[…] metaphor for punctuation  it’s »the line along which the train (composition, style, writing) must travel if it isn’t to run away with its driver» In other words, punctuation keeps sense on the rails.
[…] what happens when it isn’t used? Well, if punctuation is the stitching of language, language comes apart, obviously, and all the buttons fall off. If punctuation provides the traffic signals, words bang into each other and everyone ends up in Minehead. […] Punctuation herds words together, keeps others apart. Punctuation directs you how to read, in the way musical notation directs a musician how to play.
In 1885, Anton Chekhov wrote a Christmas short story called »The Exclamation Mark». In this light parody of A Christmas Carol, a colleagiate secretary named Perekladin has a sleepless night on Christmas Eve after someone at a party offends him — by casting aspersions on his ability to punctuate in an educated way. […] At this party, the rattled Perekladin insists that, despite his lack of a university education, forty years’ practice has taught him how to use punctuation, thank you very much. But that night, after he goes to bed, he is troubled; and he is haunted. Scrooge-like, he is visited on this momentous Christmas Eve by a successions of spectres, which teach him a lesson he wll never forget.
And what are these spectres? They are all punctuation marks. Yes, thus really is a story about punctuation — and first to distrub Perekladin’s sleep is a crowd of fiery, flying commas, which Perekladin banishes by repeating the rules he knows for using them. Then come full stops; colons and semicolons; question marks. Again, he keeps his head and sends them away. But then a question mark unbends itself, straightens up — and Perekladin realises he is stumped. In forty years he has had no reason to use an exclamation mark! He has no idea what it is for. The inference for the reader is clear: nothing of any emotional significance has ever happened to Perekladin. Nothing relating, in any case, to the «delight, indignation, joy, rage and other feelings» an exclamation mark is in the business of denoting.
What can poor Perekladin do? When he hails a cab on Christmas Day, he spots immediately that the driver is an exclamation mark. Things are getting out of hand. At the home of his «chief», the doorman is another exclamation mark. It is time to tak a stand — and, signing himself into the visitors’ book at his chief’s house, Perekladin suddenly sees the way. Defiantly he writes his name, »Collegiate Secretary Yefim Perekladin» and adds three exclamation marks, »!!!»
And as he wrote those three marks, he felt delight and indignation, he was joyful and he seethed with rage.
«Take that, take that!» he muttered, pressing donw hard on the pen.
And the phantom exclamation mark disappears.
[…] When you consider the power of erotic suggestion contained in the traditional three-dot chapter ending (»He swept her into his arms. She was powerless to resist. All she knew was, she loved him …») […].
And despair was the initial impetus for the book. I saw a sign for «Book’s» with an apostrophe in it, and something deep inside me snapped; snapped with that melancholy sound you hear in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, like a far-off cable breaking in a mine-shaft. I know that languge moves on. […]
But after journeying through the world of punctuation, and seeing what it can do, I am all the more convinced we should fight like tigers to preserve our punctuation, and we should start now. Who wants a blank map, for heaven’s sake? There is more at stake than the way people read and write. Note the way the Washington post news story explained the benefits of emailing: it «increased employees’ productivity by 1.8 hours a day because they took less time to formulate their thoughts».
If we value the way we have been trained to think by centuries of absorbing the culture of the printed word, we must not allow the language to return to the chaotic scriptio continua swamp from which it so bravely crawled less than thousand years ago. We have a language that is full of ambiguities; we have a way of expressing ourselves that is often complex and allusive, poetic and modulated; all our thoughts can be rendered with absolute clarity if we bother to put the right dots and squiggles between in the right places.
One of the best descriptions of punctuation comes in a book entitled The Fiction Editor, The Novel, and the Novelist (1989) by Thomas McCormack. He says the purpose of punctuation is «to tango the reader into the pauses, inflections, continuities and connections that the spoken line would convey»:
Punctuation to the writer is like anatomy to the artist: He learns the rules so he can knowledgeably and controlledly depart from them as art requires. Punctuation is a means, and its end is: helping the reader to hear, to follow.