PUNCTUATION AND THE SPOKEN WORD

As I have said, we do not speak spontaneously in sentences. The descriptive linguists observed that in every human utterance, various vocal pauses and changes in the pitch and stress of our stream of syllables give the listener a great many clues to our meaning. Some of these clues have been translated loosely into our punctuation code. Thus the "terminal juncture group" in speech (stress, pitch, and pause) translate to the period in writing. Think of the terminal juncture group as parallel to the full cadence in music; we know that "Down by the gas-house, free beer" goes no further; it has a musical conclusion. The equivalency of the terminal juncture to the period, however, may fail when the speaker's voice changes one or more of the sounds in the terminal group. Speakers don't always drop their voice when they pause, and a pause may come even in the middle of a word. If we try to translate the oral stream into written words, the result would very often be what the English teacher calls run-on sentences or fragments, grave errors that he corrects with punctuation. I have no scientific proof of the existence of silent mentally spoken words, but my own experience convinces me that I silently pronounce what I write as I write. And I silently pronounce both run-on sentences and fragments. I usually edit them mentally as I type to remove the "errors." When writing, I'm conscious of thinking in written form, in sentences. My earliest training in the rules of grammar taught me the classic form of the written English sentence, a subject followed by a verb and whatever goes with the verb, together with certain transformations. In short, I like my words to conform to conventional syntax. I punctuate accordingly.

When I silently pronounce sentences, I'm conscious of various kinds of pauses and also of the length of my thoughts. I believe I'm conscious of regulating the length of my sentences. When I feel that I have said enough for my mind to apprehend the proper shape of the thought, I pause. I type a period. I assume (guess, that is) that my reader follows the rhythm of my thoughts and sentences.

Contemporary writing by the most reputable authors reveals a great many run-on sentences and fragments. Editors nowadays seem to accept them readily, understanding that where writers place or do not place a period is a deliberate stylistic choice. Teachers, of course, do not dare to accept readily what may appear to be the student's ignorance of the code.

I opened a new book on my desk this morning (The Best American Essays 1995 ) and found without much searching the following passages from reputable contemporary writers. Ask yourself: In spite of their non-traditional punctuation, are the sentences decent? Would you change the punctuation? How would your teacher consider them? Does their punctuation convey any special meaning that you can express in another way?

This drama had to be played out by the rules of passion. She denied my allegations, I returned to the window. She got out of bed, her face wet with tears, to prevent me from leaving in anger. She had only a T-shirt on. (Joel Agee, p. 28)

The ambulance people came, and I whispered to them that I could not walk or sit up. Or breathe. They went down for a gurney and for oxygen. (Harold Brodkey, p. 42)

The exterior of the cathedral like the day outside, was large, suburban, bland. Inside were perhaps sixty quiet men, a few women, in a great dim space splashed with stained glass and saints, banners and candles and embroidered robes. Rituals of ancient times, employed to comfort the sufferers of the modern plague. (Dudley Clendinen, p. 66)

I think about food. Just boiled water for instant ramen noodles, threw out the spice packet and made my own sauce of watered-down ketchup, basil sesame seeds, and soy sauce. With oil, a drop or two. There're two pork chops in the refrigerator, rib ends at 1.99/lb, and these would be good later, with teriyaki sauce, pepper, and basil again, broiled with a spray of brown sugar when it's close to done, a spray done with the hand; watercress on the side, that's enough. And perhaps with wine. No potatoes, no night shade. No grains with the meat. (Josephine Foo, p. 93)

The kitchen was permanent, irredeemable, irresistible kink. Unassimilably African. No matter what you did, no matter how hard you tried, you couldn't de-kink a person's kitchen. So you trimmed it off as best you could. (Henry Louis Gates, p. 119)

It wasn't just the drama of the animals, it was the landscape. (Diana Kappel-Smith, p. 141)

E-mail and comments to:   Arnold Nelson

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