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Theodor Adorno on the Art of Punctuation

A manifesto for the “friendly spirits whose bodiless presence nourishes the body of language.”

Theodor Adorno on the Art of Punctuation

Mary Oliver once joked — perhaps semi-seriously, as is the poet’s prerogative — that each writer has a finite lifetime quota of punctuation, which should be used judiciously to shepherd language into as much elegant submission as the writer is capable of. But half a century earlier, in 1956, the legendary German sociologist, philosopher, musicologist, and media critic Theodor Adorno (September 11, 1903–August 6, 1969) penned an essay titled “Punctuation Marks,” in which he made it abundantly clear that punctuation was no joke — used well, he argued, it bespeaks the writer’s mastery of language; deployed thoughtlessly or haphazardly, it is at best a giveaway of a novice writer’s nervousness and at worst a shameful assault on the written word. A translation of it by Shierry Weber Nicholsen was first published in the Summer 1990 issue of the poetry journal The Antioch Review and later included in Jennifer DeVere Brody’s altogether excellent Punctuation: Art, Politics, and Play (public library), the essay explores the “definitive physiognomic status” of each punctuation mark, its uses and abuses in the hands of writers, and how punctuation helps shed light on the relationship between language and music which, as we know, worked in tandem to help humanity evolve.

Adorno begins with a wink, remarking on the resemblance a punctuation mark’s form has to its symbolic function:

An exclamation point looks like an index finger raised in warning;a question mark looks like a flashing light or the blink of an eye. A colon, says Karl Kraus, opens its mouth wide: woe to the writer who does not fill it with something nourishing. Visually, the semicolon looks like a drooping mustache; I am even more aware of its gamey taste. With self-satisfied peasant cunning, German quotation marks (« ») lick their lips.

But more than mere visual diversion, Adorno notes, punctuation marks are the stitches that hold the quilt of language together and are thus impossible to ignore:

Instead of diligently serving the interplay between language and the reader,they serve, hieroglyphically, an interplay that takes place in the interior of language, along its own pathways. Hence it is superfluous to omit them as being superfluous: then they simply hide. Every text, even the most densely woven, cites them of its own accord — friendly spirits whose bodiless presence nourishes the body of language.

Adorno considers the evolution of punctuation marks, as much a stylistic pawn in the hands of fads and fashions as any element of culture:

History has left its residue in punctuation marks, and it is history,far more than meaning or grammatical function, that looks out at us, rigidified and trembling slightly, from every mark of punctuation.


The historical character of punctuation marks can be seen in the fact that what becomes outdated in them is precisely what was once modern in them. Exclamation points, gestures of authority with which the writer tries to impose an emphasis external to the matter itself, have become intolerable,while the sforzato, the musical counterpart of the exclamation point, is as indispensable today as it was in Beethoven’s time, when it marked the incursion of the subjective will into the musical fabric.

Indeed, he reserves special lamentation for the discouraging fate of the exclamation point, demoted from a medium of art to a greedy grubbing for attention where language alone fails to induce it:

Exclamation points, however, have degenerated into usurpers of authority, assertions of importance. It was exclamation points, incidentally, that gave German Expressionism its graphic form. Their proliferation was both a protest against convention and a symptom of the inability to alter the structure of language from within; language was attacked from the outside instead. Exclamation points survive as tokens of the disjunction between idea and realization in that period, and their impotent evocation redeems them in memory: a desperate written gesture that yearns in vain to transcend language.

He moves on to the dash — not “the serious dash” of the nineteenth century that Adorno admires as “wrinkles on the brow of [the] text” (and not — though, oddly enough, he makes no effort to note the notable exception — Emily Dickinson’s spectacular and graceful use of the mark that “both reaches out and holds at bay”), but the application of the dash as an ill-fated effort to assuage the writer’s anxiety:

Literary dilettantes … hook sentences together with logical connectives even though the logical relationship asserted by those connectives does not hold. To the person who cannot truly conceive anything as a unit, anything that suggests disintegration or discontinuity is unbearable; only a person who can grasp totality can understand caesuras. But the dash provides instruction in them. In the dash, thought becomes aware of its fragmentary character. It is no accident that in the era of the progressive degeneration of language, this mark of punctuation is neglected precisely insofar as it fulfills its function: when it separates things that feign a connection. All the dash claims to do now is to prepare us in a foolish way for surprises that by that very token are no longer surprising.

Adorno eviscerates with equal zeal the corruption of the ellipsis in the hands of “hacks”:

The ellipsis, a favorite way of leaving sentences meaningfully open during the period when Impressionism became a commercialized mood, suggests an infinitude of thoughts and associations, something the hack journalist does not have; he must depend on typography to simulate them. But to reduce the three dots borrowed from the repeating decimal fractions of arithmetic to two … is to imagine that one can continue with impunity to lay claim to that fictive infinitude by costuming as exact something whose inherent intention is to be inexact. The punctuation of the brazen hack is no better than that of the modest hack.

He offers a prescription for the proper use of quotation marks, cautioning particularly against the use of ironic quotes — which makes one picture Adorno at a cocktail party, splashing an indignant cold beverage in the face of any conversation partner who dares to gesticulate “air quotes.” Adorno writes:

Quotation mark should be used only when something is quoted and if need be when the text wants to distance itself from a word it is referring to. They are to be rejected as an ironic device. For they exempt the writer from the spirit whose claim is inherent in irony, and they violate the very concept of irony by separating it from the matter at hand and presenting a predetermined judgment on the subject.

(I have always cringed similarly at writers’ use of italics for artificial emphasis — if the writing itself is strong enough, it should imply the urgent significance of that word or phrase rather than stylize it. There are, of course — as with anything in life — some very limited exceptions.)

Adorno has a special soft spot for the semicolon — those peculiar in-between marks bridging period and comma, of which Kurt Vonnegut memorably scoffed: “They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” Adorno, however, laments the death of the semicolon as a real loss for the artistry of language and points to our impatience with long-form reading — more than half a century before our present era of short-form-everything — as the culprit:

Theodor Haecker was rightfully alarmed by the fact that the semicolon is dying out; this told him that no one can write a period, a sentence containing several balanced clauses, any more. Part of this incapacity is the fear of page-long paragraphs, a fear created by the marketplace — by the consumer who does not want to tax himself and to whom first editors and then writers accommodated for the sake of their incomes, until finally they invented ideologies for their own accommodation, like lucidity, objectivity, and concise precision. Language and subject matter cannot be kept separate in this process. The sacrifice of the period leaves the idea short of breath. Prose is reduced to the “protocol sentence,” the darling of the logical positivists, to a mere recording of facts, and when syntax and punctuation relinquish the right to articulate and shape the facts, to critique them, language is getting ready to capitulate to what merely exists, even before thought has time to perform this capitulation eagerly on its own for the second time. It starts with the loss of a semicolon; it ends with the ratification of imbecility by a reasonableness purged of all admixtures.

But Adorno’s highest litmus test for elegance in writing is reserved for the thoughtful deployment of parentheses:

The test of a writer’s sensitivity in punctuating is the way he handles parenthetical material. The cautious writer will tend to place that material between dashes and not in round brackets, for brackets take the parenthesis completely out of the sentence, creating enclaves, as it were, whereas nothing in good prose should be unnecessary to the overall structure. By admitting such superfluousness, brackets implicitly renounce the claim to the integrity of the linguistic form and capitulate to pedantic philistinism. Dashes, in contrast, which block off the parenthetical material from the flow of the sentence without shutting it up in a prison, capture both connection and detachment. But just as blind trust in their power to do so would be illusory, in that it would expect of a mere device something that only language and subject matter can accomplish, so the choice between dashes and brackets helps us to see how inadequate abstract norms of punctuation are. Proust, whom no one can lightly call a philistine and whose pedantry is but one aspect of his wonderful micrological power, did not hesitate to use brackets, presumably because in the extended periods of his sentences the parenthetical material became so long that its sheer length would have nullified the dashes. The parentheses need more solid dams if they are not to flood the whole period and promote the chaos from which each of these periods was wrested, breathlessly… Proust’s bracketed parentheses, which interrupt both the graphic image and the narrative, are memorials to the moments when the author, weary of aesthetic illusion and distrustful of the self-contained quality of events which he is after all only making up, openly takes the reins.

Indeed, the paradoxical allure of parentheses appears emblematic of the entire problem of punctuation, at once deletable and despairing. Echoing Steinbeck’s admonition against writing rules, Adorno concludes:

The writer is in a permanent predicament when it comes to punctuation marks; if one were fully aware while writing, one would sense the impossibility of ever using a mark of punctuation correctly and would give up writing altogether. For the requirements of the rules of punctuation and those of the subjective need for logic and expression are not compatible: in punctuation marks the check the writer draws on language is refused payment. The writer cannot trust in the rules, which are often rigid and crude; nor can he ignore them without indulging in a kind of eccentricity and doing harm to their nature by calling attention to what inconspicuous — and inconspicuousness is what punctuation lives by. . . . The conflict must be endured each time, and one needs either a lot of strength or a lot of stupidity not to lose heart. At best one can advise that punctuation marks be handled the way musicians handle forbidden chord progressions and incorrect voice-leading. In every act of punctuation, as in every such musical cadence, one can tell whether there is an intention or whether it is pure sloppiness. To put it more subtly, one can sense the difference between a subjective will that brutally demolishes the rules and a tactful sensitivity that allows the rules to echo in the background even where it suspends them.

For more on the uses and abuses of typographic marks in writing, dive into Punctuation: Art, Politics, and Play, then revisit the curious story of the failed crusade for an irony mark and this growing archive of famous writers’ advice on writing.

Published September 11, 2014




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