In Praise of the Humble Comma
The gods, they say, give breath, and they take it away. But the samesaid-could be said-could it not?-of the humble comma. Add it to the present clause, and, all of a sudden, the mind is, quite literally, given pause to think; take it out if you wish or forget it and the mind is deprived of a resting place. Yet still the comma gets no respea. It seems just a slip of a thing, a pedant's tick, a blip on the edge of our consciousness, a kind of printer's smudge almost. Small, we claim, is beautiful (especially in the age of the microchip). Yet what is so often used, and so rarely called, as the comma-unless it be breath itself?
Punctuation, one is taught, has a point: to keep up law and order. Punctuation marks are the road signs placed along the highway of our communication——to control speeds，provide directions and prevent head-on collisions. A period has the unblinking finality of a red light, the comma is a flashing yellow light that asks us only to slow down, and the semicolon is a stop sign that tells us to ease gradually to a halt, before gradually starting up again. By establishing the relations between words, punctuation establishes the relations between the people using words. That may be one reason why school teachers exalt it and lovers defy it ("we love each other and belong to each other let’s don’t ever hurt each other Nicole let's don't ever hurt each other,” wrote Gary Gilmore to his girlfriend )A comma ，he must have known, "separate inseparables" ，in the clinching words of H. W. Fowler, King of English Usage.
Punctuation, then, is a civic prop, a pillar that holds society upright. (A run on sentence, its phrases piling up without division, is as unsightly as a sink piled high with dirty dishes.)Small wonder,then,that punctuation was one of the first proprieties of the Victorian age, the age of the corset, that the modernists threw off the sexual revolution might be said to have begun when Joyce's Molly Bloomis spilled out all her private thoughts in 36 pages of unbridled, almost unperioded and officially censored prose: and another are bellion was surely marked when E.E.Cummings first felt free to commit "God" to the lower case.
Punctuation thus becomes the signatrire of cultures. The hot-blooded Spaniard seems to be revealed in the passion and urgency of his doubled exclamation points and question marks ( "iCaramba! LQuien sabe?"), while the impassive Chinese traditionally added to his so-called inscrutability by omitting directions from his ideograms. The anarchy and commotion of the 60s were given voice in the exploding exclamation marks, riotous capital letters and Day-Glo italics of Tom Wolfe's spray-paint prose; and in Communist societies, where the State is absolute, the dignity-and divinity-of capital letters is reserved for Ministries, Sub-Committees and Secretariats.
于是，标点成了不同文化的标志。西班牙人性好激动，打惊叹号打问号都用双重的（“jCaramba! LQuien sabe?”见鬼啦！谁能明白？）情真意切，如见其人；中国人则不好动声色，表意字的文言自古就不注标点，所谓胸有城府，益见其深。汤姆·沃尔夫那种喷漆式的散文体，惊叹号一哄而起，大写字母泛滥成灾，斜体字像是涂了荧光漆，无不表达了60年代的无法无天和乱作一团；而在共产党当政的社会，国家至上，大写字母的尊严——与神威——只留给政府各部委和书记处享用。
Yet punctuation is something more than a culture's birthmark; it scores the music in our minds, gets our thoughts moving to the rhythm of our hearts. Punctuation is the notation in the sheet music of our words, telling us when to rest, or when to raise our voices; it acknowledges that the meaning of our discourse, as of any symphonic composition, lies not only in the units but in the pauses, the pacing and the phrasing. Punctuation is the way one bats one's eyes, lowers one's voice or blushes demurely. Punctuation adjusts the tone and color and volume till the feeling comes into perfea focus: not disgust exactly, but distastes; not lust, or like, but love.
Punctuation, in short, gives us the human voice, and all the meanings that lie between the words. "You aren't young, are you?" loses its innocence when it loses the question mark. Every child knows the menace of a dropped apostrophe (the parent's "Don't do that" shifting into the more slowly enunciated "Do not do that"), and every believer, the ignominy of having his faith reduced to "faith." Add an exclamation point to "To be or not to be..." and the gloomy Dane m has all the resolve he needs; add a comma, and the noble sobriety of "God save the Queen" becomes a cry of desperation bordering on double sacrilege.
简言之，标点给我们传来话音，传来字里行间的全部含义。“你不小了，是吧？”这话去掉问号，无心便成了有意。做父母的先是说“Don't do that”（“别做那事”），转而又慢声慢气交代清楚：“Do not.dothat”（不要做那事），每个孩子都听得明白，拿掉了撇号可就把话说绝了。每个信徒也都明白，把他的信教加上引号，所谓“信教”，那可是在污辱他。给“生存或者灭亡……”一句添上个惊叹号，那位忧心忡忡的丹麦人便是毅然决然万死不辞之士。在“上帝保佑女王”中间加个逗号，那崇高的庄严则成了绝望的呼号，简直是对双方的亵渎。
Sometimes, of course, our markings may be simply a matter of aesthetics.Popping in a comma can be like slipping on the necklace that gives an outfit quiet elegance, or like catching the sound of running water that complements as it completes the silence of a Japanese landscape. When VS.
Naipaul , in his latest novel, writes, "He was a middle-aged man, with glasses," the first comma can seem a little precious. Yet it gives the description a spin, as well as a subtlety, that it otherwise lacks, and it shows that the glasses are not part of the middle-agedness, but something else.
Thus all these tiny scratches give us breadth and heft and depth. A world that has only periods is a world without inflections. It is a world without shade. It has a music without sharps and flats. It is a martial music. It has a jackboot rhythm. Words cannot bend and curve. A comma, by comparison,catches the gentle drift of the mind in thought, turning in on itself and back on itself, reversing, redoubling and returning along the course of its own sweet river music; while the semicolon brings clauses and thoughts together with all the silent discretion of a hostess arranging guests around her dinner table.
Punctuation, then, is a matter of care. Care for words, yes, but also, and more important, for what the words imply. Only a lover notices the small things: the way the afternoon light catches the nape of a neck, or how a strand of hair slips out from behind an ear, or the way a finger curls around a cup. And no one scans a letter so closely as a lover, searching for its small print, straining to hear its nuances, its gasps, its sighs and hesitations, poring over the secret messages that lie in every cadence. The difference between"Jane (whom I adore)" and "Jane, whom I adore," and the difference between them both and "Jane-whom I adore-" marks all the distance between ecstasy and heartache. "No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put at just the right place," in Isaac Babel's lovely words; a comma can let us hear a voice break, or a heart. Punctuation, in fact, is a labor of love. Which brings us back in a way to gods.