Lubrican: Blog

Back to Lubrican's Blog

You learn something every day - Part II

September 23, 2012
Posted at 8:02 pm
Updated: September 25, 2012 - 8:24 am

I got some mail from a fellow who was responding to the former blog post, called You learn something every day. And he taught me something.

He sent me to a website which explained to me what I've been doing for years. I knew I was doing it, I just didn't know there was an actual name for it. That is what I learned today.

I, friends, am an "Elocutionary Writer" rather than a "Syntactic" one.

That doesn't mean "Speechwriter," though it's close. The article he pointed me to explains it much better than I would, so I'm going to reprint that below. I'll include the link, in case you want to read other of the fascinating things at the site, but I won't make you go there to read this part.

Extreme punctuation pedantry
Posted on Monday, June 1 2009 by esr

Most people don't know that there are two different philosophical camps that differ about how to do correct punctuation in English. This has been on my mind lately because of some questions I have been asked by non-native speakers on the Battle for Wesnoth development list, where I am the resident English pedant.

The rules we're taught in school are the syntactic ones; in these, punctuation is a part of the grammar of written English and the rules for where you put it are derived from grammatical phrase structure and pretty strict. Lynne Truss of Eats, Shoots & Leaves fame is an exponent of this school. But there is another…

Punctuation marks originated from notations used to mark pauses for breath in oral recitations, but 17-to-19th-century grammarians tied them ever more tightly to grammar. There remains a minority position that language pedants call "elocutionary" - that punctuation is properly viewed as markers of speech cadence and intonation. Top-flight copy editors know this: the best one I ever worked with was a syntactic punctuationist on her own hook who noted that I'm an elocutionary punctuationist and then copy-edited in my preferred style rather than hers. (That, my friends, is real professionalism.)

And why am I an elocutionary punctuationist? Because I pay careful attention to speech rhythm and try to convey it in my prose. Not all skilled writers do this, but elocutionary punctuation survives in English because it keeps getting rediscovered for stylistic reasons. Consider Rudyard Kipling or Damon Runyon - two masters of conveying the cadences of spoken English in written form; both used elocutionary punctuation, though perhaps not as a conscious choice.

To an elocutionary punctuationist, the common marks represent speech pauses of increasing length in roughly this order: comma, semicolon, colon, dash, ellipsis, period. Parentheses suggest a vocal aside at lower volume; exclamation point is a volume/emphasis indicator, and question mark means rising tone.

In normal usage, most of the differences between the schools show up in comma placement. But in less usual circumstances, elocutionary punctuationists will cheerfully countenance written utterances that a grammarian would consider technically ill-formed. Here's an example: "Stop - right - now!" The dashes don't correspond to phrase boundaries, they're purely vocal pause markers.

I haven't written this mini-rant to argue that syntactic punctuation is wrong and should be abolished, but I do think more writers and editors should be aware that the elocutionary style exists, has a sound historical pedigree, and remains a valid choice, at least in English (my Wesnoth informants tell me there is no analog of it in German or Russian). Personally, I think it is more supple and expressive than the syntactic style.

I don't know this person's name, but the above material is posted here:

I have always known that I typed the words I heard my muse whispering in my ear. She has no fingers, you see, and so I am required to use the computer for her to put it all into a file. And so I "tell" the story to whoever is going to read it. I hear the pauses, and tones, and try to record enough information that the reader will be able to hear them too. I don't use all the marks listed in the article above. Semi colons for example. Never use them. Stormy Weather does when we write together, and it drives me crazy.

Then, assuming Peaches is too busy to edit for me, there are various denizens of the underworld who inhabit my body while I do the editing. They make me miss the spelling errors, and put the wrong names for characters, and all those things you nice people let me know about.

What I'm suggesting is that none of it is my fault. You don't have to believe that, but all your friends will smirk at you behind your back if you don't.

Thanks for reading.


There are all sorts of pedants out there, and some of them actually knew who this "esr" person is. (That is the nature of pedants. They know strange and mysterious things) They recognized his moniker immediately. I am told his name is "Eric S. Raymond" and his web page is here:

Which has a link to the URL I listed above.

And because it was important to several people to let me know that, I figured the rest of you might like to know too.

Besides, getting you acquainted with someone who argues to let me write however I want to ... well it just seems like a good idea.