzle?

I recently had the chance to lurk during a heated debate about the use of the apostrophe– I know, I know, that may not count as “heated” where you come from, but among some English teachers and writing coaches, these things matter more than the Super Bowl and World Series combined.

I’ll add another post or two about apostrophes later; right now, I want to comment on the process that people used to try to argue their point and break the deadlock.

1. Some folks argued that one usage LOOKED BETTER than the other. That’s making usage decisions based on aesthetics.

2. Others said that when they googled a certain word, MOST PEOPLE did it a certain way. That’s making usage decisions based on consensus.

3. Then there were those who appealed to their fourth grade teacher, their best friend’s first cousin, or some HANDBOOK or style sheet they dug up somewhere. That’s making usage decisions based on authority.

4. Finally, there were a few stubborn stalwarts who insisted that whatever THEY HAD BEEN DOING for the last upteen hundred years or so had to be right because, after all, that’s what they’d always done. That’s making usage decisions based on habit.

Aesthetics? Consensus? Authority? Habit? When we are not sure what is correct when it comes to matters of punctuation or usage, what should we do? Or, more to the point in this post, what guiding principle do we use to make the decision?

This one:

5. The debate was broken when someone (dear old “anonymous”) pointed out that what is correct depends entirely on what MEANING you are trying to convey. That’s right. Punctuation, like other matters of usage, is intended first and foremost as a servant of meaning.

In short, it doesn’t make any sense to ask whether it is better to say students’ or student’s: the question is, how many students do you mean?

Commas, semi-colons, periods, all that stuff: it doesn’t have to do with needing to take a breath, to look good on the page, to pay attention to Ms. Turabian, to sound right, to fit in the the crowd, or do it again the way you’ve been doing it  for time out of mind. The first thing you gotta know is exactly what you are trying to say. Then you do your homework and get the best information possible to help you say exactly that.

2 thoughts on “How Do You Solve a Punctuation Puzzle?”

  1. A nice post. 🙂

    Another interesting thing about punctuation is that you can’t hear it. You’re right when you say that the choice of student’s or students’ depends on the meaning, but when we talk — and listen — that funny little curlicue is unnecessary, indeed impossible. Rather, the context conveys the meaning — though it is, of course, quite possible to be unclear enough in one’s communication that context is of no, or too little, help. Another point I would make is that the apostrophe is a recent invention, really only necessary (to the extent that it is necessary) because of the loss of inflexional endings for English nouns. Notice I say nouns, because even now, we usually don’t need apostrophes for pronouns (example: yours and whose, not your’s and who’s). In Old English, the difference between student’s and students’ was not a source of any confusion: leorning-cnihtes versus leorning-cnihta.

Scroll to Top