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Review of  The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

Reviewer: Filippo Pecorari
Book Title: The Quotable Guide to Punctuation
Book Author: Stephen Spector
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Writing Systems
Issue Number: 30.4091

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This book is a popular guide to punctuation issues in English, mainly aimed at a readership of undergraduate students and non-linguists. It is a sequel to a previous book on grammatical issues by the same author (Spector 2015). The chapters of the book are referred to as “lessons”, devoted to a single punctuation mark or, in some cases, to a specific usage or function of a mark that is examined over more than one lesson. What characterizes the book, as appears from the title, is the presence of a considerable number of quotes, i.e. examples taken from a vast array of media, text genres and writers. The function of quotes is to exemplify empirically the forms and functions of punctuation commented on in each lesson and to let the reader work out the rules through an inductive process. Quotes are given at the beginning of each lesson and of each subsection within the lesson; they are followed by historical notes about the punctuation mark, rules and guidelines of usage (highlighted in boldface), boxes with fun facts, and quizzes.

The book is made up of 34 lessons, preceded by three introductory chapters dealing with the aim of the book (pp. 1-5), some reasons to love or hate punctuation (pp. 7-15), and a brief overview of basic grammar terms (pp. 17-25); it is closed by notes (pp. 285-303), a concise select bibliography (pp. 305-307), an index of names and subjects (pp. 309-313), and a list of the sources of the quotations given in the whole text (pp. 315-322).

The space devoted by the author to each punctuation mark is unequal; some of them are quickly treated in a few pages, whereas some others receive a much greater attention, extending at times over much more than one lesson. The core of the book is opened by a series of four lessons devoted to the apostrophe (pp. 29-52), where some formal issues of its usage are discussed (e.g. the marking of possessive case, plurals, omitted letters). After a single lesson about the colon (pp. 53-64), the attention is focused on the comma, to which fifteen lessons are devoted (pp. 67-158); among the many phenomena touched upon in these lessons there are some regular usages of the mark, such as in a series of coordinated elements or around parentheticals, but also some controversial ones, such as the comma splice or the Oxford comma. The author then moves on to a couple of lessons on the dashes (pp. 161-175), where a distinction is drawn between the forms and functions of the em-dash and the en-dash, and to a single lesson on the exclamation point (pp. 177-184), before getting back to a lexical matter connected to the use of the comma, i.e. how to punctuate the adverb “however” (pp. 185-191). Two long and articulate lessons are then concerned with hyphens (pp. 195-219), through an overview of the morphological contexts where hyphens are required or avoided. Three single lessons focus on parentheses and square brackets (pp. 221-224), the period (with a subsection on the ellipsis dots) (pp. 225-231) and the question mark (pp. 233-239). Quotation marks are treated in two lessons (pp. 241-263), with special attention to their position in relation to other marks. The last three lessons are devoted to run-on sentences, i.e. independent sentences that are not separated by any punctuation (p. 265), semicolons (pp. 267-278), and the use of “and” and “but” at the beginning of a sentence (pp. 279-284).


The book is a practical guide to English punctuation, designed for a broad audience of people interested in the subject. It follows the path of many previous popular books on punctuation that were a publishing success in the last fifteen years, not only in English-speaking countries (see e.g. Truss 2003, Lukeman 2006, Huston 2013 for English; Millán 2005 for Spanish; Serafini 2012 for Italian). One of the main merits of this book in comparison to similar works is the large-scale overview of British and American style guides, whose main result is the recognition of the poor consistency about punctuation norms. Most of the time, the author does not take a strong position on questionable punctuational choices, but wisely advises the reader to follow the style guide he adheres to.

In accordance with the destination of the book, the author has chosen to employ a writing style that is quite far from academic conventions. Among the many examples of this reader-friendly approach, some passages may be cited where the author adopts an interactive style, directly addressing the reader (“How about you? Are you always sure where to put commas and semicolons?”, p. 1; “If you’re like most of my students, you don’t love grammar jargon”, p. 17; “Quick, if you walk into a McDonald’s, which would you rather see, a man-eating chicken or a man eating chicken?”, p. 196). The quest for interactivity is also clear in the presence in each lesson of rules of usage, where the reader is directly advised, mainly through imperatives, about what to do and what not to do with punctuation (“Don’t place a colon between a preposition and its object”, p. 59; “Use hyphens to join initial letters to words”, p. 205; “Feel free to open sentences with ‘and’ or ‘but’”, p. 283). This stylistic choice is powerful and effective, and will certainly allow the book to reach a wide readership, well beyond the scholarly community.

Another strong point of the book is the presence of a huge bulk of examples for each of the punctuational phenomena taken into account. The examples are taken from an impressive and varied number of sources, going from famous historical figures such as Julius Caesar or Geoffrey Chaucer to stars of modern show business such as Louis C. K. or Jennifer Lawrence. Most of the examples are witty or funny, which makes the reading a quite enjoyable one.

Nevertheless, the book suffers from some shortcomings, both from a formal and from a more substantial point of view, that jeopardize its overall quality, at least to a certain extent. I shall now point out some of them.

To begin with, some criticism can be made about the selection of quotes. Some of them are apparently taken from spoken texts, such as a sportscast (the use of the exclamation point in “Holy cow!” by Harry Caray, p. 177), a film (the use of the comma in “Whatever it is, I’m against it” by Groucho Marx in the 1932 film “Horse feathers”, p. 67) or a speech (the use of the comma in “We campaign in poetry, but when we’re elected we’re forced to govern in prose” by Mario Cuomo in a 1985 speech, p. 80). For some of these examples a previous written text can be referred to, such as the screenplay of a film or the draft of a speech, but the source indicated in brackets for each quote is always the spoken text. It looks like, in this case, the author has simply selected some funny examples where, in his opinion, a certain punctuation mark would have been used if the text were in a written form. This, of course, calls into question the validity of the quote as a real example of usage of a punctuation mark. Even if this book does not want to be a corpus linguistics study, some more methodological rigor in the selection of examples would have been desirable.

Another issue touching the use of quotes is that sometimes a pretty trivial use of punctuation is exemplified by an excessive number of instances, such as in lesson 20 on “Commas in Direct Address” (pp. 155-158). A very simple rule prescribing the use of the comma with vocatives is accompanied by 17 examples, definitely too many for the case under discussion. Moreover, one of the examples in this lesson does not seem relevant, since no vocative – and no comma – is present: “Who is this lady you have shrunk?” from the 2006 film “Borat” (p. 156).

The didactic value of quizzes is also largely questionable, since their level of difficulty is considerably lower than what is needed for an effective reinforcement of the rules given in the lesson. A couple of examples will suffice to illustrate this point. In the lesson on the colon (p. 62), after giving a rule on the use of the colon or the comma before short quotations, a quiz is proposed where the reader is asked to choose among three options: with the comma, with the colon or without any mark. In the lesson on “however” (p. 190), a very clear rule prescribing to avoid the use of double commas around the adverb is checked through a quiz where there are only two options: one where “however” is preceded by a period and followed by a comma, and one where it is enclosed by a couple of commas. In both cases, the answer is obvious and does not really help the reader strengthen his/her knowledge; a more challenging quiz would have served the didactic purpose of the book better.

One of the major critical points on the formal side is that the book does not look well-structured. Lessons are merged into larger sections with a unifying title, but their distribution is not clear at all. For example, under the title “Apostrophes” the table of contents lists four lessons that are indeed devoted to the apostrophe, but also a fifth lesson on the colon (p. viii); and the section on “Dashes” groups together two lessons on the em-dash and the en-dash, but also a lesson on the exclamation point and a lesson on the use of “however” (p. xi). Probably, this problem is simply due to careless typographic work on the organization of the table of contents by the publisher; we can quite easily infer that the intention of the author was to group together in larger sections all those lessons that are devoted to the same punctuation mark, leaving out of these sections all the isolated lessons on a specific mark or phenomenon. Anyway, this aspect should have been taken care of more accurately, particularly in the light of the broad and non-specialist audience the book is designed to reach.

Another minor shortcoming that is probably due to poor editing concerns the “Notes” section at the end of the book. The text of the notes of lessons 30-32 is not displayed at the end of the book; there is a sudden shift from the notes of lesson 29 on p. 301 to the notes of lesson 33 on p. 302.

A more serious problem that has to do again with the overall structure of the book is that there is no consistency in the order of chapters. It is quite puzzling, for example, that two punctuation marks displaying many usage similarities as the exclamation point and the question mark are far from one another, and that the main marks that perform the segmentation of the text in smaller units (period, semicolon, colon, comma) are not grouped into a single section, but scattered all over the book. Quite inconsistent and not linear is also the distribution of the lesson about “however”, which should belong to the section on the comma, and of the lesson about starting sentences with “and” or “but”, that is actually a sub-topic of the usage of the period. These distributional choices make it harder for the reader – all the more so for a non-specialist one – to understand the behavior of punctuation as a system, and not simply as a set of signs.

This issue brings me on to what is probably the weakest point of the book. The content of the volume does not seem to be underpinned by a clear-cut theoretical model of punctuation. In the introduction, the author mentions two possible motivations guiding the use of punctuation by writers, i.e. “to make grammatical sense” and “to reproduce the rhythms of speech” (p. 7). Some recent research focused on Italian punctuation (cfr. mainly Ferrari et al. 2018) has shown that the explanatory power of grammatical and prosodic principles is not entirely satisfying, and this holds true also for most languages of Europe, including English (and excluding for example German, where punctuation is mostly managed on a purely syntactic and formal basis). Punctuation as a consistent system of signs can be better explained through a communicative account, according to which the choice of a punctuation mark is primarily connected to the construction of a coherent text by the writer, and prosodic or syntactic regularities are only side effects of pragmatic and textual indications. Such an approach would have been welcome throughout the whole volume, especially in points where the author invokes the prosodic category of “pause”. For example, when a comma separates an adjunct from a main clause, it is said that the comma “marks a point where you would pause in speaking the sentence aloud” (p. 70). This principle does not prove reliable in the choice of the comma. When we write a sentence like “When in doubt, tell the truth” (p. 67), the comma is employed if we want to put the adjunct aside in a separate informational unit, whereas the absence of the comma means the insertion of both elements in the same unit; no actual pause can be detected when the sentence is read aloud. Moreover, the adequate category to be employed in order to describe the prosodic correlate of the comma is not the pause, as some experimental studies have shown, but the intonational category of non-terminal prosodic break (cfr. Kirchhoff & Primus 2016, Ferrari 2017). Another hint of the theoretical weakness of this work is the choice to treat ellipses dots in the same lesson as the period (pp. 228-230), as if they were a sort of replicated variant of it. In fact, it is fairly straightforward that the ellipsis is a punctuation mark in its own right.

A final problematic point of the book, closely related to the latter, is the placement of all punctuation marks on the same level, without a clear hierarchy or taxonomy. It is somewhat surprising to find meaningful and pragmatically rich uses of punctuation treated on a par with mechanical and conventional uses, such as the ones involving the apostrophe, the hyphen or the period in abbreviations. This is mainly due to the absence, in the conception of the book, of a fruitful theoretical distinction such as that between “word punctuation” and “sentence punctuation” we can find in the French literature (see Catach 1994).

In conclusion, this volume offers a light and highly practical guide to punctuation for non-experts, that can possibly work well for the intended audience in the light of its witty, accessible style and abundance of interesting examples. Nevertheless, it also has a considerable number of flaws, both formal and substantial, and is not supported, as far as I can judge, by a strong theoretical stance on linguistic models of punctuation. These problematic issues do not make the volume particularly appealing for a scholarly audience.


Catach, Nina. 1994. La ponctuation. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

Ferrari, Angela. 2017. Leggere la virgola: una prima ricognizione. CHIMERA 4/2. 145-162.

Ferrari, Angela et al. 2018. La punteggiatura italiana contemporanea: un’analisi comunicativo-testuale. Rome: Carocci.

Huston, Keith. 2013. Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks. New York-London: Norton.

Kirchhoff, Frank & Beatrice Primus. 2016. Punctuation. In Vivian Cook & Des Ryan (eds.). The Routledge Handbook of the English Writing System. London-New York: Routledge. 93-109.

Lukeman, Noah. 2006. A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation. New York-London: Norton.

Millán, José Antonio. 2005. Perdón imposible: guía para una puntuación más rica y consciente. Barcelona: Ariel.

Serafini, Francesca. 2012. Questo è il punto: istruzioni per l’uso della punteggiatura. Rome-Bari: Laterza.

Spector, Stephen. 2015. May I Quote You on That? A Guide to Grammar & Usage. Oxford-New York: Oxford University Press.

Truss, Lynne. 2003. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. New York: Gotham Books.
After earning his PhD at the University of Pavia (Italy) with a dissertation on anaphoric encapsulation in written texts, Filippo Pecorari is currently a postdoc researcher at the University of Basel (Switzerland), where he is taking part in a project on Italian punctuation funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. He is also working as an adjunct lecturer in Linguistics at the Universities of Basel and Pavia. His research interests are mainly focused around text linguistics, pragmatics and Italian linguistics.

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