Punctuating the Way We Speak
Updated: Sep 28
Anyone who has used social media or a messenger for texting must have occasionally lamented the inadequacy of communication through written words, wishing they could express intonation or stressing in their messages. (For example, we still don't know how to express irony in writing.)
The newly developing digital communication has prompted linguists to study the effects of prosody—intonation, emphasis, pitch, length of pause, and loudness—on how we disambiguate (remove ambiguities from) speech.
As prosody studies have shown, in many world languages, pause serves as one of the most common means of disambiguation (clarifying and producing meaning). What's more, most people have been found to associate pause with comma.
The Spoken and the Written
We Speak and Breathe Using the Same Organs
Our ability to speak is an existential matter, as it is directly connected with our ability to breathe. In a relaxed state, our mind controls our breathing, without requiring our conscious input, so that we are free to focus on our speech, which we generally perform consciously, with a forethought. Nonetheless, when we speak, we are both enabled and restricted by our breathing.
To speak, we first inhale deeply to take more air. As we exhale, we push the air through our trachea (windpipe) and then our larynx (voice box), which has two bands, called vocal folds or cords, capable of vibrating and generating sounds. These vocal folds serve as both the valve that opens and closes over our windpipe and lungs (thus enabling our breathing) and our innate instrument of sound production (phonation).
We Speak Mostly on Exhalation (Except Interjections)
To speak, we need to have air in our lungs, which we then use to make sounds. It also means that we speak primarily on exhalation, and the longer our inhalation, the more words we can produce clearly as we breathe out. Speaking on inhalation is possible but difficult. We tend not to speak when we inhale unless something unexpected happens and we need to interject. Thus, interjections are the only class of words uttered on inhalation. As speaking requires a longer exhalation phase, it also requires a deeper (and longer) inhalation phase than silent listening. When we listen silently, we inhale and exhale in phases of more or less equal duration.
We Speak (and Write) in Logical Chunks
Every time we inhale deeply, we make a noticeable pause. This pause is our cue that we are about to start speaking. We tend to make such noticeable pauses when we shift between the main points in our speech. As it happens, when reading aloud, as demonstrated by related studies, we inhale with an audible sound right before we start a new paragraph. When speaking uninterruptedly, we try to speak in intonation units, i.e., logically complete units of speech, or chunks—similarly to clauses and sentences in writing. As we speak, we tend to slightly raise our voice when we utter the word or phrase we mean to stress. We may even take a pause before the part we mean to emphasize—for a dramatic effect. In writing, we may graphically represent such dramatic pauses with a dash, a colon, or an ellipsis.
Chunks May be Shorter or Longer
Eventually, as we complete a logical chunk, we lower our voice, unless we mean to shout or ask a question. We lower our voice not only because we signal a cue to our listeners but also because we run out of air left in our lungs. Apart from signaling a switch to another chunk, we use low voice to save the air and prolong our speech. For example, we tend to lower our voice when we utter nonessential parts, which in writing are called parenthetical, or when we digress (in writing, an aside), or add an afterthought (e.g., a sentential relative clause). If we need to buy some time to decide what to say next, we may signal that by making a quick, short utterance (a shorter chunk)—an introductory word/phrase, an interjection, or an aside—and then taking a pause to inhale again and to continue. Whether an introductory or parenthetical element, a pause that accompanies such an element would be represented by a comma or a dash in writing.
Prepared (Ideal) Speech vs. Spontaneous Speech
Of course, these strategies work for prepared, or ideal, speeches, when we do not have to worry about being interrupted. As opposed to reading aloud a written text, in real-time speech planning, we need to speak spontaneously, which is much more stressful for our mental and articulatory mechanisms.
That's why, when speaking, we may have many thinking pauses, unfinished sentences, abrupt digressions, jumping back and forth between topics, etc. There may be sudden inhaling in a grammatically less appropriate place. (In literature, such real-time speeches are often represented through stylistic and author’s punctuation.)
Many studies of conversational communication strategies have shown that we take deliberately audible inhales to signal our eagerness to jump into the conversation. Or we may intently listen to and readily wait for the speaker's next pause, however short or quiet it may be, to claim our turn in the imaginary speaking queue.
Nonetheless, even when speaking spontaneously, we tend to inhale at structurally logical places, i.e., between larger or shorter chunks of sentences.
When delivered in chunks, our speech is easier for us to manage and for others to follow.
Punctuation as Rhythmic Mapping of Ideal Speech
Overall, uninterrupted speech, or speech written for silent reading, reflects the way we speak when our speech is planned or written down in advance, with no anticipated interruptions. This is the speech in its ideal form, the speech that has become the foundation of the literary written language. Ultimately, this is the speech that has served as a blueprint for developing a fitting system of punctuation.
Such speech is demarcated with pauses (some pauses longer or more dramatic than others), intonation, and logical stress (emphasis), which act as cues that guide listeners and readers. These cues constitute the rhythmic aspects of language—whether it is spoken or written.
When we read aloud, we are very likely to inhale before a new sentence and sometimes between the clauses of a compound or complex sentence, i.e., before a conjunction or after a comma. Likewise, when reading silently, we greatly benefit from the textual punctuation used by the writer, who, no doubt, relied on his or her reading of the text aloud. This saves us, the readers, a lot of effort and time. All we need to do is to trust the writer's literacy and care about the reader's needs of guidance through the structure and meaning of the text.
Punctuation Wars: Prosody vs. Syntax
With the invention of print and standardization of writing conventions, including punctuation, across Europe and beyond, so-called writing culture began to emerge. Reading aloud, which had been the only mode of reading before printing, gradually gave way to reading silently. Although historically rooted in creating a written text for oral delivery and thus closely related to speech, punctuation became vital in the context of the ever-increasing number of silent readers.
Since the end of the 19th century, as writing began to break away from speech, becoming an independent medium and an art form, the legitimacy of rules of punctuation has been increasingly debated. More specifically, the controversy has been about whether punctuation rules should be motivated predominantly by intonation and pauses (prosody) or by the structure of the language (syntax), which, in turn, could be based on specific grammatical rules (grammar/syntax) or could strive, whenever needed, to ensure lexically disambiguated (unambiguous) meaning (semantics).
In the English-speaking context, the lack of consensus must have contributed to the lack of strict punctuation rules. In other languages, for example, Russian and German (at least before the Moreover, the shift from prescriptive to descriptive linguistics in the past decades has prompted the favoring of the meaning-oriented school of thought. In the U.S., such understanding came to be known as light (reduced) punctuation—the punctuation used exclusively to clarify the meaning or prevent any misreading of the written text.
Still, anyone who is able to breathe, speak, and write cannot deny the clear analogies between punctuation and spoken intonation units, however lengthened, elaborated, or interwoven they may have become. It may come as a surprise to some English speakers, but, up to the 19th century, most printing houses (which have been acting as punctuators since the invention of print) would use commas (and other marks) in many more places than today, some of them absolutely unthinkable considering today's sensibilities.
[Read more about The Good, the Bad, and the Oxford Comma in English...]
Our Internal "Punctuator"
The trend of reduced punctuation in English may also explain the finding of all the studies on prosody and writing that I have read: The length of punctuation units is found to be consistently greater than the mean length of the intonation units produced by oral readers.
Another explanation, however, may lie in the phenomenon that linguists refer to as phonological (re)coding or covert prosody. Colloquially, this is what we simply call our "internal voice.” Nowadays, it is widely accepted that, in most individuals, reading seems to activate a mechanism of phonological word representations of "the phylo- and ontogenetically older auditory language system." Or, simply put, that peculiar humming and mumbling we often hear from people when they read just may be our internal "punctuator." At least this was the conclusion made by the German linguists who studied silent reading and established the covert activation of an intonation and stressing mechanism in readers.
When reading silently, which nowadays we do most of our lives, aided with our internal voice, we do not need to vocalize what we are reading, and we do not need stop to inhale as often as we would need if we were reading aloud. Moreover, as opposed to reading aloud, reading silently is more efficient because we are able to "digest" larger chunks of a sentence relying on our internal punctuator.
So, Prosody or Syntax? Who Cares...
Debating as to whether prosody or syntax should determine the way we punctuate seems to me a pointless endeavor. Both have been influencing our speech and writing strategies for a very long time. Whether in the aftermath of printing and educational reforms or due to colonization and post-colonial policies, punctuation marks have evolved into a communally shared system of textual graphic representation, which is there to stay. At least partly determined by both prosodic and syntactic requirements, punctuation is now inherently tied to our understanding of reading and writing.
Employing highly educated copyeditors, who closely collaborate with authors, publishers have long been functioning as punctuators and final proofreaders. Relying on syntax, a writer, through vocalizing the written and, in a close cooperation with the publisher, encodes the meaning of the text through punctuation, preparing it for the reader. On the other end, the reader receives the text in an easily accessible printed format and, through internal vocalizing, guided by the text punctuation, is able to decode the intended meaning.
And so it goes...