Book review: Punctuation..?

User design, a book design company based in the UK, kindly sent me a copy of their recently reissued book on punctuation, simply titled Punctuation..? Or not so simply: shouldn’t those two full stops be a three-dot ellipsis? Maybe it was intended to get editors talking.

More booklet than book, Punctuation..? consists of 35 illustrated pages aimed at a “wide age range (young to ageing) and intelligence (emerging to expert)”. It’s an attractive pamphlet that covers the usual punctuation marks – comma, dashes and co. – and some less familiar ones, such as guillemets [« »], interpunct [·], and pilcrow [¶].

The book’s advice is basic and broadly helpful. General readers won’t mind its traditional definition of a noun as “a word used as the name of a person, place or thing”, though to me this everyday description is dated and deficient. The prose sometimes jars: “As with many rules, there is always an exception”. Well, which is it?

There are more serious shortcomings. Comma splices are not always errors, but they oughtn’t to appear in a book on punctuation without comment; this one has a few. It says em and en dashes are “longer than the hyphen (-) which is not a dash”, which implies some hyphens are dashes. This construction recurs. (See my post on that vs. which.)

For clarity, some words should be in inverted commas or italics (“the word to”), and some shouldn’t (“What about ‘rent’?”). “[D]iscreetly indented paragraphs” is probably meant to be discretely. Semicolons are not the mark “least used in many modern books” – what about pilcrows and interpuncts? – and there’s more semicolon trouble in this example of exclamation mark use:

Ah! you are wrong, once she sees me cleaned up; washed and shaved, she will find me irresistible!

It suggests that when she is washed and shaved, she will find the speaker irresistible. The first comma is also problematic. The same page says exclamation marks are used to “demonstrate hope or regret”, as in “I hope Betty can come!” No: the word hope does that. Elsewhere, words are repeated (“ready to to feed”), omitted (“at end of this sentence”), and questionably hyphenated (hook-up as a verb).

Punctuation..? has a sense of fun, particularly evident in the sometimes witty sketches that enliven the book’s already-pleasant appearance. Their style may be seen in the image below. The tone is light and friendly, some of the marks are well described, and there is welcome coverage of technical marks, such as prime symbols, which would often be overlooked in a work of this type.

Unfortunately, these virtues are overshadowed by the slip-ups in grammar, style, spelling, punctuation, and fact. Other reviewers have been less critical, but I don’t know if they failed to spot the problems that bothered me, or just didn’t care. Punctuation..? is a nice idea for a book, but it needs and deserves  more work and better editing.


14 Responses to Book review: Punctuation..?

  1. aparnauteur says:

    This post reminds me of the Murphy’s law on editing coined by John Bangsund. As of now, it doesn’t hold true for your post though!

  2. Iola says:

    That’s quite a few issues for a book of only 35 illustrated pages. Ouch.

  3. Stan says:

    aparnauteur: Also known as Muphry’s Law. I try not to fall foul of it.

    Iola: Yes, and regrettably there are others I didn’t mention.

  4. alexmccrae1546 says:


    I enjoyed your brief, clearly fair-and-balanced critique of this mini-publication on all manner of punctuation.

    What struck me almost immediately was the cartoony front cover illustration, w/ the rakishly thin girl, and the guy w/ the large schnoz, and rubber-hose-like appendages.

    At first glance I thought it was an ‘appropriated’ humorous New Yorker spot drawing by James Thurber , w/ its kind of loose, simple, economical, slightly naive rendering style, so typical of the late, great satirist, Mr.Thurber.

    But then my eyes drifted over to the back cover illo to the left, where the bizarro quotient had clearly been raised to a whole other level from the rather reserved, but still slightly wacky front cover piece. Immediately, I realized that Thurber had nothing with THIS enterprise.

    The back-cover piece looked more like a wild linear graphic riff on the famous intergalactic bar scene from Star Wars, w/ all those mingling, weird, Heronymous-Boshian-like characters, perhaps draw by the likes of Chilean surrealist, Matta, or the more contemporary, sadly, late American-born artist, Niki de Saint Phalle. Trust me, both these creative folks were far o-u-t there, always exploring very cool, other-worldly, fantastical dimensions in their art.

    Stan, sorry for taking this little detour from the topic at hand —punctuation. Getting off-topic, online, seems to be a bad habit of mine.

  5. alexmccrae1546 says:


    Don’t want to make a big ‘to-do’ about it, but in the fourth paragraph of my last post I made an unwitting boo-boo, neglecting to add “to do” in the last line, which should have read, “….Thurber had nothing TO DO with THIS enterprise.” (I KNEW I should have had that first morning mug of coffee before blogging this morning.)

    Hmm… to err is human, to forgive, divine, right?

  6. Jonathon says:

    Twice now I’ve been asked if I’d like to review the book too. Based on what I’ve seen, I think I was right to pass.

  7. Stan says:

    Alex: Thurber, yes – I knew the drawing style reminded me of someone, but I couldn’t think who. No need to apologise: you’re relatively on-topic here!

    Jonathon: For what it’s worth, I think you were.

  8. wisewebwoman says:

    On so many levels: wow. Just wow.

  9. alexmccrae1546 says:

    Oops! (No.2)

    In my earlier post I appear to have also ‘botched up’ (pun intended) the spelling of the mystic Flemish painter of bizarre, phantasmagoric imagery, Hieronymous Bosch, having dropped the “i” in his first name, and omitting the letter “c”, between the “o” and the “s” in his surname. Oh well.

  10. The Ridger says:

    I dunno. For me, “they are longer than the hyphen which is not a dash” seems to pretty clearly say “hyphens are not dashes”, because the alternative “longer than the hyphen that is not a dash” straight up says some hyphens are dashes.

  11. Stan says:

    WWW: It needs less wow.

    Karen: The alternative I have in mind is “the hyphen, which is not a dash”. Omitting the comma makes the clause seem restrictive.

  12. the ridger says:

    Yes, with a comma I can that see that.

  13. […] marks in ques­tion are also incor­po­rated in the draw­ings. Clever! Stan Carey wrote a more crit­i­cal review over at Sen­tence First and I can’t really argue with what he says either. To be fair, he […]

  14. […] Stan Carey wrote a more crit­i­cal review over at Sen­tence First and I can’t really argue with what he says either. To be […]

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