Event Abstract

A cognitive pragmatic approach to punctuation

  • 1 University of Pisa, Philology, Literature and Linguistics, Italy

In the Preface to his “Making a Point”, David Crystal writes: “There are two extreme views about punctuation. The first is that you dont actually need it because its perfectly possible to write down what you want to say without any punctuation marks or capital letters and people can still read it youdontevenneedspacebetweenwordsreally they dont exist when we speak to each other after all and yet we none the less understand what people are saying. The second is that it’s essential because it aids legibility. It’s much easier to read if there’s punctuation. Also, the marks show us how to read aloud in a way that reflects the pauses, rhythm, and melody that we use in speech. They help us see the grammar of complex sentences. And they help us sort out ambiguities – otherwise, nobody would ever have got the joke in Eats, Shoots and Leaves”. (Crystal 2015, p.IX) With individual opinions ranging between the two extremes, the scientific debate mainly focuses on the prosodic versus grammatical function of punctuation. Studies in corpus linguistics and computational analysis of texts similarly hinge on the rhetorico-prosodic vs parsing function of punctuation. In psycholinguistics, inappropriate punctuation that is incongruent with the underlying syntax has been proven to impair reading speed and comprehension Some experiments have shown the role of commas as facilitators in disambiguating tasks (especially in garden-path sentences). However, it has also been pointed out that in other, less critical cases, commas seem to be transparent; moreover, the effects of optional punctuation are virtually unknown and in most cases the semantic and pragmatic constraints and implications of some punctuation choices have been totally neglected. In this paper I will claim that the prosodic vs grammatical approach is an oversimplification, by itself insufficient to explain the complexities of punctuation systems: no matter how hard we try to systematically connect punctuation with intonation, pauses and syntactic boundaries, exceptions will always turn out in usage that force us to find specific explanations in specific contexts in terms of intentionality, attitudes, pragmatic force, etc. As an alternative, I would like to put forward the following hypothesis: punctuation is a complex dynamic system of signs, adaptable to contexts and sensitive to semantic and pragmatic meanings. The proper domain of investigation of punctuation is neither the word nor the sentence but the text. From a cognitive point of view, punctuation marks contribute to the economy of text interpretability indicating points in the text where cognitive processes may operate to construct a pattern which enables its interpretation in an efficient, efficacious and appropriate manner. Within this perspective, prosodic and syntactic markings, in most cases not overlapping, turn out to identify only two of the possible patterns of text meaning interpretation: others include semantic and pragmatic dimensions - for example, different punctuation marks may differently contribute to signal the points where higher order explicatures can be constructed in order to make a proposition cohere with the rest of the text. Viewing punctuation as dynamic and adaptable to contexts, rather than rigidly rule-governed and consequently envisaging lots of exceptions, allows us to move away from “correctness” as the sole criterion of its evaluation and to replace it (or to integrate it) with more flexible criteria stemming from theoretically motivated principles. Here I will investigate the interaction of the semiotic principle of naturalness / markedness, with the pragmatic principle of Relevance. More particularly, I will argue that punctuation assumes more or less marked / more or less natural configurations depending on some choices along scales of naturalness defined by cognitive-semiotic parameters among which diagrammatic iconicity. The potential values of markedness/naturalness set up by these scales interact with the communicative principle of Relevance to make some configurations that would otherwise appear “marked” actually “optimal” in the communicative context. This framework is meant to systematically account for such cases as: a) lack of punctuation, as in Joyce’s stream of consciousness: “I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”― James Joyce, Ulysses. b) Discourse segmentation as in: “And the people kept coming into the little station so that it was even more crowded than the big station. And then I couldn’t see the walls anymore and the back of someone’s jacket touched my knee and I felt sick and I started groaning really loudly and the lady on the bench stood up and no one else sat down. And I felt like I felt like when I had a flu and I had to stay in bed all day and all of me hurt and I couldn’t walk or eat or go to sleep or do maths.” (M. Haddon, The curious incident of the dog in the night-time) c) The use of full stops to separate nouns - not sentences or clauses, as grammarians would prescribe: “But there is also punishment and self-imposed pain here – guilt, perhaps, at taking the role of breadwinner away from the father. Anxiety. Solitude. Defilement. Despair. Blacking. All these things come together, and we are left with the image of a young boy writhing in agony on the rat-infested floor”. (Oxford English Grammar, 512) d) The emergence of some attitudes (ex. irony) in specific punctuation contexts: Joe promised to write the article when he had the time. Joe promised to write the article, when he had the time. Joe promised to write the article. When he had the time.


BATTISTELLA, EDWIN 1996 “Marked and Unmarked Punctuation Signs in English”, Prague Linguistic Circle Papers: 235- 52.
BAYRAKTAR, MURAT, SAY BILGE, AKMAN VAROL 1998, “ An Analysis of English Punctuation: The Special Case of Comma”, International Journal of Corpus Linguistics, 3/1: 33-57.
BERTUCCELLI PAPI, MARCELLA 2006, “Cognitive complexity and the lexicon”, in LAVINIA MERLINI (a c.di), Complexity in language and text, Pisa, Plus: 67-116.
BERTUCCELLI PAPI, MARCELLA, 2017, Naturalezza e marcatezza nella punteggiatura inglese, in Atti del Convegno di Basilea "La punteggiatura in Europa oggi. Teorie e descrizioni. Basilea 6-7 settembre 2016,in cds, Cesati 2017.
BUZZONI, MARINA 2008, “La punteggiatura nei testi di lingua inglese”, in BICE MORTARA GARAVELLI (a c. di), Storia della punteggiatura, Bari, Laterza: 442-491.
CARSTON, ROBYN 2009, “The explicit/implicit distinction in pragmatics and the limits of explicit communication”, International Review of pragmatics: 35-62.
CHAFE, WALLACE 1988,” Punctuation and the Prosody of Written Language”, Written Communication 5: 395-426.
CRYSTAL, DAVID 2015, Making a Point, London, Profile Books.
DALE, ROBERT 1991, “Exploring the Role of Punctuation in the Signalling of Discourse Structure”. In Proceedings of a Workshop on Text Representation and Domain Modelling: Ideas from Linguistics and AI, Technical University of Berlin, Berlin, Germany: 110–120.
DE LACY, PAUL (ed.) 2007, Cambridge Handbook of Phonology, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
DRESSLER, WOLGANG U. 1995, “Interactions between iconicity and other semiotic parameters in language”, in Simone (ed.):21-37.
HAIMANN, JOHN 1985, Iconicity in Syntax, Amsterdam, Benjamins.
FERRARI, ANGELA 2003, Le ragioni del testo. Aspetti morfo-sintattici e interpuntivi dell’italiano contemporaneo, Firenze, Accademia della Crusca.
FERRARI, ANGELA et. al. 2008 L’interfaccia lingua-testo. Forme e funzioni dell’organizzazione informativa dell’enunciato, Alessandria, Edizioni dell’Orso.
GRINDLAY, BENJAMIN 2002, Missing the point: the effect of punctuation on reading performance. Adelaide, Australia: Adelaide University Dissertation.
HALL, ALISON, ROBYN CARSTON 2012, “Implicature and explicature” in Schmid, HJ (ed.) Handbook of Cognitive Pragmatics, De Gruyter, Mouton: 47-84.
JONES, BERNARD 1994, “Exploring the Role of Punctuation in Parsing Natural Language”, in Proceedings of the 15th International Conference on Computational Linguistics (COLING-94), Kyoto, Japan: 421–425.
JONES, BERNARD 1996°, “Towards Testing the Syntax of Punctuation”, in Proceedings of the 34th Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics (ACL), Santa Cruz, California: 363–365.
JONES, BERNARD 1996b, “Towards a Syntactic Account of Punctuation”, in Proceedings of the 16th International Conference on Computational Linguistics (COLING-96), Copenhagen, Denmark: 604–609.
JONES BERNARD, 1997, “What’s the Point? A (Computational) Theory of Punctuation”, PhD Thesis. Centre for Cognitive Science, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh.
LANGENDONCK, WILLY VAN 2010, “Iconicity”, in Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
MORO, ANDREA 2015, I confini di Babele. Il cervello e il mistero delle lingue impossibili, Bologna, Il Mulino.
NÖTH, WINFRIED 2008, “Semiotic foundations of natural linguistics and diagrammatical iconicity”, in Willems - de Cuypere (eds.):73-100.
NUNBERG, GEOFFREY 1990, “The Linguistics of Punctuation”, Stanford, California, CSLI Publications.
NUNBERG, GEOFFREY, TED BRISCOE, RODNEY HUDDLESTON, 2001, “Punctuation”, in RODNEY HUDDLESTON, GEOFFREY. K. PULLUM (eds.) The Cambridge Grammar of the English language, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 1723-1764.
PERNISS, PAMELA, GABRIELLA VIGLIOCCO, 2014 “The bridge of iconicity: From a world of experience to the experience of language”, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 369: 1-13.
SIMONE, RAFFAELE (ed.),1995, Iconicity in language, Amsterdam, Benjamins.
SPERBER, DAN, DEIRDRE WILSON 1987/1995 Relevance. Communication and Cognition, Oxford, Blackwell.
WILLEMS,KLAAS, LUDOVIC DE CUYPERE (eds.), 2008, Naturalness and iconicity in language, Amsterdam, Benjamins.

Keywords: Punctuation, naturaleness, Markedness, relevance, text interpretability

Conference: XPRAG.it Behavioral and Neural Evidence on Pragmatic Processing , Genoa, Italy, 10 Jun - 11 Jun, 2017.

Presentation Type: Oral Presentation

Topic: Cognitive approaches to pragmatics

Citation: BERTUCCELLI M (2019). A cognitive pragmatic approach to punctuation. Front. Psychol. Conference Abstract: XPRAG.it Behavioral and Neural Evidence on Pragmatic Processing . doi: 10.3389/conf.fpsyg.2017.71.00015

Copyright: The abstracts in this collection have not been subject to any Frontiers peer review or checks, and are not endorsed by Frontiers. They are made available through the Frontiers publishing platform as a service to conference organizers and presenters.

The copyright in the individual abstracts is owned by the author of each abstract or his/her employer unless otherwise stated.

Each abstract, as well as the collection of abstracts, are published under a Creative Commons CC-BY 4.0 (attribution) licence (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/) and may thus be reproduced, translated, adapted and be the subject of derivative works provided the authors and Frontiers are attributed.

For Frontiers’ terms and conditions please see https://www.frontiersin.org/legal/terms-and-conditions.

Received: 01 May 2017; Published Online: 25 Jan 2019.

* Correspondence: Prof. MARCELLA BERTUCCELLI, University of Pisa, Philology, Literature and Linguistics, Pisa, Italy, marcella.bertuccelli@unipi.it