Results of punctuation experiment

Thanks to everyone who took part in my punctuation experiment. I got more responses than I thought possible, thanks largely to Stan Carey spreading the word on Twitter.

To begin this discussion of the results, here is a photograph of all the books I took quotations from. The full-size image is large enough to read most of the small print.

I’d like this analysis to be a collaborative thing too. I’ll share the results and point out anything that strikes me as interesting. Looking at the same results, you may have your own ideas about what’s interesting, and I encourage you to share them. For example, how does knowing the authors’ original punctuation affect the way you read the passages? Is anything surprising? Illuminating? If you participated in the experiment, what thoughts do you have now about your own submissions? Did someone else punctuate in a way you wish you’d thought of?

Also welcome are comments on the way I’ve conducted the experiment. For example, I know Stan would endeavour to include passages from 18th and 19th Century writers, and with hindsight I’d probably add something to the instructions encouraging people to take their time. Would else you do differently? (I’ll point out that anyone can think of additional passages to add; the hard part is deciding what to leave out.)

You can even comment on the passages themselves, if you like. For example, you might want to discuss which of the seven books you would most might like to read.

Now, on with the results.

To make it easy to compare everyone’s responses with each other and with the original quotations, I have neatly tabulated everything in a PDF. Punctuation is highlighted, and I’ve shrunk the text down so that each submission fits on its own line (you’ll need to zoom in to read it). I’ve modified the submissions just slightly — standardised dashes and fixed obvious typos (these are documented in the original comment thread). If you would like to examine the results for yourself, I encourage you to open this PDF in a new browser tab and follow along. (Or, better, download the file, because you’re less likely to encounter bugs due to the high magnification in Adobe Reader than you are in a browser tab.)

Passage #1

This is from the anthology “Once More With Footnotes“, which includes both fiction and non-fiction by Terry Pratchett. Specifically, it’s from an article called “Magic Kingdoms“, which is about the role of fantasy in British culture, and was originally published in the Sunday Times. Terry credits Tolkien with re-establishing fantasy as a respectable genre for adults.

Here is the passage punctuated as the author intended:

Adults got involved only to the extent that some teachers carefully picked up any “escapist rubbish” the child was currently reading and dropped it in the bin. There are still, even now, some of those around — I believe a special circle of Hell is reserved for them. Of course fantasy is escapist. Most stories are. So what? Teachers are not meant to be jailers.

Now, here is the same passage punctuated democratically by everyone who participated in my experiment. At each point, I’ve used the punctuation mark chosen by more participants than any other, and in the case of a draw between two punctuation marks (this happens often), I’ve used the more exotic of the two.

Adults got involved only to the extent that some teachers carefully picked up any escapist rubbish the child was currently reading and dropped it in the bin. There are still, even now, some of those around. I believe a special circle of Hell is reserved for them. Of course fantasy is escapist — most stories are. So what? Teachers are not meant to be jailers.

Observations: Nobody used scare quotes around “escapist rubbish”. More than half the participants used a dash after “fantasy is escapist”, but nobody used one after “some of those around”. Evidentally, participants were not as inclined as Terry was to emphasise the bit about circles of Hell. Two participants found an alternative reading of the second half of the passage — Mark Noonan openly explains in the comments that he was joking around, but Laura Merritt’s reinterpretation is more reasonable.

Passage #2

This is from “The Outlander” by Gil Adamson. It’s from the first chapter, where we are introduced for the first time to the villains of the novel. For reasons I will not disclose, they are hunting the protagonist.

Original punctuation:

An hour later, two men stood waiting at the river’s edge — red-headed brothers with rifles across their backs. Large men, identical in every way, standing close by each other, not speaking. Each with huge chest and arms, sleeves rolled up, like two lumberjacks in a rustic play. But these were not lumberjacks. The pallor of their faces, the close trim of their beards, belied any suggestion of work. And they wore fine black boots.

Democratic punctuation:

An hour later two men stood waiting at the river’s edge. Red headed brothers with rifles across their backs, large men identical in every way, standing close by each other, not speaking, each with huge chest and arms, sleeves rolled up like two lumberjacks in a rustic play. But these were not lumberjacks. The pallor of their faces, the close trim of their beards, belied any suggestion of work. And they wore fine black boots.

Observations: Two people used a comma after “an hour later”. Some people used a colon after “river’s edge”, but nobody used a dash. Less than half the people hyphenated “red-headed”. A couple of people used a full stop after “across their backs”, and one used a semicolon. Two people used a comma after “large men”. Only one person (Laura Merritt) used a full stop after “not speaking”, and one other used a semicolon. Only one person (Mark Gallagher) placed a comma after “sleeves rolled up”. After “suggestion of work”, commas and full stops were tied. Overall I think Mark (Gallagher) came closest to the original.

Of all passages, this one was subject to the most variation, which I’d say is because it’s written in a “stream of consciousness” style whereby the boundaries between one thought and the next are more fluid than in other forms of prose.

Passage #3

This is from “The Gargoyle” by Andrew Davidson. At the beginning of the story, the protagonist’s body is severely burned in a nasty accident, and here he is inviting the reader to imagine what it felt like.

Original punctuation:

And hold it there. Hold it there as the element scorches Dante’s nine rings right into your palm, allowing you to grasp Hell in your hand forever. Let the heat engrave the skin, the muscles, the tendons; let it smolder down to the bone. Wait for the burn to embed itself so far into you that you don’t know if you’ll ever be able to let go of that coil. It won’t be long until the stench of your own burning flesh wafts up, grabbing your nose hairs and refusing to let go, and you smell your body burn.

Democratic punctuation:

And hold it there, hold it there as the element scorches Dante’s nine rings right into your palm, allowing you to grasp Hell in your hand forever. Let the heat engrave the skin, the muscles, the tendons. Let it smolder down to the bone. Wait for the burn to embed itself so far into you that you don’t know if you’ll ever be able to let go of that coil. It won’t be long until the stench of your own burning flesh wafts up, grabbing your nose hairs and refusing to let go, and you smell your body burn.

Observations: Some people ended a sentence after the first “hold it there”, but more than half did not — there were a couple of full stops, a semicolon, and an exclamation mark, but commas were most popular. Nobody used a semicolon after “tendons”. Two participants used exclamation marks in this passage (Ravi Murugesan used three; Mark Gallagher used two), but the only point where they both used one is after “down to the bone”.

Passage #4

This is from “A History Of Card Games” by David Parlett, specifically the chapter devoted to the history of rulebooks, tutorials, and other written descriptions of card games. Here he is talking about some of the very earliest sources (from the mid-17th Century) that contain rules.

Original punctuation:

As instruction manuals they leave much to be desired. The effective communication of basic game mechanics requires not just the ability to think logically and write simply — which is obvious, and can be perfected by practice — but, more importantly, that of anticipating on the part of the learner elementary queries and misunderstandings about things that experts take for granted.

Democratic punctuation:

As instruction manuals, they leave much to be desired. The effective communication of basic game mechanics requires not just the ability to think logically and write simply — which is obvious and can be perfected by practice — but more importantly, that of anticipating on the part of the learner elementary queries and misunderstandings about things that experts take for granted.

Observations: More than half the people placed a comma after “manuals”. Most surrounded the same phrase in dashes that the original author did, but none broke it up with a comma after “obvious”. Ravi Murugesan’s version is an interesting inversion: placing between commas what the original author placed between dashes, and vice versa. Ravi was the only participant to surround the phrase “more importantly” with some sort of punctuation — though exactly half the participants placed a comma after this phrase. Also interesting is Mark Noonan’s decision to place “experts” in scare quotes, which is the only occasion where any participant used scare quotes in any passage. (As I said in the comments, there are experts in basic game mechanics, and there are experts in their effective communication, and they are not necessarily the same people.)

Passage #5

This is from the introduction to “Guardian of the Trust” by Irene Radford. It’s a historical fantasy novel, and in the introduction the author shares her reflections on her research and the historical facts behind the story. (Incidentally, the book includes a modern translation of the Magna Carta as an appendix.)

Original punctuation:

Reading the Magna Carta the first time can be disappointing. It is not a declaration of the rights of man. It is rather a peace treaty between John and his barons, based upon economics. The common man had very little to do with it. On second reading it becomes more interesting, indeed a fascinating peek into the priorities of the barony of the period. It also gives hints about some of John’s shortcomings as a king.

Democratic punctuation:

Reading the Magna Carta the first time can be disappointing. It is not a declaration of the rights of man; it is rather a peace treaty between John and his barons based upon economics. The common man had very little to do with it. On second reading it becomes more interesting — indeed, a fascinating peek into the priorities of the barony of the period. It also gives hints about some of John’s shortcomings as a king.

Observations: One person (Ravi Murugesan) used a full stop after “rights of man”, one person (Duncan Waldron) used a comma after “John and his barons”, and one person (Stan) used a comma after “more interesting” and no punctuation after “indeed”. Everyone used at least one semicolon, colon or dash, unlike the original author.

Passage #6

This is from “Traditional Music in Ireland” by Tomás Ó Canainn, specifically the chapter on sean-nós singing. The book isn’t for everyone — it has more of a geeky, analytical approach than most books on music — but I for one find it interesting.

Original punctuation:

The question of contact is an interesting one because it often happens that one of the audience comes forward to hold the hand of the singer at some high point in the song and will even emphasise either the rhythm of the song or an important sentiment by grasping the hand more firmly and moving it up and down. One cannot help feeling, on such occasions, that this one person speaks for the whole audience and is conveying to the singer the sense of participation in the song that they all feel.

Democratic punctuation:

The question of contact is an interesting one, because it often happens that one of the audience comes forward to hold the hand of the singer at some high point in the song, and will even emphasise either the rhythm of the song or an important sentiment by grasping the hand more firmly and moving it up and down. One cannot help feeling on such occasions that this one person speaks for the whole audience and is conveying to the singer the sense of participation in the song that they all feel.

Observations: Half of the participants placed a comma after “interesting one”, and half placed one after “high point in the song”, but most people placed a comma after at least one or the other. There was less of a tendency to punctuate the second sentence. Only one person (Mark Gallagher) placed commas where the original author did, around “on such occasions”. However, Mark used seven commas in all — more than anyone else — compared to the original author’s two.

This was one of only two occasions where a pair of participants punctuated the same passage in exactly the same way. Daibhid Ceannaideach and Laura Merritt achieved this by not using any commas at all.

Passage #7

This is from the introduction to “An Introduction to Irish Poetry” by Seán Dunne. The book itself is an anthology of poems by various authors, and comes with an accompanying cassette tape. The introduction is somewhat unusual as introductions go, reading more like an editorial than an overview. It contains Seán’s take on Irish culture and the place of poetry within it.

I felt Stan as my spirit guide when I was selecting the quotations, which is probably why I picked two Irish books. It may or may not be a mercy that I didn’t use my copy of Celtic Folklore Cooking.

Original punctuation:

Walking one afternoon through the grounds of St.Edna’s in Rathfarnam, I saw a small bridge with some people around it. I asked a local who they were and was told they were heroin addicts who often met there to deal and get a fix. The thought went through me like ice, an absolute image of modern Ireland: heroin addicts in Patrick Pearse’s school.

Democratic punctuation:

Walking one afternoon through the grounds of St Edna’s in Rathfarnam, I saw a small bridge with some people around it. I asked a local who they were and was told they were heroin addicts who often met there to deal and get a fix. The thought went through me like ice: an absolute image of modern Ireland — heroin addicts in Patrick Pearse’s school.

Observations: I included this passage mostly because I wanted to see how people would handle the consecutive ‘colonable’ phrases at the end. The most common approaches were either a colon after “like ice” and a dash after “modern Ireland” (as shown above), or else a full stop after “like ice” and a colon after “modern Ireland”. Each approach was followed by two people, and the two who used a full stop and colon (Daibhid Ceannaideach and Stan Carey) punctuated the passage in exactly the same way. Nobody placed a dot after the abbreviation “St”.

Over to you

I’ve given a broad rather than deep overview, focussing on comparisons with the original texts because that’s easy. But different perspectives are needed to make the analysis complete. I would therefore love to hear from the people who participated in the experiment — with any thoughts you may have concerning how you feel about the experiment with hindsight, what impact the different versions of the passages have, and anything else that strikes you as worth mentioning.

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6 Responses to “Results of punctuation experiment”

  1. dannybloom Says:

    Did you cover the whole issue of scare quotes (sic) and whether or not that term is a misnomer and should be
    replaced with a better more meaningful term? google and Stan know my work too, but he is shy to blog or twitter it
    yet, ask him why, at “scare quotes + dan bloom” to see my entire work of last 900 days on this…SMILE danny

  2. Flesh-eating Dragon Says:

    Immediately after receiving the above comment from Danny Bloom, I received a number of other, much longer, comments also from Danny.

    These comments were a gross violation of Internet ethics. Comment threads on blogs are not an appropriate forum for lengthy promotion of off-topic campaigns. I’ve allowed the first one to stand because it’s short.

    I have marked Danny’s subsequent comments as spam. Because of the Akismet anti-spam filter used by WordPress, this means that in future, Danny will find it more difficult to post comments not only here but on ANY WordPress blog.

    And incidentally, I am aware of Danny’s comments on Stan’s blog, and of Stan’s response (via Twitter) thereto.

  3. Stan Says:

    Very interesting, Adrian. Thanks for the time and effort you put into this. Passage #2 felt to me like the loosest passage, and for the reason you mention: its stream-of-consciousness style. I thought about putting a full stop after the abbreviation St in #7, but decided against it. Slightly surprised no one else added one either.

    Your experiment neatly demonstrates how much variation there can be in legitimate punctuation style. Sometimes I preferred the original punctuation, and sometimes I preferred my own or another participant’s. As an editor I see a wide range of styles, not all of them appropriate. (Some amateur writers, for example, use a lot of semicolons but mostly incorrectly; others never use them but would benefit from learning how to do so.)

    I think some prose underwhelms because the writer doesn’t appreciate how much variation is possible in punctuation style, and they fail to capitalise on the dramatic power or rhetorical effect of a simple switch from one set of marks to another.

    Honoured to be your spirit guide, by the way!

  4. Elsha Hawk Says:

    Sometimes a period is the most powerful mark.

  5. Flesh-eating Dragon Says:

    Thanks, Stan. I enjoyed the experience. When I started gathering passages I was just idly pondering which quotations I would use, but once I got going I couldn’t stop myself, and I had to see it through! Deciding how to present the results was also a lot of fun — I looked upon it as a puzzle to be solved. Arguably what’s most interesting is not something that can be captured in analysis, but one has to try.

    I’m always hesitant to call the dot after an abbreviation a full stop, since it doesn’t stop anything in that context. It seems more logical to reserve the term for the dot at the end of a sentence. But then, logic is strictly optional at best.

    There were occasions when participants’ responses weren’t quite legitimate, but I chose not to draw attention to those.

    Quotation #5 is an example of a passage that does not contain semicolons but could easily accommodate them. Every participant used at least one semicolon, colon or dash when repunctuating it, an observation I neglected to mention when writing the above (perhaps because it feels almost inevitable), but may append later [edit: have now added]. Though I wonder how differently people would punctuate if they weren’t primed to think about punctuation.

    As an endorsement of Elsha’s point, I’ll simply point to passage #3 and say that the full stop after “hold it there” makes it much more dramatic in my opinion (while, unlike an exclamation mark, allowing the drama to speak for itself).

    I got some responses via Twitter, for example Ravi said he would have liked to get a score indicating how close he was to the original. I replied that he is welcome to invent his own algorithm for generating such a score. I can think of some crude algorithms, but it would be extremely difficult to do satisfactorily.

  6. Stan Says:

    I think the way you presented the results, both the PDF with highlights and the original vs. democratic comparison, works very well. When I carry on the experiment on my own blog, I’ll probably do the same or similar. You’re probably right about the term full stop; I just didn’t think it through at the time of writing.

    A score indicating closeness to the original would seem at odds with what the experiment seeks to study: how people would punctuate text, as opposed to how people think the original text was punctuated. It would also introduce a competitive aspect that’s unnecessary and might be off-putting to some participants.


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