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The Marginalian

How to Punctuate with Style: Lewis Thomas’s Charming Meditation on the Subtleties of Language

How to Punctuate with Style: Lewis Thomas’s Charming Meditation on the Subtleties of Language

Theodor Adorno celebrated punctuation as the “friendly spirits whose bodiless presence nourishes the body of language.” Mary Oliver jested that each writer has a lifetime quota of them, to be used judiciously. Indeed, the wielding of these tiny meaning-making symbols is a supreme test of a writer’s sensitivity to language as an instrument of sentiment and a laboratory for feeling. No one has conferred upon them more dignity and delight than the great physician, etymologist, poet, and essayist Lewis Thomas (November 25, 1913–December 3, 1993) in his essay “Notes on Punctuation,” included in The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher (public library) — the altogether scrumptious 1979 collection that gave us Thomas’s beautiful meditation on altruism and affection and one of the finest things ever written about the mystery of the self.

Art by Rathna Ramanathan for a modern graphic design edition of Christian Morgenstern’s 1905 poem “In the Land of Punctuation”

Thomas opens the essay, the whole of which is strewn with clever meta-demonstrations of his points about the marks, with a Russian nesting doll of punctuational observations:

There are no precise rules about punctuation (Fowler lays out some general advice (as best he can under the complex circumstances of English prose (he points out, for example, that we possess only four stops (the comma, the semicolon, the colon and the period (the question mark and exclamation point are not, strictly speaking, stops; they are indicators of tone (oddly enough, the Greeks employed the semicolon for their question mark (it produces a strange sensation to read a Greek sentence which is a straightforward question: Why weepest thou; (instead of Why weepest thou? (and, of course, there are parentheses (which are surely a kind of punctuation making this whole matter much more complicated by having to count up the left-handed parentheses in order to be sure of closing with the right number (but if the parentheses were left out, with nothing to work with but the stops, we would have considerably more flexibility in the deploying of layers of meaning than if we tried to separate all the clauses by physical barriers (and in the latter case, while we might have more precision and exactitude for our meaning, we would lose the essential flavor of language, which is its wonderful ambiguity)))))))))))).

Lewis Thomas (Photograph: NYU archives)

He makes his case for commas in a nearly comma-free paragraph, adorned by precisely four exquisitely pinned specimens:

The commas are the most useful and usable of all the stops. It is highly important to put them in place as you go along. If you try to come back after doing a paragraph and stick them in the various spots that tempt you you will discover that they tend to swarm like minnows into all sorts of crevices whose existence you hadn’t realized and before you know it the whole long sentence becomes immobilized and lashed up squirming in commas. Better to use them sparingly, and with affection, precisely when the need for each one arises, nicely, by itself.

In defiance of Kurt Vonnegut’s scornful (and, by present standards, possibly politically incorrect) condemnation of semicolons as “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing” and only proving “that you’ve been to college,” Thomas writes:

I have grown fond of semicolons in recent years. The semicolon tells you that there is still some question about the preceding full sentence; something needs to be added; it reminds you sometimes of the Greek usage. It is almost always a greater pleasure to come across a semicolon than a period. The period tells you that that is that; if you didn’t get all the meaning you wanted or expected, anyway you got all the writer intended to parcel out and now you have to move along. But with a semicolon there you get a pleasant little feeling of expectancy; there is more to come; read on; it will get clearer.

Art by Rathna Ramanathan for a modern graphic design edition of Christian Morgenstern’s 1905 poem “In the Land of Punctuation”

Thomas’s own scorn is reserved for the unworthy whole of which the semi-colon is supposed to be a mere half:

Colons are a lot less attractive, for several reasons: firstly, they give you the feeling of being rather ordered around, or at least having your nose pointed in a direction you might not be inclined to take if left to yourself, and, secondly, you suspect you’re in for one of those sentences that will be labeling the points to be made: firstly, secondly and so forth, with the implication that you haven’t sense enough to keep track of a sequence of notions without having them numbered. Also, many writers use this system loosely and incompletely, starting out with number one and number two as though counting off on their fingers but then going on and on without the succession of labels you’ve been led to expect, leaving you floundering about searching for the ninethly or seventeenthly that ought to be there but isn’t.

In a passage of especial urgency in our era of rampant misquotations littering the Internet and rampant bunny-eared hands rising in the midst of conversation to insert an air quote when the intention is irony or emphasis rather than citation, Thomas writes:

Quotation marks should be used honestly and sparingly, when there is a genuine quotation at hand, and it is necessary to be very rigorous about the words enclosed by the marks… Above all, quotation marks should not be used for ideas that you’d like to disown, things in the air so to speak. Nor should they be put in place around clichés; if you want to use a cliché you must take full responsibility for it yourself and not try to fob it off on anon., or on society.

In a sentiment I have long shared — and one with which I also regard the use of Italics for emphasis, that pitiable attempt to compensate for a failure of style with styling — Thomas turns to the neediest, vainest, most off-putting of punctuation marks:

Exclamation points are the most irritating of all. Look! they say, look at what I just said! How amazing is my thought! It is like being forced to watch someone else’s small child jumping up and down crazily in the center of the living room shouting to attract attention. If a sentence really has something of importance to say, something quite remarkable, it doesn’t need a mark to point it out. And if it is really, after all, a banal sentence needing more zing, the exclamation point simply emphasizes its banality!


A single exclamation point in a poem, no matter what else the poem has to say, is enough to destroy the whole work.

Art by Rathna Ramanathan for a modern graphic design edition of Christian Morgenstern’s 1905 poem “In the Land of Punctuation”

Poetry, of course, owes a great share of its splendor to the miracle of surprise; to the twists of expectation and convention that plunge you suddenly and thrillingly into a whole new world; a world adjacent to but ordinarily inaccessible from the ordinary. Thomas Wentworth Higginson — Emily Dickinson’s editor — admonished that dashes should be used only in “short allowance” or else they “will lose all their proper power” — advice Dickinson went on to boldly ignore, dealing her ample dashes like breaths, like blades, in verses that revolutionized poetry. Thomas, who must have read Dickinson given his erudition and his intense love of poetry, is far friendlier to dashes than her editor had been a century earlier:

The dash is a handy device, informal and essentially playful, telling you that you’re about to take off on a different tack but still in some way connected with the present course — only you have to remember that the dash is there, and either put a second dash at the end of the notion to let the reader know that he’s back on course, or else end the sentence, as here, with a period.

Art by Rathna Ramanathan for a modern graphic design edition of Christian Morgenstern’s 1905 poem “In the Land of Punctuation”

Thomas ends by returning to his love of semi-colons, kindled by T.S. Eliot’s exquisite use of them in Four Quartets (“At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; / Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, / But neither arrest nor movement.”), and writes:

You cannot hear them, but they are there, laying out the connections between the images and the ideas. Sometimes you get a glimpse of a semicolon coming, a few lines farther on, and it is like climbing a steep path through woods and seeing a wooden bench just at a bend in the road ahead, a place where you can expect to sit for a moment, catching your breath.

Commas can’t do this sort of thing; they can only tell you how the different parts of a complicated thought are to be fitted together, but you can’t sit, not even take a breath, just because of a comma,

And so it ends, in a triumph of deliberately rule-defiant delight.

Complement this fragment of Thomas’s wholly enjoyable and freshly insightful The Medusa and the Snail with the zany and politically prescient 1905 poem “In the Land of Punctuation,” then revisit Thomas on the poetics of smell as a mode of knowledge and our cosmic potential.

Published August 11, 2019




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