Monday, November 30, 2015
I never thought I would say this, but my favorite book this year is about punctuation. That’s right. Punctuation! The book is Making a Point: The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation, by David Crystal, and it's well worth reading.
It’s an enjoyable romp through the English language, with limited attention to writing in other languages as well. (I just placed something in a German English-language publication and discovered that Germans don’t know how to “correctly” use quotation marks.)
This isn’t a rule book; Crystal talks about current usage, including areas where the “experts” disagree. (Oxford comma, anyone?) But he also covers the history—how the use of punctuation has evolved over time. One of the book's recurring themes is how two functions of punctuation--clarifying the writer's meaning and providing cues to speakers--can sometimes be at odds.
The history is fascinating. I have to admit that, after reading this book and seeing what excellent writers have done in the past, it’s harder to argue for a prescriptive position. I don’t always agree with Crystal’s position on disputed issues, but his case is always cogent.
Crystal covers all the major punctuation marks: , , ;, :, . . . , ., and ( ). (Yes, I did write this sentence just to see what it would look like.) But he also covers other lesser-known punctuation marks that have fallen into disuse, as well as the use of capital letters and spacing. (I was surprised to learn that early Anglo-Saxon writing often didn’t have spacing between words.)
I’m a writing geek, so I love to read books like this. But this book isn’t just for people like me. Anyone who writes for a living or wants to write for a living—and that includes all lawyers and law students—should read this book. Making a Point is entertaining and informative, and the writing is clear. (I almost restrained the urge to write “crystal-clear.”) Check it out.