Consciousness and Punctuation



Consciousness and Punctuation


Molly Bloom’s famous stream-of-consciousness monologue in James Joyce’s Ulysses goes on for over forty pages without any punctuation. Here is a brief extract: “I dont see anything so terrible about it Ill tell him about that some day not now and surprise him ay and Ill take him there and show him the very place too we did it so now there you are like it or lump it he thinks nothing can happen without him knowing he hadnt an idea about my mother till we were engaged otherwise hed never have got me so cheap as he did…” (648) The idea is that consciousness in its primordial form is punctuation-free, punctuation being a conventional device of straitjacketed civilization. That is no doubt true of non-verbal forms of consciousness, since they are not even instances of language, but is it true of interior speech? Certainly such speech does not contain anything like articulated symbols for the comma, full stop, semi-colon, colon, dash, parenthesis, etc. But it doesn’t follow that punctuation has no psychological reality in the stream of verbal consciousness. And surely it does: for one thing, the boundaries of a sentence must be marked somehow, since thoughts have natural unity. A thought begins and ends, and a sentence expressing a thought must do the same; there must be natural breaks in the flow of inner speech. Punctuation is an adjunct of grammar, corresponding to grammatical categories: it helps resolve ambiguities and enters into phrase structure. Conventional punctuation marks are simply expressions for these structural boundaries. That’s why it’s hard to read Molly’s ramblings: we keep having to impose grammatical structure, mentally inserting full stops and the like. We don’t need fancy distinctions, as between the dash, semi-colon and colon, but we do need something like the full stop, or else we don’t know when one thought ends and another begins. Verbal inner consciousness is segregated into thought-like units—that is what it is. So Joyce was not being faithful to the real structure of consciousness; it isn’t a stream in the sense of a continuously flowing non-digitized manifold. Why didn’t he let words flow into each other as well as sentences? Because words are discrete units not merging fluidities—this is why we have a space between them in written format. Such spacing is actually a form of punctuation—it indicates lexical separation. Similarly for word order: this too is a type of punctuation, a way to indicate the orderly sequence of words. Molly doesn’t just string words together any old way, as if that were the real way thought operates. Written punctuation is indeed not part of conscious verbal thought, but it corresponds to real divisions in interior monologue. It is the same for spoken language: we don’t say “comma”, “full stop”, etc. as we speak, but our speech has ways of indicating linguistic structure, mainly temporal (pauses, intonation patterns, etc.). In short, verbal consciousness is punctuated consciousness, even the loose and earthy Molly Bloom’s.  [1]

            This raises an interesting question: is punctuation part of language? Is there a viable semantics of punctuation marks? It’s hard to see how denotational semantics could apply, since such marks don’t refer to anything (and nor do the speakers who rely on them). We don’t find Frege claiming that the comma has a sense and reference (denoting perhaps The Pause), or Tarski-Davidson offering a recursion clause for the dash. But it doesn’t seem wrong to suppose that such elements contribute to meaning somehow. What if we came across a group of speakers who pedantically enunciate every device of punctuation–wouldn’t these punctuational utterances strike as just bits of language? And isn’t it just obviously true that punctuation marks are part of written language? They have meaning; they contribute to sense. They don’t refer to anything or possess a mode of presentation or even express “tone” or “coloring”, but they have significance of some sort. In virtue of what do they have this significance? The answer is obvious: they have a use. They are mainly used to express grammatical structure, notably the boundaries of thoughts. That is their function—their job, their rationale. They are thus prime candidates for a use theory of meaning. The meaning of a name may not be its use (that is a matter of its reference and perhaps associated descriptions), but the meaning of a full stop is its use in indicating the end of a sentence. We can even say exactly what the use or function is by stating the role of the punctuation mark in discourse—which is how we characteristically teach people to use punctuation marks. We don’t say what they refer to or what concepts they express; we say how they are employed in order to fulfill the aims of written language. Children pick up the use of the pause in speech without any instruction, and they do this by learning a skill; it is part of general linguistic mastery. So punctuation is meaningful in virtue of having a use in speech. But this is just one type of meaning and should not be generalized to other parts of language: it is not true that all words are meaningful in the way that punctuation marks are. We shouldn’t go all in for “punctuation semantics”: we shouldn’t think that punctuation has the kind of theoretical primacy often associated with the proper name, for instance. Wittgenstein could have cited punctuation in support of his thesis of the irreducible multiplicity of language, but no one would suppose that punctuation is the very essence of all language.  [2]

            Does punctuation have computational reality? Is it part of the mechanics of the language of thought? Are there elements of Mentalese that correspond to the conventional punctuation marks? This is an empirical question, but I think there are reasons to suppose that it must be so. For the processing rules of the language of thought must incorporate markers for sentence, clause, word order, and word separation (among other things): and this is in effect a system of punctuation. In particular, sentence boundaries must be identified and respected: it’s no good proceeding in the manner of Molly Bloom if you want a coherent generator of linguistic strings. The category of Sentence requires a method of marking a particular sequencing of lexical elements—a division between sentences and non-sentences. This is just what the full stop is designed to do, and there must be a psychological equivalent in the language of thought. Even more nuanced devices such as the colon, semi-colon and dash must exist in the language of thought, simply because they correspond to real distinctions in how sentences are put together; these devices don’t come from nowhere but reflect real psycholinguistic distinctions. Inner speech is equipped with devices performing these more nuanced functions, which is why it maps so neatly onto outer speech (including writing). At some level the neurons know what a semi-colon is, or they act as if they do. Conventional punctuation is the externalization of internal computational punctuation—at any rate, that is a plausible hypothesis. It isn’t that punctuation has a purely behavioral reality: the mind is a punctuated mind, consciously and unconsciously. Grammar is psychologically real, and so is the punctuation that goes with it.

            Let me end on a personal note: I am myself a punctuation freak. I am extremely fond of punctuation marks—I see them as my little friends– and I want them to be understood and prized by every schoolchild and responsible citizen. It pleases me to conclude that punctuation is written deep into the brain, into the marrow of the soul. I don’t think it is a pointless dispensable frippery, rightly thrown overboard by primordial Molly. I notice how careful James Joyce is with his own punctuation and I venture to suggest that punctuation is God’s own handiwork (so to speak). It is an adornment of nature. We have a proud punctuation gene lodged in our innate linguistic endowment.  [3]


  [1] I don’t see any italics in Molly’s monologue either, which is strange given her emphatic nature; here too Joyce is impoverishing her linguistic resources while ostensibly celebrating them. He really should have put more in not less if he wanted to capture the full richness of interior speech.

  [2] We can imagine a kind of anti-Tractatus penned by some Mittgenstein or other claiming that the punctuation mark is the key to all language (and thought). Perhaps the full stop is the very essence of the symbolic: not the picture theory of meaning but the period theory. We just need a lot of periods and we can generate all conceivable symbolism…

  [3] Let me not be misunderstood: we don’t have the conventional written symbols for punctuation encoded in our genes; we have their psychological equivalents or antecedents in our DNA. What these look like exactly we don’t know. But then we don’t know what the lexicon looks like either at the most basic level. Punctuation is not without mystery.

9 replies
  1. Free Logic
    Free Logic says:

    Oh Molly… A woman without her man is nothing. A woman: without her, man is nothing.
    Another amazing thing about punctuation is that, until very recently, the complete lack of it in many languages.
    This state of affairs helps to explain the vast amount of interpretations of Sanskrit, Chinese, Korean and texts in other languages without written punctuation marks.

    • Jesús Requena
      Jesús Requena says:

      True. Even in latin script-based languages punctuation signs appeared late and evolved slowly. That, in my opinion, suggests that punctuation signs do not correspond to a basic mental (chomskyian, I guess) reality.

  2. Jesús Requena
    Jesús Requena says:

    Now I understand what you meant and upon further reflection, think you are right. Although I think that punctuation signs are a very limited selection of the much more abundant mental structures/”genes” we have to punctuate our mental speeches. That is why a very simple statement like “To be or not to be, that is the question” can be uttered in a hundred different ways, from movingly sublime to clumsy.

    • Colin McGinn
      Colin McGinn says:

      That is surely correct: punctuation is just part of what is called prosody, and prosody is just part of an elaborate system for playing with sentences. The important point is that punctuation goes a lot deeper than people realize.

  3. jeffrey g kessen
    jeffrey g kessen says:

    As you suggest, punctuation is not merely a conventional—performative—device of straitjacketed civilization. It externalizes some measure of underlying competence conducive to a more reliable grasp of communicative intent and its content. That said, whenever I feel the need to, “break out bounds”, as it were, and relieve myself for the moment of the burden of a civilized facade, my preferred expedient is to hasten to the “Comments” section of the nearest philosophy blog and run-riot in purposive punctuational disinclination…..So far am I prepared to go in excusing the weaknesses of my last Comment!….As for “virtual” punctuation in inner speech: where inner speech is motivated, focused and concentrated, it tends to respect the exigencies of expression of communicative intent. . “Stream-of -consciousness” inner speech is more the bandied-about content of associational whim.


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