top of page

MY POST

  • Writer's pictureGalina Blankenship

The Old Style of Punctuation in English: What Has Changed Over the Past Century?

Updated: Jun 26, 2023

The main difference between the old school of punctuation in English and its current counterpart is the way we understand and use writing. For a long time, writing was viewed as an extension of speech, and punctuation as an unsystematic, and the inevitably inadequate, way to represent speech intonation and pauses. Nowadays, however, grammarians and editors are inclined to view writing as reflecting not the way we speak but the way we read—more specifically, the way we read silently.


A painting by E. Percy Moran titled "A fair puritan" depicting a young girl wearing puritan clothes.
"A Fair Puritan" by E. Percy Moran


English Punctuation is at Least 200 Years Old


Until the end of the Middle Ages, reading, as we know it, did not exist. Texts were recorded with the sole purpose of being read aloud by orators or chanted by priests. Initially written all in uppercase and without any gaps, European oratorial texts were subsequently marked (punctuated) to signal where to take a breath, where to pause, and how long to pause for.

As an aid in reading aloud, early punctuation was used to delineate the speech rhythm rather than the grammatical structure of a written text.

In Europe, following the spread of Christianity, punctuation marks initially emerged as a way to signal pauses of varying lengths in the Bible and other religious manuscripts written in Latin (a dead language by then) so that the word of God could be read aloud—and, more importantly, accurately!—even by those who did not know Latin.


In England, punctuation marks further developed as part of the printing era (c. 1450–1800), which, in combination with the burgeoning capitalism, spurred public literacy and promoted silent reading (as opposed to reading aloud). English punctuation, in particular, owes its standardization to the work of printers and grammarians, and subsequently to the guidelines set by publishing houses.

In the second half of the 17th century, the English punctuation system was further reworked and augmented as part of a uniform writing system for a growing population of silent readers. Despite or maybe because of the growing formalism in writing, punctuation marks eventually came to reflect the grammatical (or syntactical) rather than the prosodic (or spoken) aspects of the text.

Today’s writing in English lacks many of the commas that weighed down eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English prose. In fact, the overall tendency in recent years has been towards an increasingly logical, and not prosodic, punctuation style.

 

Prosodical vs. Logical Punctuation


In the past, English writers used to mark every prosodic pause and indicate boundaries between all intonational units, regardless of whether such pauses caused a break in a unit (phrase).


Nowadays, however, grammarians and editors are inclined to view writing as reflecting not the way we speak but the way we read—more specifically, the way we read silently. In other words, rather than representing the rhythms of our speech, including pauses and intonational patterns occurring in speech, the current understanding of punctuation is that it should match the way we parse (scan) text with our eyes and use our inner voice to vocalize what we read.

Rather than representing the rhythms and intonational patterns that occur in speech, the current punctuation system in English, and in other languages, represents the way we read silently. This way, it reflects grammar and logic.

Just as we speak in chunks, or intonational units, we also read by scanning in manageable, albeit longer, chunks, which we mark using punctuation. By dividing written text into scannable and meaningful information units, punctuation provides structural constraints on construction of clauses and sentences, which is, incidentally, how we understand the function of grammar.


So, because reading is faster than speaking, the current English punctuation system marks up larger chunks of information comparing to the old system, or, to put it bluntly, English sentences have less punctuation marks now than in the past.

 

The Old Style of Punctuation in English: What Was Different?


Today, a single phrase is forbidden from being disrupted by any element—unless such an element is either an integrated modifier (for example, an adjectival or an adverbial) or a parenthetical supplement enclosed by paired punctuation marks to help readers bridge over the disruption and maintain continuity of the thought.


Just as there are prosodical pauses that are not reflected in today’s punctuation conventions, there are also punctuation-marked positions in English syntaxis that are not prosodically matched. Overall, the tendency in today’s punctuation system in English is towards a “lighter” markup of written text.

The prosodical pauses that used to be marked in English writing in the past but are now forbidden include:

On the other hand, some information units, which are typically short but distinctive ones, may not have a prosodic analogue. Syntactically separate, they are now marked by punctuation, although this was not the case in the past. Specifically, an interrupting reporting clause is often syntactically as well as prosodically blended with the main clause. This is probably why parenthetical reporting clauses lacked enclosing punctuation in the past:

Some units are neither disruptive as interrupting elements nor fully integrated as integral dependents:

Embedded constructions, whether short adverbial phrases or long complement or adverbial clauses, often blend into the mainstream syntax, without any prosodic marking. What’s puzzling, however, is that English writers used to almost always isolate shorter embedded structures, especially adverbials expressing time, place, manner, etc., while completely dismissing embedded clauses. Today, things work the other way around:

English writers used semicolon where we now use comma, including with:

Colon was often used where we would now use a semicolon or period, including in:

Moreover, in the past, English writers approached differently the following constructions:

 

Prosody vs. Logic: Broken Continuity


Long Subjects


Subjects become longer if they are modified using a postmodifying prepositional phrase or a relative clause. Naturally, subjects formed as clauses or compound subjects are also longer:

Subject with a Postmodifying Relative Clause


Old punctuation style:

The objects he had lately pursued, turned worthless beside her ...

Charles Dickens, Hard Times

Current punctuation style:

The objects he had lately pursued turned worthless beside her ...

Charles Dickens, Hard Times
 

Old punctuation style:

But this august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes.

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Current punctuation style:

But this august dignity I treat of is not the dignity of kings and robes.

Herman Melville, Moby Dick
 

Subject with a Postmodifying Phrase


Old punctuation style:

The good taste of the present age, has not allowed us to neglect the cultivation of the English language.

Joseph Robertson, “An Essay on Punctuation

Current punctuation style:

The good taste of the present age has not allowed us to neglect the cultivation of the English language.

Joseph Robertson, “An Essay on Punctuation
 

Clausal Subject


Old punctuation style:

Whoever is capable of forgetting a benefit, is an enemy to society.

Joseph Robertson, “An Essay on Punctuation

Current punctuation style:

Whoever is capable of forgetting a benefit is an enemy to society.

Joseph Robertson, “An Essay on Punctuation”
 

Compound Subject


Old punctuation style:

The most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humor, are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.

Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Current punctuation style:

The most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humor are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.

Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey
 

Subject as a Nominalized Adjective + Comparison Phrase


Old punctuation style:

Only the most unprejudiced of men like Stubb, nowadays partake of cooked whales.

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Current punctuation style:

Only the most unprejudiced of men like Stubb nowadays partake of cooked whales.

Herman Melville, Moby Dick
 

Subject Modified by a Relative Clause Embedded in a Participle Clause


Old punctuation style:

The front of the house overlooking that portion of the lawn with which we are concerned, was not the entrance-front; this was in quite another quarter.

Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady

Current punctuation style:

The front of the house overlooking that portion of the lawn with which we are concerned was not the entrance-front; this was in quite another quarter.

Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady
 

Content That-Clauses Used as Complements


Content Clause with a Delayed That-Complement (So… That…)


Old punctuation style:

Mr. Bennet was [so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humor, reserve, and caprice, that the experience of three-and-twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character].

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Current punctuation style:

Mr. Bennet was [so odd a mixture of quick parts, sarcastic humor, reserve, and caprice that the experience of three-and-twenty years had been insufficient to make his wife understand his character].

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
 

Content Clause with a Delayed That-Complement (Such… That…)


Old punctuation style:

... Mrs. Sparsit received into her mind, set off with [such an unavoidable halo of confusion and indistinctness, that when at length he climbed the fence and led his horse away, she was not sure where they were to meet, or when, except that they had said it was to be that night].

Charles Dickens, Hard Times

Current punctuation style

... Mrs. Sparsit received into her mind, set off with [such an unavoidable halo of confusion and indistinctness that, when at length he climbed the fence and led his horse away, she was not sure where they were to meet or when, except that they had said it was to be that night].

Charles Dickens, Hard Times
 

Postponed Predicative Complement That-Clause


Old punctuation style:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

Current punctuation style:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
 

Old punctuation style:

My mother had a sure foreboding at the second glance, that it was Miss Betsey.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

Current punctuation style:

My mother had a sure foreboding at the second glance that it was Miss Betsey.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
 

Prepositional Complement That-Clause (On the Ground That…)


Old punctuation style:

My father had once been a favorite of hers, I believe; but she was mortally affronted by his marriage, on the ground that my mother was “a wax doll.”

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

Current punctuation style:

My father had once been a favorite of hers, I believe, but she was mortally affronted by his marriage on the ground that my mother was “a wax doll.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
 

Integrated Canonical Adverbial Clauses


When-Clause (Time)

Old punctuation style:

The tremendous rain occasioned infinite confusion, when the train stopped at its destination.

Charles Dickens, Hard Times

Current punctuation style:

The tremendous rain occasioned infinite confusion when the train stopped at its destination.

Charles Dickens, Hard Times
 

As-Clause (Time)


Old punctuation style:

Before I dozed off, I was going to tell you what Mr. and Mrs. Tulliver were talking about, as they sat by the bright fire in the left-hand parlor, on that very afternoon I have been dreaming of.

George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss

Current punctuation style:

Before I dozed off, I was going to tell you what Mr. and Mrs. Tulliver were talking about as they sat by the bright fire in the left-hand parlor on that very afternoon I have been dreaming of.

George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss
 

Coordinating Conjunction Used as a Discourse Connective


Old punctuation style:

But, Mrs. Sparsit was wrong in her calculation.

Charles Dickens, Hard Times

Current punctuation style:

But Mrs. Sparsit was wrong in her calculation.

Charles Dickens, Hard Times
 

Syndetic Parallel, Equal Items


We use a specific type of intonation when listing things. We raise the voice after each item in the list, and for the final item, we let the voice fall. This is particularly clear in polysyndetic and correlative coordination. A natural reading of a list will have a prosodic break before each and:


He invited his brother and his sister and his mother.

He invited his brother | and his sister | and his mother.


For this reason, English writers, even nowadays, often mark the second added item with a comma, as an afterthought supplement:


He invited his brother and his sister, and his mother.


The natural intonation break occurs before the coordinator (not after), which explains why the Oxford comma used to be common occurrence in English literature, whether British or American.


Compound Predicate


Not all English grammarians agree that sentences with a compound predicate should be labeled simple. This is largely a traditional view. Transformational grammarians in English tend to classify such constructions as compound sentences with an elided (implied) subject in the second clause. Interestingly enough, English writers used to understand sentences with compound predicates as transformational grammarians interpret them now.


Old punctuation style:

Louisa got into no coach, and was already gone.

Charles Dickens, Hard Times

Current punctuation style:

Louisa got into no coach and was already gone.

Charles Dickens, Hard Times

Nowadays, sentences with a compound predicate (and/or an elided subject) can have a comma separate the coordinate verbs in special cases, namely, if:

  • The action in the second half of the predicate takes place considerably later than the action in the first half, so the comma signals the passing of time.

  • The second part of such constructions has a sense of an afterthought, an unexpected resolution, or a surprising turn of events.

  • The absence of a comma could cause momentary misreading.

For example, below, Emerson seems to have added the second predicate as an afterthought, while Payne makes a surprising addition of the last predicate, which is also separated by the passing of time from the previous actions of the main subject:


Every man is a consumer, and ought to be a producer.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Wealth

He is born, goes to school, marries, has children, quarrels with his fellows, suffers the same defeats which afflict his contemporaries, and dies.

Robert Payne, The Christian Centuries

In these examples, however, the comma before the last predicate does not seem to fit into any of the patterns I have listed:


Old punctuation style:

At all risks of being run over, I must see the number, and hear the order given to the coachman.

Charles Dickens, Hard Times

Current punctuation style:

At all risks of being run over, I must see the number and hear the order given to the coachman.

Charles Dickens, Hard Times
 

Old punctuation style:

Mrs. Sparsit saw him detain her with his encircling arm, and heard him then and there, within her (Mrs. Sparsit’s) greedy hearing, tell her how he loved her ...

Charles Dickens, Hard Times

Current punctuation style:

Mrs. Sparsit saw him detain her with his encircling arm and heard him then and there, within her (Mrs. Sparsit’s) greedy hearing, tell her how he loved her

Charles Dickens, Hard Times
 

Compound Complement How-Clauses


Old punctuation style:

Mrs. Sparsit saw him detain her with his encircling arm, and heard him then and there, within her (Mrs. Sparsit’s) greedy hearing, tell her how he loved her, and how she was the stake for which he ardently desired to play away all that he had in life.

Charles Dickens, Hard Times

Current punctuation style:

Mrs. Sparsit saw him detain her with his encircling arm and heard him then and there, within her (Mrs. Sparsit’s) greedy hearing, tell her how he loved her and how she was the stake for which he ardently desired to play away all that he had in life.

Charles Dickens, Hard Times
 

Compound Adverbial Similarity Like-Clauses


Old punctuation style:

She vanished like a discontented fairy; or like one of those supernatural beings whom it was popularly supposed I was entitled to see; and never came back any more.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

Current punctuation style:

She vanished like a discontented fairy or like one of those supernatural beings whom, it was popularly supposed, I was entitled to see, and never came back anymore.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
 

Unmarked Gaps


Reporting Clause


Reporting clauses are often positioned sentence-medially, as interrupting supplements, similar to comment clauses, especially in news reporting and journalism (motivated by typographical space-saving). They may, at times, syntactically (and intonationally) blend with the main clause, which probably explains why Dickens did not enclose the clause it was popularly supposed by commas. This would certainly be revised now:


Old punctuation style:

She vanished like a discontented fairy; or like one of those supernatural beings whom it was popularly supposed I was entitled to see; and never came back any more.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

Current punctuation style:

She vanished like a discontented fairy or like one of those supernatural beings whom, it was popularly supposed, I was entitled to see, and never came back anymore.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield


Reporting Clause = Comment Clause


Syntactically, a reporting clause is similar to a comment clause. They both are structured as incomplete sentences and become supplemental when positioned medially or finally. Semantically, however, a comment clause is subjective, whereas a reporting clause tends to express a neutral, objective perspective. Interestingly, comment clauses, which are often used in speech, are generally marked prosodically by increased speed and lowered pitch, but not by pauses.


Nevertheless, they seem to have always been understood as parenthetical—probably because they almost always interrupt the main clause. While in the past the common comment clauses were I supposed, I say, I dare say, or I fancy (per below), nowadays, they are rather: I believe, I think, I know, you see, etc.:


Old punctuation style:

That honest wagoner is thinking of his dinner, getting sadly dry in the oven at this late hour; but he will not touch it till he has fed his horses,—the strong, submissive, meek-eyed beasts, who, I fancy, are looking mild reproach at him from between their blinkers, that he should crack his whip at them in that awful manner as if they needed that hint!

George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss

Current punctuation style 1:

That honest wagoner is thinking of his dinner, getting sadly dry in the oven at this late hour, but he will not touch it till he has fed his horses, the strong, submissive, meek-eyed beasts, who, I fancy, are looking mild reproach at him from between their blinkers that he should crack his whip at them in that awful manner as if they needed that hint!

George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss

Current punctuation style 2:

That honest wagoner is thinking of his dinner, getting sadly dry in the oven at this late hour, but he will not touch it till he has fed his horsesthe strong, submissive, meek-eyed beasts, who, I fancy, are looking mild reproach at him from between their blinkers that he should crack his whip at them in that awful manner as if they needed that hint!

George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss
 

Embedding: Pseudo-Supplementation and Overlapping Dependents


Just how prosody differs from logic (grammar) can be illustrated by the instances of embedding. Embedded constructions, whether short adverbial phrases or long complements or adverbial clauses, may blend into the mainstream syntax, without any prosodic marking. Yet, they are grammatically distinctive constructions, and nowadays, English writers tend to mark them with punctuation—for the purely syntactical reasons.


One of the commonly embedded constructions is the complement that-clause, which was hardly ever marked in the past. Other embedded constructions that do not often generate a prosodical intonation and/or pause are adverbial phrases or adverbial clauses. These and other embedded constructions are often a part of the so-called head-with-two-dependents constructions.


What's interesting is that, in the past, English writers tended to note and isolate the shorter adverbials expressing time, place, manner, direction, or instrument (especially through-phrases, for example), while almost always dismissing the heavier embedded complement that-clauses and adverbial clauses.


Needless to say, these days, things work the other way around.


A Head With Two Dependents


Just how the conventions have changed can be illustrated by this beautiful sentence from Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. This example is especially fascinating because of the head-with-two-dependents construction used. This is typically about heads with obligatory dependents, such as objects and complements, but also about heads with obligatory and optional modifiers, such as adverbials and adjective attributes:


Old punctuation style:

I found that [to keep her thoroughly in the grip of this] I had only to ask her how, if I had “made it up,” I came to be able to give, [of each of the persons appearing to me], [a picture disclosing], [to the last detail], [their special marks]—a portrait on the exhibition of which she had instantly recognized and named them.

Henry James, The Turn of the Screw

Current punctuation style:

I found that, [to keep her thoroughly in the grip of this], I had only to ask her how, if I had “made it up,” I came to be able to give [of each of the persons appearing to me] [a picture disclosing] [to the last detail] [their special marks]—a portrait on the exhibition of which she had instantly recognized and named them.

Henry James, The Turn of the Screw

In speech, we tend to use intonation to signal such constructions. In writing, we may use enclosing punctuation. For example, if we break the sentence into manageable chunks:


1. Here is the major difference between the old style and the new style of punctuation: the enclosing of the embedded that-clause:


Old punctuation style:

I found that to keep her thoroughly in the grip of this I had only to ask her ...


Current punctuation style:

I found that, to keep her thoroughly in the grip of this, I had only to ask her ...


2. Another major difference can be traced in the handling of the heads with two dependents. Below, head A and head C each have their own two dependents (modifying possessive of-phrase (A1) and modifying adverbial -ing participial clause (A2) / direct object (C1) and adverbial phrase (C2), respectively):


Head A: (to give) a picture:


Dependent A1: of each of the persons (Head B/Dependent B2)

Dependent B1: appearing to me

Dependent B2/Head B: the special marks


Dependent A2: disclosing (Head C)

Dependent C1: their special marks

Dependent C2: to the last detail


What complicates things is that one of the dependents of head A is itself the head (head B) in relations with two phrases, B1 and B2. The relations between Head B and Dependent B2 are interchangable, however, which is confusing. As we can see, dependency relations are intrinsically recursive, or repetitive, i.e., one embedding structure can contain another embedding structure, arguably, without a limit.


Here is how the sentence can be rephrased in a way that is easier to read:


Rephrased version (for clear reading):

I found that, to keep her thoroughly in the grip of this, I had only to ask her, if I had “made it up,” how I came to be able to give for each of the persons appearing to me a picture that was disclosing to the last detail each of these persons' special marks—or (virtually) a portrait on the exhibition of which she had instantly recognized and named them.


There are many instances in today's writing style when a head with two dependents effectively utilizes enclosing punctuation. However, these days, the acceptable approach is based on this rationalization: if a sentence can be understood without any punctuation, then no punctuation is needed.


In another example, however, isolating a dependent is required to prevent potential misreading:


Old punctuation style:

I can make no claim therefore to have known, [at that time], how matters stood; or to have any remembrance, founded on the evidence of my own senses, of what follows.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

Current punctuation style:

I can make no claim therefore to have known [at that time] how matters stood or to have any remembrance, founded on the evidence of my own senses, of what follows.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

In the above sentence, the heads with two dependents each are serial items, to have known and to have any remembrance. While the first head requires no punctuation to connect clearly with its two dependents, the second head must have the first dependent enclosed with commas so that it can also clearly connect with the second dependent while preventing the reader from (mis)reading the dependents as a single unit (*founded on the evidence of my own senses of what follows):


Head A: to have known:

Dependent A1: at that time

Dependent A2: how matters stood


Head B: to have any remembrance:

Dependent B1: founded on the evidence of my own senses

Dependent B1: of what follows


Enclosing punctuation is normally used to set off, or isolate, any extraneous or intrusive elements (supplements) that do not structurally fit into the syntax of the main sentence. Here, however, the isolated element is not parenthetical or supplemental at all. On the contrary, it's an essential modifier of the object complement.


Yet, grammatically, it makes a perfect sense to employ the enclosing commas around the first dependent as if it's a parenthetical supplement (which in speech may as well be pronounced with the lowered voice, as with any other parenthetical constructions) as a pseudo-supplementary device:

  • The first comma disconnects and the second comma then reconnects the reader with the main sentence. (If we read it out loud, we would inevitably emphasize the word on each side of the interruption to maintain continuity of the thought.)

  • The second comma also ensures that the reader does not mistakenly combines the dependents into a single unit. So, in addition to being part of the enclosing device, this comma also functions as a disambiguator (remover of ambiguity).

  • Thus, the enclosing commas help the reader bridge the gap between the structurally connected parts of the main sentence that come before and after the enclosed (isolated) constituent. The proximity of both the dependents to the head is sufficient for the reader to unmistakably link them to the head despite the punctuation, while the punctuation itself clearly signals which constituents are, in fact, the dependents of the head.

Here is another magnificently convoluted sentence from Henry James, which can certainly benefit from fewer commas:


Old punctuation style:

“You do know, you dear thing,” I replied; only you haven’t my dreadful boldness of mind, and you keep back, out of timidity and modesty and delicacy, even the impression that, in the past, when you had, without my aid, to flounder about in silence, most of all made you miserable.

Henry James, The Turn of the Screw

Current punctuation style (admittedly, in my interpretation):

“You do know, you dear thing,” I replied. Only you haven’t my dreadful boldness of mind, and you keep back out of timidity and modesty and delicacy even the impression that in the past, when you had without my aid to flounder about in silence, most of all made you miserable.

Henry James, The Turn of the Screw


A head with two attribute modifiers may also skip on a comma between them:


Old punctuation style:

He was neatly dressed, in well-brushed black; but a shawl was folded upon his knees, and his feet were encased in thick, embroidered slippers.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

Current punctuation style:

He was neatly dressed in well-brushed black, but a shawl was folded upon his knees, and his feet were encased in thick, embroidered slippers.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
 

Intonational Pause Between the Verb and Its Complement


In another example, Dickens marked with a comma the intonational pause between the verb, felt confused, and its complement, at a part of myself, which now would certainly be prohibited:


Old punctuation style:

I was present myself, and I remember to have felt quite uncomfortable and confused, at a part of myself being disposed of in that way.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

Current punctuation style:

I was present myself, and I remember to have felt quite uncomfortable and confused at a part of myself being disposed of in that way.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
 

Semicolon vs. Comma in Complex Sentences


Of all the punctuation marks, a semicolon has been—rather unfairly—vilified. For a long time viewed as a signpost signaling a longer pause, it was believed to be a necessary attribute of any clause, whether independent or dependent, finite or nonfinite.


In the past, a semicolon was used to separate phrases from clauses or clauses from clauses. Nowadays, we use a comma, and not a semicolon, to separate a phrase from a phrase, or a phrase from a clause, or a dependent clause from another dependent clause, or a dependent clause from an independent clause. The only time when we use a semicolon now is in compound sentences, to separate one independent clause from another, and only if they are juxtaposed, i.e., connected without any coordinating conjunction.


Whether it’s a peripheral adverbial clause, a sentential relative clause, or a supplemental (parenthetical) nonfinite clause, we must use comma(s).



Sentential or Peripheral Clauses


Supplemental Sentential Relative Clause


Old punctuation style:

It suited me too, I felt, only too well; by which I mean that it suited exactly the particularly deadly view I was in the very act of forbidding myself to entertain.

Henry James, The Turn of the Screw

Current punctuation style:

It suited me too, I felt, only too well, by which I mean that it suited exactly the particularly deadly view I was in the very act of forbidding myself to entertain.

Henry James, The Turn of the Screw
 

Peripheral Since-Clause (Expressing a Presupposed Reason)

Old punctuation style:

His good looks and his rank had one fair claim on his attachment; since to them he must have owed a wife of very superior character to any thing deserved by his own.

Jane Austen, Persuasion

Current punctuation style:

His good looks and his rank had one fair claim on his attachment, since to them he must have owed a wife of very superior character to anything deserved by his own.

Jane Austen, Persuasion
 

Peripheral Though-Clause (and a Pair of To-Infinitive Clauses)


Old punctuation style:

“Your cruel commands are implicitly to be obeyed; though I am the most unfortunate fellow in the world, I believe, [to have been insensible to all other women], and [to have fallen prostrate at last under the foot of the most beautiful, and the most engaging, and the most imperious].”

Charles Dickens, Hard Times

Current punctuation style:

“Your cruel commands are implicitly to be obeyed, though I am the most unfortunate fellow in the world, I believe, [to have been insensible to all other women] and [to have fallen prostrate at last under the foot of the most beautiful, and the most engaging, and the most imperious].”

Charles Dickens, Hard Times
 

Peripheral So That-Clause (Result) (and Embedding of when-clause)


Old punctuation style:

What I had said to Mrs. Grose was true enough: there were in the matter I had put before her depths and possibilities that I lacked resolution to sound; so that [when we met once more in the wonder of it] we were of a common mind about the duty of resistance to extravagant fancies.

Henry James, The Turn of the Screw

Current punctuation style:

What I had said to Mrs. Grose was true enough: there were in the matter I had put before her depths and possibilities that I lacked resolution to sound, so that, [when we met once more in the wonder of it], we were of a common mind about the duty of resistance to extravagant fancies.

Henry James, The Turn of the Screw
 

Supplemental-Ing Participial Clause (a Free Modifier)


Old punctuation style:

I closed with her cordially on the article of the likelihood that with recurrence—for recurrence we took for granted—I should get used to my danger; distinctly professing that my personal exposure had suddenly become the least of my discomforts.

Henry James, The Turn of the Screw

Current punctuation style:

I closed with her cordially on the article of the likelihood that with recurrence—for recurrence we took for granted—I should get used to my danger, distinctly professing that my personal exposure had suddenly become the least of my discomforts.

Henry James, The Turn of the Screw
 

Semicolon vs. Comma in Compound Sentences


In the past, a semicolon was used between syndetically linked clauses. Today, we use a semicolon only between independent clauses linked asyndetically (i.e., without a conjunction).


Syndetic Compound Sentence


Old punctuation style:

But I do not at all complain of having been kept out of this property; and if anybody else should be in the present enjoyment of it, he is heartily welcome to keep it.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

Current punctuation style (heavier punctuation style):

But I do not at all complain of having been kept out of this property, and, if anybody else should be in the present enjoyment of it, he is heartily welcome to keep it.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

Current punctuation style (lighter punctuation style):

But I do not at all complain of having been kept out of this property, and if anybody else should be in the present enjoyment of it, he is heartily welcome to keep it.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
 

Old punctuation style:

He was neatly dressed, in well-brushed black; but a shawl was folded upon his knees, and his feet were encased in thick, embroidered slippers.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

Current punctuation style:

He was neatly dressed in well-brushed black, but a shawl was folded upon his knees, and his feet were encased in thick, embroidered slippers.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
 

Semicolon vs. Colon to Introduce a List


Old punctuation style:

One of these was a remarkably well-made man of five-and-thirty, with a face as English as that of the old gentleman I have just sketched was something else; a noticeably handsome face, fresh-coloured, fair, and frank, with firm, straight features, a lively grey eye, and the rich adornment of a chestnut beard.

Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady

Current punctuation style:

One of these was a remarkably well-made man of five-and-thirty, with a face as English as that of the old gentleman I have just sketched was something else: a noticeably handsome face, fresh-coloured, fair, and frank, with firm, straight features, a lively grey eye, and the rich adornment of a chestnut beard.

Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady
 

Excessive Enclosing of Adverbials


Time Adverbial


Old punctuation style:

I can make no claim therefore to have known, at that time, how matters stood; or to have any remembrance, founded on the evidence of my own senses, of what follows.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

Current punctuation style:

I can make no claim therefore to have known at that time how matters stood or to have any remembrance, founded on the evidence of my own senses, of what follows.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
 

Place Adverbial


Old punctuation style:

The setting sun was glowing on the strange lady, over the garden-fence, and she came walking up to the door with a fell rigidity of figure and composure of countenance that could have belonged to nobody else.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

Current punctuation style:

The setting sun was glowing on the strange lady over the garden-fence, and she came walking up to the door with a fell rigidity of figure and composure of countenance that could have belonged to nobody else.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
 

Manner Adverbial


Old punctuation style:

The caul was won, I recollect, by an old lady with a hand-basket, who, very reluctantly, produced from it the stipulated five shillings, all in halfpence, and twopence halfpenny shortas it took an immense time and a great waste of arithmetic, to endeavor without any effect to prove to her.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

Current punctuation style:

The caul was won, I recollect, by an old lady with a hand-basket, who very reluctantly produced from it the stipulated five shillings, all in halfpence, and twopence halfpenny shortas it took an immense time and a great waste of arithmetic to endeavor, without any effect, to prove to her.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
 

Old punctuation style:

The shadows on the perfect lawn were straight and angular; they were the shadows of an old man sitting in a deep wickerchair near the low table on which the tea had been served, and of two younger men strolling to and fro, in desultory talk, in front of him.

Henry James,The Portrait of a Lady

Current punctuation style:

The shadows on the perfect lawn were straight and angular; they were the shadows of an old man sitting in a deep wickerchair near the low table on which the tea had been served and of two younger men strolling to and fro in desultory talk in front of him.

Henry James,The Portrait of a Lady
 

Appositive Listing, Double Punctuation


The recognition of the grammatical construction, called an appositive listing, when serial items are followed by a summarizing pronoun, like all, everything, these, etc., seems to be a recent development in English.


With appositive listings and other constructions, the common occurrence is double punctuation. It happens when boundary punctuation marks of overlapping constructions coincide, and this used to be acceptable in English writing. Now, the stronger punctuation mark absorbs the weaker one.


Old punctuation style:

Its pursuit, nevertheless, if it kept him near her, or its renunciation if it took him from her, or flight if she shared it, or secrecy if she commanded it, or any fate, or every fate, all was alike to him, so that she was true to him,—the man who had seen how cast away she was, whom she had inspired at their first meeting with an admiration, an interest, of which he had thought himself incapable, whom she had received into her confidence, who was devoted to her and adored her.

Charles Dickens, Hard Times

Current punctuation style:

Its pursuit, nevertheless, if it kept him near her, or its renunciation if it took him from her, or flight if she shared it, or secrecy if she commanded it, or any fate, or every fateall was alike to him, so that she was true to him, the man who had seen how cast away she was, whom she had inspired at their first meeting with an admiration, an interest, of which he had thought himself incapable, whom she had received into her confidence, who was devoted to her and adored her.

Charles Dickens, Hard Times
 

Dash vs. Comma After Fronted (Topicalized) Object with Interior Punctuation


In this long sentence, Dickens employs the technique of fronting by placing the object of the sentence before the subject Mrs. Sparsit. However, he places a dash after the object—probably because of the complex nature of the object, which has internal commas:


Old punctuation style:

[All this, and more, in his hurry, and in hers, in the whirl of her own gratified malice, in the dread of being discovered, in the rapidly increasing noise of heavy rain among the leaves, and a thunderstorm rolling up]Mrs. Sparsit received into her mind, set off with such an unavoidable halo of confusion and indistinctness, that when at length he climbed the fence and led his horse away, she was not sure where they were to meet, or when, except that they had said it was to be that night.

Charles Dickens, Hard Times

Nowadays, English writers avoid such complicated constructions, and the only acceptable punctuation that follows a fronted constituent, whether it’s an object or an adverbial, can only be a comma:


Current punctuation style

[All this, and more, in his hurry, and in hers, in the whirl of her own gratified malice, in the dread of being discovered, in the rapidly increasing noise of heavy rain among the leaves, and a thunderstorm rolling up], Mrs. Sparsit received into her mind, set off with such an unavoidable halo of confusion and indistinctness that, when at length he climbed the fence and led his horse away, she was not sure where they were to meet, or when, except that they had said it was to be that night.

Charles Dickens, Hard Times
 

Comma After Fronted Object without Interior Punctuation


In another sentence, Dickens places a comma after the fronted object that does not have any interior commas:


Old punctuation style:

[…] such success as was almost in his grasp, he flung away from him like the dirt it was, compared with her.

Charles Dickens, Hard Times

Current punctuation style:

[…] such success as was almost in his grasp, he flung away from him like the dirt it was, compared with her.

Charles Dickens, Hard Times
 

Semicolons with Direct Speech


Original quote:

“He denied; he denied.”


Old punctuation style:

She saw, visibly flushing, where I was coming out. “Well, he didn’t show anything. He denied,” she repeated; “he denied.”

Henry James, The Turn of the Screw

Current punctuation style:

She saw, visibly flushing, where I was coming out. “Well, he didn’t show anything. He denied,” she repeated, “he denied.”

Henry James, The Turn of the Screw
 

Original quote:

You do know, you dear thing; only you haven’t my dreadful boldness of mind, and you keep back, out of timidity and modesty and delicacy, even the impression that in the past, when you had, without my aid, to flounder about in silence, most of all made you miserable.


Old punctuation style:

“You do know, you dear thing,” I replied; “only you haven’t my dreadful boldness of mind, and you keep back, out of timidity and modesty and delicacy, even the impression that in the past, when you had, without my aid, to flounder about in silence, most of all made you miserable....”

Henry James, The Turn of the Screw

Current punctuation style:

“You do know, you dear thing,” I replied, “only you haven’t my dreadful boldness of mind, and you keep back, out of timidity and modesty and delicacy, even the impression that in the past, when you had, without my aid, to flounder about in silence, most of all made you miserable....”

Henry James, The Turn of the Screw
 

Long Sentences: Colon vs. Period

Nowadays, colon is used to signal that something else is to follow: an explanation or a list of items. In the past, however, English writers used colon to divide a long sentence in half, which now would be divided into separate sentences:


Old punctuation style:

Whether seagoing people were short of money about that time, or were short of faith and preferred cork jackets, I don’t know; all I know is, that there was but one solitary bidding, and that was from an attorney connected with the bill broking business, who offered two pounds in cash, and the balance in sherry, but declined to be guaranteed from drowning on any higher bargain.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

Current punctuation style:

Whether seagoing people were short of money about that time, or were short of faith and preferred cork jackets, I don’t know. All I know is that there was but one solitary bidding, and that was from an attorney connected with the bill-broking business, who offered two pounds in cash and the balance in sherry, but declined to be guaranteed from drowning on any higher bargain.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
 

Long Sentences: Semicolon vs. Period

Excessive Enclosing of Adverbials (in bold)


Old punctuation style:

My mother was sitting by the fire, but poorly in health, and very low in spirits, looking at it through her tears, and desponding heavily about herself and the fatherless little stranger, who was already welcomed by some grosses of prophetic pins, in a drawer up-stairs, to a world not at all excited on the subject of his arrival; my mother, I say, was sitting by the fire, that bright, windy March afternoon, very timid and sad, and very doubtful of ever coming alive out of the trial that was before her, when, lifting her eyes as she dried them, to the window opposite, she saw a strange lady coming up the garden.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

Current punctuation style:

My mother was sitting by the fire, but poorly in health and very low in spirits, looking at it through her tears and desponding heavily about herself and the fatherless little stranger, who was already welcomed by some grosses of prophetic pins in a drawer upstairs to a world not at all excited on the subject of his arrival. My mother, I say, was sitting by the fire that bright, windy March afternoon, very timid and sad(,) and very doubtful of ever coming alive out of the trial that was before her, when, lifting her eyes as she dried them to the window opposite, she saw a strange lady coming up the garden.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
 

Too Many Commas

When there are too many commas in the sentence, replacing some of them with dashes (or parentheses) can help the reader:

Old punctuation style:

A long gabled front of red brick, with the complexion of which time and the weather had played all sorts of picturesque tricks, only, however, to improve and refine it, presented itself to the lawn, with its patches of ivy, its clustered chimneys, its windows smothered in creepers.

Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady

Current punctuation style:

A long-gabled front of red brickwith the complexion of which time and the weather had played all sorts of picturesque tricks, only, however, to improve and refine itpresented itself to the lawn with its patches of ivy, its clustered chimneys, its windows smothered in creepers.

Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady
 

Old punctuation style:

This was the state of matters, on the afternoon of, what I may be excused for calling, that eventful and important Friday.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield

Current punctuation style:

This was the state of matters on the afternoon of what I may be excused for calling that eventful and important Friday.

Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
 

embroidered bird and flowers

コメント


bottom of page