Book Review: 'Making a Point – The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation'

Making a Point cover

People often ask why grammar is so complex. The answer is simple: because we want to express complex thoughts. If all we wanted to say was ‘Me Tarzan. You Jane’, it wouldn’t be complex at all. 
David Crystal, Making a Point – The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation

For those unfamiliar with his work, David Crystal is considered a guru in English language circles. His use of plain language means this book is designed for word-lovers at all levels.

A quick scan down the table of contents tells you it’s not a dry instruction manual, with chapter headings such as ‘Is there a punctuation system?’, ‘Breath, blood and spirits’ and ‘Interfering with Jane Austen’. This is closely followed by a preliminary dialogue that will have editors scrabbling for red pens. From the onset I’m hooked – even if it’s for the need to read on to see correctly structured sentences.

It’s a journey through the history and use of punctuation. It starts with the introduction of spaces into text to define different words, and continues through the formation of various punctuation marks. There are even discussions on the different ways we use language over the internet today.

The book is peppered with anecdotes and quotes from the most obscure of sources.

For example, a quote from Mark Twain [p. 343]:

‘What is one man’s comma is another man’s colon.’

In a more modern reference, we see the Urban Dictionary’s list of various acts of apostrophe misuse, and their meanings. As my audience is editors, I chose the following [p. 293]:

Apostrophury, the ‘feeling that is evoked in grammarians and other sensible people when they see apostrophes misused’.

But the book goes much deeper than a light-hearted commentary. It asks about punctuation’s role alongside other components of a sentence; something many of us don’t consciously think about when looking at placing a point on a page. Could I have used a comma instead of a semicolon? Why use quotation marks at all? Do questions need question marks?

The following quote, in a discussion about punctuation’s early history, is by Ben Jonson from the early 1600s [p. 50]:

‘Prosody, and orthography, are not parts of grammar, but diffused like the blood and spirits of the whole.’

This quote is symbolic of Crystal’s approach to describing punctuation. He explains it in many different ways as being one of the many parts of a whole.

I thought at one point (no pun intended) that I’d found a criticism of the book. The chapter ended and I turned the page to see a new topic. I was busy grumbling, I think that section needed more, and my grumbles turned to giggles. Crystal had continued explaining how all the information on punctuation could not be included in one book.

Crystal is masterful in his way with words and knowledge of the subject, but also in judging his audience.

The history of punctuation was interesting on its own, but the addition of Crystal’s commentary, examples and experience allowed me to glean a better understanding of punctuation’s purpose.

As I turned the last page I felt I was leaving a world of familiar characters – like those in a good novel. In this case I was rising from a comfy leather chair in David Crystal’s study, and was saddened by the goodbye to a friend with whom I’d shared so much.

This book is essential for anyone who works with words.

Louise Zedda-Sampson

Making a Point – The Pernickety Story of English Punctuation, David Crystal, Profile Books, London, 2015.