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17 March 2013

The importance of punctuation, an example from Evelyn Waugh

Evelyn Waugh as a younger man
One of the hardest aspects of written English to explain to Russians is punctuation because the two languages have completely different conventions. Essentially, in English it is about preserving the rhythm of the sentence and paragraph, whereas in Russian there are a lot of rigid rules (e.g. it is always потему, что) which I frankly do not see the need for, and which no Russian seems to be able to justify.
     In English, punctuation is also useful as an aid to clarity. I am still thoroughly enjoying Evenly Waugh’s Diaries (see last post and 9 March), and now getting sadly close to the end. This afternoon, reading languidly in bed while recovering from the excitement of the Emerald Ball (St Patrick’s Day) last night, with its Guinness, wine, Tullamore Dew whisky, Coole Swan liqueur and many other delights, including a dark, exotic lady in a long black dress, I came across the following passage, in which the last sentence is ambiguous purely due to the inadequate punctuation, specifically the lack of commas.
Monday 16 December 1946
“At 5 o’clock there was the Beefsteak committee meeting…. During the meeting I drank a lot of whisky and went rather drunk to a cocktail party given by John Murray [publisher] where I got very drunk. Rose Macaulay attempted a serious conversation in which I did not shine. I spent most of the time with Hermione Ranfurly jeering at people who were introduced to me and ended by bearing off a diminutive man called Gibbings to White’s [Club] for champagne cocktails. From then my memory is vague but I went to bed early I think at the Hyde Park Hotel.”
     Due to the lack of any commas in the last sentence, the reader is left wondering whether Waugh was in doubt about the time he went to bed or the place.
     To be clear, he should have written either:
“From then my memory is vague but I went to bed, early I think, at the Hyde Park Hotel.” (doubt about time)
“From then my memory is vague but I went to bed early, I think at the Hyde Park Hotel.” (doubt about place)
     One wonders what else he might have been uncertain about if he had been at so lavish an event as the Emerald Ball. However, if he had jeered at the dark, exotic lady in my presence, I would have been compelled to have had words with him that should have had a sobering effect.


  1. What do you mean by 'no Russian seems to be able to justify'?
    Quite offensive.
    I can justify all punctuation rules in Russian. And can you, for instance, justify the necessity of sticking to existing spelling in English? Which is extremely confusing because in most cases there are no clear rules what so ever - why is the word heart spelled like that? Shouldn't it be 'hart'? Like in 'dark' or 'bark'?
    Those who object to punctuation rules in Russian do it mostly because they don't know them.
    If you object to something just because you are not educated enough in this specific area, it's bare ignorance. Simples :)

  2. Thanks for taking the time to discuss this, I feel strongly about it and love learning more on this topic. If possible, as you gain expertise, would you mind updating your blog with extra information? It is extremely helpful for me. free comma checker