Is Correct Punctuation a Cultural Thing?

Clarity of meaning requires decent punctuation. Sloppiness leads to ambiguity which may be problematic. However what fiction and ‘free expression’ require is different.

The weird thing about the above title is the deliberate use of an ampersand in a non-conventional context. It may be ironic, but for me, this usage seems to go against Lynne Truss’s argument (the other Truss probably doesn’t know what an ampersand is, but would still be in favour of removing any possible restrictions on its use).

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That is appalling, such people should be severely chastised, lazy teaching is what it is, not helping your pupils to excel is a revolting cop-out. If you don’t correct them you are letting them down, how can they do better if you don’t help them? Grrrrrrr


Over the last five years of my career, I probably marked around 14x10x12(=1680!) essays by international first year Open University Arts and Humanities students. It swiftly became apparent that whereas most Northern European students (writing in a second language) had a good understanding of UK English punctuation, Brits under forty didn’t. Furthermore the latter group often didn’t know how to structure an essay or construct a reasoned, substantiated argument.

However, successive OU Arts and Humanities Foundation courses were structured to give students this essential grounding, whereas unfortunately most UK secondary level education no longer encourages these skills, which in my opinion a student should possess before they enter university. Sadly there are many UK sixth formers who have never written an essay, let alone been taught the different forms of essay and how to structure these.

And as for grammar! Why is it that my German students knew how to use an English possessive apostrophe (which doesn’t exist in their language) when so many Brits don’t?

Rant over.


Whether correct punctuation is actually a matter of culture is open to lengthy debate.
However, there is no doubt that it is correct punctuation that turns what would otherwise be just a confusing collection of words into structured sentences that impart a specific meaning.
As an example one could consider the difference in meaning between the black ladies bicycle and the black ladies’ bicycle where that one little apostrophe tells us that the bicycle, of which the colour is unknown, is the property of two or more black ladies, as opposed to it being a ladies bicycle which is black in colour.
Venture into the realm of adjectival order, and the ladies’ black bicycle has yet again a different meaning.

Somewhere inside me there’s a pedant too. It’s an imp I sometimes draw on, half-seriously, with my kids - to much ridicule of course now they’re grown and highly-educated themselves - or which urges me to point out the almost universal association between unthinking chauvinism and poor grammar, spelling and punctuation - as for example in many a brexiter’s post here on SurviveFrance.

But I resist it. If you know enough about the history of the English language - or indeed other tongues - then you know that all these so-called ‘rules’ are mere fads that come and go, as language continues its constant change and evolution - and you know also that it is precisely this change that is its vital beating heart.

The 18th century grammarians thought they could fix language in its current state of perfection - like the dead classical languages they thought superior. They were wrong, though not perhaps as laughably wrong as the Sandhurst tutor that famously asked a trainee officer ‘How do you expect to lead men into battle without knowing the correct use of the semi-colon?’ (Needless to say, it was the trainee, not the tutor, that actually went on to lead men.)

Know the rules, by all means - but break them. That’s what any decent writer does.
What leaps out to me from all the examples of ambiguity arising from ‘incorrect’ punctuation in the posts here is how very trivial they are - and indeed how in most cases they had to be taken out of context even to gain such trivial ambiguity. Lighten up, folks ! Cast off that narrow intolerant pedant that is rising out of your accumulating years, your alienation from the creativity and dynamism of a language that always, in fact, belongs to the next generation.

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I teach English and while it’s my job to ensure my pupils write and speak as well and as clearly as possible, I wouldn’t generally say anything about someone else’s grammar or spelling unless it was ambiguous or incomprehensible, (or unless it’s in a teasing, light-hearted context).

That said I have been very irritated by the nurse at school sending me several text messages about “héménopteres” when they are hyménoptères and if she wasn’t sure why not just say bees and wasps.
And obviously I can’t possibly tell her because although I would be doing her a favour I will 100% look like a mad awful person who is missing the point.

So it is terribly frustrating.


There is room for innovation in all things, prose included.
However, when the exact interpretation of the meaning of a sequence of words hinges entirely upon the use of flawless punctuation, then it is indeed true that the writer must take care to fit those words together in the appropriate manner.

Here on the forum… I keep putting Opthalmo… without a second thought… yet I know it’s not correct… it’s just that my typing fingers have a mind of their own…
thankfully, everyone knows what I’m talking about regardless… :roll_eyes: :rofl:


Relax Véronique !
We teach children what they need to know to fulfill their potential - and that includes the ‘rules’ of language they might use to their advantage in certain social circumstances.
If they go further than school-level education they will soon discover that these ‘rules’ are descriptive, not prescriptive. If they go far enough, they might also discover the politics of pedantry.

But let’s not mistake pedagogy for truth. Among grown-ups the proper use of the semi-colon really doesn’t matter; does it ?

What is this concept?

Context is all :wink: but no of course you are right, it doesn’t actually matter.

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Relax now I think its stacked next to the sac de courage at point p

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Ah just along from the grips then :grin:

Sue PJ you are quite right. It shapes and gives meaning to the written word. Funny good book called “Eats shoots and leaves” Is the author writing about a panda ?Or “eats, shoots, and leaves” a hungry person with a gun.? Education is what’s needed.

The correct title is Eats, Shoots & Leaves as outlined at the end of the first post :wink:

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“help your uncle jack off a horse”

Is an often quoted sentence in dire need of punctuation

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ok! Perhaps I wanted a pause after he shot and left!!! I love help your uncle jack off a horse, this is saved, just, by a capital letter J. Perhaps one should not delve too deep.

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Yet as I pointed out above, the inappropriate ampersand in the title goes against the book’s arguments and also in typographic terms is just plain wrong. May not have been the author’s choice, but the publishers/designer should have known better.


Let’s eat, Grandma. Let’s eat Grandma.


But not necessarily an either/or construction, as the second sentence could follow on from the first.

“Sorry Grandma!”