Book Review: Punctuation..?

So the good folks over at Userdesign asked me to review their newest volume, Punctuation..? and I was happy to oblige. Linguists rarely study punctuation (it falls under the sub-field orthography, or the study of writing systems) but what we do study is the way that language attitudes and punctuation come together. I’ve written before about language attitudes when it come to grammar instruction and the strong prescriptive attitudes of most grammar instruction books. What makes this book so interesting is that it is partly prescriptive and partly descriptive. Since a descriptive bent in a grammar instruction manual is rare, I thought I’d delve into that a bit.

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Image copyright Userdesign, used with permission. (Click for link to site.)

So, first of all, how about a quick review of the difference between a descriptive and prescriptive approach to language?

  • Descriptive: This is what linguists do. We don’t make value or moral judgments about languages or language use, we just say what’s going on as best we can. You can think of it like an anthropological ethnography: we just describe what’s going on. 
  • Prescriptive: This is what people who write letters to the Times do. They have a very clear idea of what’s “right” and “wrong” with regards to language use and are all to happy to tell you about it. You can think of this like a manner book: it tells you what the author thinks you should be doing. 

As a linguist, my relationship with language is mainly scientific, so I have a clear preference for a descriptive stance. An ichthyologist doesn’t tell octopi, “No, no, no, you’re doing it all wrong!” after all. At the same time, I live in a culture which has very rigid expectations for how an educated individual should write and sound, and if I want to be seen as an educated individual (and be considered for the types of jobs only open to educated individuals) you better believe I’m going to adhere to those societal standards. The problem comes when people have a purely prescriptive idea of what grammar is and what it should be. That can lead to nasty things like linguistic discrimination. I.e., language B (and thus all those individuals who speak language B) is clearly inferior to language A because they don’t do things properly. Since I think we can all agree that unfounded discrimination of this type is bad, you can see why linguists try their hardest to avoid value judgments of languages.

As I mentioned before, this book is a fascinating mix of prescriptive and descriptive snippets. For example, the author says this about exclamation points: “In everyday writing, the exclamation mark is often overused in the belief that it adds drama and excitement. It is, perhaps  the punctuation mark that should be used with the most restraint” (p 19). Did you notice that “should'”? Classic marker of a prescriptivist claiming their territory. But then you have this about Guillements: “Guillements are used in several languages to indicate passages of speech in the same way that single and double quotation marks (” “”) are used in the English language” (p. 22). (Guillements look like this, since I know you were wondering;  « and ». ) See, that’s a classical description of what a language does, along with parallels drawn to another, related, languages. It may not seem like much, but try to find a comparably descriptive stance in pretty much any widely-distributed grammar manual. And if you do, let me know so that I can go buy a copy of it. It’s change, and it’s positive change, and I’m a fan of it. Is this an indication of a sea-change in grammar manuals? I don’t know, but I certainly hope so.

Over all, I found this book fascinating (though not, perhaps, for the reasons the author intended!). Particularly because it seems to stand in contrast to the division that I just spent this whole post building up. It’s always interesting to see the ways that stances towards language can bleed and melt together, for all that linguists (and I include myself here) try to show that there’s a nice, neat dividing line between the evil, scheming prescriptivists and the descriptivists in their shining armor here to bring a veneer of scientific detachment to our relationship with language. Those attitudes can and do co-exist. Data is messy.  Language is complex. Simple stories (no matter how pretty we might think them) are suspicious. But these distinctions can be useful, and I’m willing to stand by the descriptivist/prescriptivist, even if it’s harder than you might think to put people in one camp or the others.

But beyond being an interesting study in language attitdues, it was a fun read. I learned lots of neat little factoids, which is always a source of pure joy for me. (Did you know that this symbol:  is called a Pilcrow? I know right? I had no idea either; I always just called it the paragraph mark.)

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What words are easy to say?

Ok, so in the last couple posts I’ve been throwing around terms like “easy to say” without giving a whole lot of explanation. And that’s a pity, because the study of what words are “easy” and what words are “hard” is, in my opinion, one of the greatest sub-disciplines in linguistics: phonotactics.

Imperial Russian soldier with phone
No, that's phone tactics, not phonotactics. They're completely different.
Phonotactics is like your great-aunt who always arranges the seating at family reunions becuase she remembers who fought with whom twenty years ago and knows not to sit them together. Basically, some sounds really like to be next to others. Like vowels. Vowels like to be next to everyone. In Japanese, for example, with a couple of exceptions, most syllables have to be made of a consonant plus a vowel. (In ling speak, this is known as “CV”. C for consonant, V for vowel. Yeah, unlike physicists, we like to keep things simple.) What’s even more amazing is that within six months of birth, Japanese infants prefer sounds that are CVCV to those that are CVCCV or CVCVC.

Polish, on the other hand, notoriously plays fast and loose with syllable structure. You can have consonant clusters up to five sounds long in Polish that, most weirdly, don’t follow the same sorts of rules that other languages do. Like English. English can have pretty big consonant clusters… but they’ll only get really big if the first or last sound in the word is ‘s’. (Protip: That’s why ‘s’ is such a great letter in scrabble; there’s a bunch of things you can slap it on to piggyback of someone else’s word, even outside of its morpheme status.) If you’ve ever stumbled over a Polish last name, there’s a sound linguistic reason you found it hard.

Why is this useful? Well, besides its obvious use in language teaching and being great cocktail party conversation material,  if you want to make a plausibly difficult-to-pronounce alien language, screw up your phonotactics and you’ll leave audio book readers in tears.