Monday, September 21, 2015

Happy Punctuation Day!

One of the most important punctuation marks goes about quietly, doing its job without any notice or fanfare. It’s also the oldest of all punctuation marks, dating back to ancient Greece. It’s used a thousand times in every book. As Noah Lukeman (A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation, 2006) suggests, “…it alone can make or break a work.”  What is it?

The paragraph break! 

Once upon a time, reading was hard work. There was no punctuation, no white-space, no lower case letters. There was nothing to indicate when one thought ended and the next one began.

Pilcrow symbol. Source at Image:Pilcrow.svg    

The pilcrow was the first punctuation mark. The word originated from the Greek paragraphos, (para=beside and graphos=to write). This led to the Old French, paragraph. This evolved into pelagraphe, and then to pelegreffe. Middle English transformed it into pylcrafte, and finally to pilcrow

Around 200 AD, paragraphs were very loosely understood as a change in topic, speaker, or stanza. But there was no consistency in these markings. Initially, some used the letter K, for Kaput, which is Latin for head. By the 12th century, scribes began using C, for Capitulum, Latin for little head or chapter. This C evolved because of inconsistencies in handwriting. By late medieval time, the pilcrow was a very elaborate decoration in bright red ink inserted in between shapeless paragraphs.

Villanova, Rudimenta Grammaticæ. Published 1500 in Valencia (Spain).. Licensed under Public Domain

As printing technology improved, and whitespace was deemed valuable in the reading process, pilcrows were dropped down to indicate a new line. Eventually the pilcrows were abandoned, and the paragraph indent was born. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that a standard method was devised to help organize paragraphs. Alexander Bain introduced the modern paragraph in 1866, defining it as a single unit of thought, and stressing the importance of an explicit topic sentence.

Just as a period divides sentences, a paragraph divides groups of sentences. But as the period is often hailed as the backbone of punctuation, the paragraph break is largely ignored.

The primary purpose of a paragraph is to define a theme, but there are no standard rules that dictate how that process plays out. Paragraphs tend to be organic, subject to the writer’s idiosyncrasies.

Some of us have quite a few idiosyncrasies. <See what I did there?

In a perfect world, a paragraph has a beginning, the main point stated in an explicit topic sentence. It has a middle, in which the writer elaborates on this one main point. And it has an ending, which wraps the entire package in a neat bow.

But the world isn’t perfect. Sometimes the writer places the topic sentence as the last line of a paragraph, playing “gotcha” like a punchline of a joke. Sometimes the topic sentence is a mere whisper, implied in the action. And then there’s the prankster, who places the topic sentence in the middle of a paragraph. Blink and you miss it.

Further complicating the process, there is no designated length that defines a paragraph. I have some students who insist that a paragraph be five sentences, even when the concept is so complex, it demands more explanation. They call this being succinct, but when I ask them for clarification, it takes them several minutes to explain one sentence. I remind them, succinct does not mean short. Succinct means precise. Meanwhile, some students go to the opposite extreme. They turn in five-page essays that are three – and sometimes less -- very long paragraphs. Their ideas trample over each other, undistinguished from each another, in one stampeding brain dump. Both of these writer types reflect a common issue: they don’t understand, and therefore are not connected to, their own ideas. As Lukeman states, messy breaks reveal messy thinking.

The long and short of it (and all puns intended), paragraphs affect pacing, showing the reader how to approach the text. This is especially true in fiction. Short paragraphs tend to be action-oriented, focusing on moving the plot forward. Long paragraphs slow the action down, and tend to be reflective, either setting the stage for the next chase or revealing character. Too many short paragraphs strung together can wear the reader out. Too many long paragraphs put him to sleep.

So what do I do?

I begin with the basics. I tell my students, first, do your thinking. While everyone is entitled to an opinion, not every opinion is equally weighted. In fact, some are distorted, misinformed, and downright wrong. Next, organize your thinking. Only then can you write it down.  I provide a fixed pattern that the beginning writer can easily manage: 1. Write an explicit topic sentence; 2. Elaborate, in which you explain what you mean by this point, and why is it important; 3. Validate, in which you use evidence to prove that your observations are valid;  4. Illustrate, in which you demonstrate with examples how your observations can be applied in real world time. I compare beginning writers to beginning musicians. Musicians need to learn the notes and play the scales -- over and over and over -- in order to master them. Once they master these notes, only then can they play around, making their own music, and writing their own symphony.

But first, they have to learn the basics.

What do you think?

Bobbi Miller


Rebecca C said...

As a writer, I found the history behind punctuation fascinating! Thanks for a great read!

Yvonne Ventresca said...

Interesting look at something we often take for granted!

JoAnn Early Macken said...

Oh, how I love this historical explanation! I don't think I've ever heard the term "pilcrow" before. Thank you for elaborating!

Carmela Martino said...

What a great post, Bobbi. I never thought of the paragraph as a form of punctuation. Fascinating!
I especially appreciate your instructions for beginning writers. The young writers in my camps often complain about not knowing how to break stories into paragraphs. I'll have to see if I can find a way to adapt these instructions to help them.

CS Perryess said...

Fantabuloso! Thanks for appreciating the paragraph indent. With you, I bow to it & all it does for us.

Bobbi Miller said...

Thank you, everyone! This is a fascinating subject. When I worked as an magazine editor, many, many years ago, we used the pilcrow to help define our paragraphs for the typesetter. So I've had a long term affinity with the symbol. I find the organic nature of writing -- and language in general -- so utterly interesting.

Esther Hershenhorn said...

Thank you, Bobbi, for such an insightful, illuminating and informative post!
Sharing your paragraph smarts was the perfect way to celebrate National Punctuation Day.

Bobbi Miller said...

Thank you for your kind words, Esther!

April Halprin Wayland said...

Illuminating as an old manuscript, Bobbi!

April Halprin Wayland said...

Illuminating as an old manuscript, Bobbi!

Carla Killough McClafferty said...

Excellent post, Bobbi. Love it.