Is Punctuation Subordinate to Prose?

In parallel with my plans to become a better writer myself I have been beta reading and editing for other writers both electronically and in person. Until I started this I had thought certain rules of grammar I received at school were, if not always observed, at least recognised. However, one of my favourite rules about punctuating subordinate clauses seems to have been erased from history. So today I have decided to share it because, to me, it gives more clarity to writing.

I first encountered the concept of punctuation expressing metadata when I was at primary school. As well as being taught the grammatical use of the common marks I was taught the spoken weight of each mark, from a comma as single beat to a full stop as a four beat, allowing me to find a pace to my reading aloud. With my introduction to more formal poetry and rhetoric I realised that the weights are approximations and not prescriptions; nevertheless it left me with both a love of semi-colons and the concept that punctuation does more than purely section text.

From secondary school, through my graduate and postgraduate law degrees, and into many years of business life I believed, and my experience supported, the idea that – beyond some differences such as the serial comma – there was an underlying meta-language to mark, for example, types of subordinate clause. The three common methods I was taught are:

  • Comma: MAIN MAIN, subordinate, MAIN MAIN;
  • Parenthesis: MAIN MAIN (subordinate) MAIN MAIN;
  • Em Dash: MAIN MAIN — subordinate — MAIN MAIN.

Until I started reading grammar blogs and other writer’s drafts on a frequent basis I had always seen these as having three different meanings beyond marking a clause that could be omitted:

  • Comma: used to denote an expansion or clarification of the main sentence that is close to the main point, e.g. the cat, keeping its tail straight up, walked past;
  • Parenthesis: used to denote an aside or reference to more information that deviates significantly from the main point, e.g. the cat (a creature often portrayed as aloof) walked past;
  • Em Dash: used to denote an exception, the cat – unlike its usual slink – walked past.

It now appears I was alone in this belief that the choice of punctuation conveys extra data about the contents of the subordinate clause. Every other writer either does not comment at all on choice, or recommends mixing them aesthetically to avoid a boring or unsightly text. Despite my efforts I cannot find a grammar text that mentions the rule about dividing clauses by type. Is it a rule that has been lost to the past? Or a preference of the English department in one British public school, held up by them as good prose?

Either way I feel it is at worst no worse than swapping between them to add variety, so continue to adhere to it.

Do you think the rule has merit? Or remember being taught it? Are there any rules of grammar that you were taught that have disappeared?

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9 thoughts on “Is Punctuation Subordinate to Prose?

  1. I often think that with the advent of “text talk”(txt talk!) and its increase as a currency in conversation, are we witnessing a (de)volution in present English language. I have even heard people saying “lol” and then laugh afterwards!

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    1. I wonder the same about Twitter; I collide with the 140 character limit on an almost daily basis, as I struggle to relinquish nuance. I have seen some exquisite prose on Twitter, but am concerned that it is training most people to communicate in simplistic value statements instead of more complex debate.

      There are theories that txtspk does carry metadata: for example LOL cannot be spoken if you are actually laughing out loud, so is both an appreciation of the statement and a comment that it is appreciated rationally instead of instinctively. I have not done studies myself, so am unsure whether this is insightful or tosh.

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    1. I thought at first the absence was merely due to most style guides being targeted at the US market; however, I cannot find it in old UK guides either.

      Notwithstanding whether it existed, am I just blindly obsessing or does it seem a useful convention?

      Maybe it is a message sent back in time by survivors of a terrible war as a bastion against the misinterpretation that started it; maybe it is not a search for lost grammar but a foreshadowing of my destiny?

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  2. On the subject of rules no longer observed: Periods go inside parentheses only if an entire sentence is inside the parentheses; Periods and commas always go inside quotation marks, even inside single quotes.

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    1. The placement of punctuation in speech might vary by country. The first of my pieces that was beta-read by an Australian came back with all the speech marked up because they were taught to do it the other way.

      Writing in British English I have not researched this to see if it is accurate or another example of a renegade English Master with a pet theory.

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