Shakespeare be damned! Punctuation matters!

Posted on January 20, 2012

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Seriously, Bill. Make up your mind!

The other day I was confronted with the “Shakespeare Argument” again.

The Shakespeare Argument is invoked by those on the “con” side of any debate about the importance of such niceties as spelling, grammar, and punctuation. It consists of an observation of things the Bard either did, or didn’t do that would be considered wrong by today’s language mavens. For instance: “Shakespeare didn’t always use apostrophes to show possession, and nobody seemed to mind.”

This often stops those arguing the “pro” side in their tracks, because the undeniable thing about the Shakespeare Argument is that it’s true.

Shakespeare used comma splices, double negatives, and engaged in a host of other grammatical travesties. On top of this, judging by the six surviving samples we have of his signature, he couldn’t even spell his name the same way twice.

But while true, the Shakespeare Argument is also completely irrelevant.

English: The Globe Theatre, London Shakespeare...

The reconstructed Globe Theatre. (Image via Wikipedia)

There is no denying that Shakespeare (or whoever wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare) was one of the brightest stars in the firmament of English literature. Not only do we still view his plays with awe centuries after those long-dead actors first performed them on the dusty floor boards of the Globe Theatre, but his skill with language was such that we still quote him with great frequency in our everyday speech. So “for goodness’ sake” (Henry VIII), it’s not like I’m unwilling to “give the devil his due” (Henry IV) and admit that few other writers can “hold a candle to him” (The Merchant of Venice). And I certainly don’t want to “throw cold water” (The Merry Wives of Windsor) on his “spotless reputation” (Richard III) as the “be-all and end-all” (Macbeth) of playwrights. That said, however, when it comes to grammar and punctuation rules, Shakespeare’s stature as a writer is “neither here nor there” (Othello).

And “thereby hangs a tale” (Othello).

You see, while the way we read today seems instinctive and somehow inevitable, the truth is, we used to read very differently.

For one thing — we didn’t read silently.

Plutarch records that Alexander the Great’s men were dumbfounded when they saw him silently reading a letter from his mother, and Ptolemy noted that people would occasionally read silently when they were in deep concentration.

But the first documentation of someone reading to himself on a regular basis occurs in Augustine’s Confessions. While teaching in Milan, Augustine was persuaded by his mother to visit her spiritual advisor, Bishop Ambrose. To Augustine’s surprise, however, the Bishop was almost always to be found alone, and reading without uttering a sound.

Now, as he read, his eyes glanced over the pages and his heart searched out the sense, but his voice and tongue were silent. Often when we came to his room–for no one was forbidden to enter, nor was it his custom that the arrival of visitors should be announced to him–we would see him thus reading to himself. (Augustine. Confessions, Book Six, Chapter Three.).

Bishop Ambrose doing his sneaky "silent-reading" thing. (Image from Catholic Radio Dramas:

But while the 4th century bishop may have been an early adopter of this new technique, it wasn’t until after the 10th century AD that the practice could be considered at all common.

Even then, for study purposes reading aloud was typical. Furthermore, the volume of written material was surprisingly small. Within the space of a few years, a good scholar could read and learn all there was to know about virtually every academic and theological subject in the Western world. With texts being learned more or less by rote, and a vocabulary comprising the languages of several conquering foreign nations, English didn’t have much in the way of a standard for either its spelling or punctuation.

By the time the printing press was introduced in the 15th century, not only was silent (and hence, faster) reading the norm, but there was a sudden explosion in the number of things to read. Printers and readers alike began demanding some kind of consistent standards in spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

Shakespeare, bless his heart, lived during the early part of this typographical and orthographical revolution. The subsequent increase in our reading speed and comprehension has created a corresponding increase in our need for “markers” along the way.

See? See? This is what can happen when punctuation gets messed up. (Image from Bookmice.com)

Think of it like driving. Narrow dirt roads with occasional hand-lettered signs were adequate when we were slowly lumbering along to a handful of familiar places in our ox-driven carts. However, when we began zipping along at 60 miles an hour over long distances, with interchanges appearing every couple of minutes, it became essential to have wide roads and plenty of large, standardized signs. Just as it would be detrimental for modern drivers to rely on the lax roadway and signage standards of an earlier era, so too is it detrimental for modern readers to rely on the lax grammatical and typographical standards of the same period.

A few years ago I presented my classes with sentences that were ambiguous due to missing or incorrect punctuation. To my surprise, the students who had the least problem understanding them were those who otherwise had very poor reading skills. I realised that because they were already struggling to comprehend the written word, a couple of extra obstacles made little difference. These same obstacles, however, threw the better readers completely off track — the way a large speed bump might send a fast car into the ditch.

As writers, it really isn’t all that difficult to become familiar with the rules of the literary road, and to use them effectively enough that we are not constantly dumping our readers into a ditch.

Shakespeare, like Chaucer before him, was a genius of his time. That said, however, he was not, and he never intended to be an authority on the proper use of punctuation and orthography. As writers, it is only fitting that we acknowledge his significant impact upon the literary scenery to which we strive to contribute. But in guiding our our readers through this landscape, we should have the decency to provide them with the most efficient and well-maintained roads at our disposal.

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