Punctuation in Context – Past and Present Perspectives

by Claudia Claridge (Volume editor) Merja Kytö (Volume editor)
©2020 Edited Collection 308 Pages
Series: Linguistic Insights, Volume 263


Punctuation is an integral element in writing and has been so for centuries. The present volume brings together approaches in linguistics, stylistics and other fields to highlight the rich repertoire of issues involved in the study of punctuation. The contributions to the book discuss the grammatical, pragmatic, rhetorical and stylistic functions of punctuation, such as encoding emotion, metalinguistic marking, foregrounding and paralinguistic indication. They also highlight the sensibility of punctuation to genre and the speech-writing continuum, as well as the important role punctuation plays for reader interpretation. They further demonstrate how punctuation conventions change in time. The data is drawn from English, with one investigation devoted to German.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the editors
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Multiple Functions and Contexts of Punctuation
  • Focus on Selected Punctuation Marks
  • Non-correlative Commas between Subjects and Verbs in Nineteenth-century Private Letters and Scientific Texts
  • Present-day English Hyphenation: Historical Origin, Functions and Pragmatics
  • How Omission Marks Mark Omission …: An Inquiry into the Graphematics/Pragmatics Interface
  • The Path Not Taken: Parentheses and Written Direct Speech in Early Modern Printed Books
  • Focus on Texts and Contexts
  • The Pragmatics of Punctuation: Parentheses and Austen’s Dialogic Techniques
  • Textual Form and Textual Function: Punctuation and the Reception of Early English Texts
  • Functions of Punctuation in Six Latin and English Versions of the Plague Treatise by John of Burgundy
  • ‘His maiestie chargeth, that no person shall engrose any maner of corne’: The Standardization of Punctuation in Early Modern English Legal Proclamations1
  • Exclamation Marks Then and Now: Early Modern and Present-day Textual Functions
  • Emotives: From Punctuation to Emojis
  • Bibliography
  • Index


Researchers are increasingly realizing that punctuation is a fascinating area to study! Research on punctuation offers a meeting ground for many approaches in linguistics, stylistics and other fields of investigation. Punctuation is manifested in written language but bears close affinities to spoken language, making it an intriguing interface for investigating the relationship between these mediums. Punctuation rules and conventions are taught to pupils at schools, and yet every writer can express nuances of meaning by applying punctuation marks in idiosyncratic or otherwise unconventional ways. This tension in using punctuation offers opportunities to explore the relationship of the precept and the habits of an individual language user, revealing new information on the innovative potential that is there in linguistic resources. The development of punctuation across centuries is yet another intriguing area of study: Not only usage but also the array of the actual punctuation marks are in constant flux, early punctuation devices falling in oblivion and new devices entering the scene.

The present volume collects together ten original studies of punctuation phenomena in English, with attention paid to German and Latin. Four of the papers were presented at the panel organized by the editors at the International Pragmatics Association Conference in Antwerp, Belgium, in July 2015, while the six others were commissioned especially for this publication.

We are indebted to generous help from research assistants at the Department of English, University of Augsburg, Julian Botzenhardt and Carolina Vasconsellos Billio Manhães de Azevedo, who kindly helped us to edit the chapter files and compile the comprehensive bibliography. We also acknowledge the administrative help at the Department of English, Uppsala University, and the grant from the Kungl. Vitterhets Historie och Antikvitetsakademien (The Royal Sweden Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities) contributing to covering the production costs of the book. Our thanks also go to the series editor, Professor ←7 | 8→Maurizio Gotti, who encouraged us to pursue this volume. Finally, we are grateful for the support of the editorial staff at Peter Lang.

Despite the amount of work already done in the area, there is still plenty to do in the rich resources available to researchers today, among them manuscript sources, early imprints, later printed sources, and electronic corpora and databases. We very much hope that the present book will provide a springboard for further study on punctuation phenomena, past and present, in English and in other languages.

The Editors

Claudia Claridge and Merja Kytö

Introduction: Multiple Functions and Contexts of Punctuation

1. Delimiting punctuation

Punctuation is neither a given nor a self-evident concept. First, for a long time writing made do without punctuation, which only evolved very gradually and is in fact still evolving. It is thus not indispensable to (written) language, but must have been perceived as advantageous by writers (and readers) for it to come into being. Secondly, what counts as punctuation or as a punctuation mark is not necessarily undisputed, i.e. there is no single agreed-on definition or inventory of marks. There is also variation in the use made of punctuation across different languages.

The definition, or better characterisation, of punctuation is usually achieved via giving its functions and listing punctuation symbols (the latter constituting an ‘extensive’ definition). There is agreement that punctuation fulfills both structural and semantic tasks (Parkes 1992: 1; Quirk et al. 1985: 1610–11; Nunberg et al. 2002: 1724), such as indicating grammatical structure and meaning, and resolving potential grammatical and semantic ambiguities. Parkes further points out that punctuation may either produce a certain effect on its own or reinforce an effect already produced by another item (e.g. question marks accompanying declaratives/fragments vs. interrogatives). Quirk et al. hive off the separation of linguistic units (e.g. by commas or parentheses) as a function distinct from more specific grammatical marking (such as indicating genitive) and also add a pragmatic function.1 An emotive or ←9 | 10→rhetorical function is, however, relegated to the margins by Quirk et al., as is the link to spoken prosody (1611).

While acknowledging the above descriptions of the functions of punctuation, the purpose of this book is to understand such functions in a broader sense, i.e. including structural-grammatical, textual / stylistic rhetorical, and attitudinal / emotive facets. This conglomeration of not always distinct and often overlapping functions together with its conventional nature makes punctuation a largely pragmatic phenomenon. While punctuation can be rule-governed (e.g. punctuation of relative clauses), many uses depend on (individual) stylistic preferences and on specific meaning intentions. In this sense, punctuation provides room for the expression of (inter)subjectivity. For Parkes (1992: 2) it is indeed by “invoking behavioural experience” that punctuation becomes a pragmatic feature of writing. Also, the use of punctuation, often in rather imaginative ways, in registers and genres close to the involved end of the spectrum (Biber 1988) and to the pole of the language of immediacy (Koch and Oesterreicher 1985), highlights the importance of functions beyond the structural-grammatical ones.

This wider outlook on the functional side has consequences for the inventory of the punctuation system to be considered. A larger inventory makes the term ‘punctuation indicator’ of Nunberg et al. useful, which embraces the segmental forms of punctuation marks and spaces, and the non-segmental types of various modifications, such as capitalization or bold-facing (2002: 1724).2 The punctuation marks listed by Nunberg et al. (2002: 1726) are provided in Table 1.

Table 1. Punctuation marks according to Nunberg et al. (arrangement ours)

. (full stop/period)

- (dashes of various lengths)

? (question mark)

, (comma)

“ ” (double quotation marks)

! (exclamation mark)

; (semi-colon)

‘ ’ (single quotation marks)

’ (apostrophe)

: (colon)

… (ellipsis points)

() (parentheses)

/ (slash)

[] (square brackets)

* (asterisk)


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (December)
punctuation mark pragmatics stylistics rhetorics grammar English
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 308 pp., 2 fig. col., 15 fig. b/w, 37 tables.

Biographical notes

Claudia Claridge (Volume editor) Merja Kytö (Volume editor)

Claudia Claridge is Professor of English linguistics at the University of Augsburg. Her research interests include the history of English with a focus on early and late Modern English, historical discourse studies, diachronic and synchronic pragmatics as well as corpus linguistics. Merja Kytö is Professor of English Language at Uppsala University, specializing in English historical linguistics, corpus linguistics, historical pragmatics, and manuscript studies. She has published extensively on Early and Late Modern English, with particular interest in speech-related texts.


Title: Punctuation in Context – Past and Present Perspectives
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310 pages