Geoffrey Nunberg, Robert Lowth and punctuation theory

Working on the punctuation practice of 18th-century letter writers, I was intrigued by the title of Geoffrey Nunberg‘s book, The Linguistics of Punctuation (1990). The book didn’t have what I was looking for, was in fact more about developing a theory of text-grammar in which punctuation plays a major role than about punctuation as a linguistic topic in its own right. Reading the book did produce some unexpected things for me though.

There are many references – in footnotes only to be sure – to usage guides, particularly Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1926 edition!), the Fowler brothers’ The King’s English (the 1931 edition) and Partridge’s You Have a Point There (1953). This puts Nunberg into the category of linguists who, as I found out in a survey held in December 2007 among the members of the Henry Sweet Society for the History of Linguistic Ideas, do not consult usage guides but only use them for research (see my book Describing Prescriptivism, 2020, p. 3). It also puts Nunberg into the category of people who as I learnt still rely on Fowler’s 1926 edition even though more recent editions are available. Perhaps it is just that, like so many people, he happened to own a copy of this version of the book.

But what caught my attention most was his reference to “Bishop [sic] Lowth’s influential grammar of 1762” (p. 86), which includes a lengthy quotation from Lowth’s discussion of punctuation. No page numbers are given (1762, pp. 156-158), and original paragraphing is not maintained, but the main interest of Lowth’s discussion is adequately represented, i.e. what the marks of punctuation are, but also the way in which punctuation marks correspond in proportional duration with musical notation: the semibrief with the period, the minim with the colon, the crotchet with the semicolon and the quaver with the comma.

Nunberg does not quite agree with Lowth’s account, but he was clearly struck by it to the extent that he included a large section from the grammar in his book. I do wonder though what made Nunberg consult Lowth on the subject. That Lowth’s grammar contains a section on punctuation was not unusual at the time: according to Ian Michael in his book English Grammatical Categories (1970), “[p]unctuation is included in about sixty per cent of the grammars, taken over the whole period”, that is, 1586-1800 (p. 195). But what caused Lowth to make the link with musical notation? Searching ECCO with the help of the keywords “music” and “punctuation” did not produce any relevant hits. Lowth was interested in music, since he is the author of the text which was later turned into the libretto for Handel’s Choice of Hercules, and had consulted the grammarian and patron of music (ODNB) James Harris about his own grammar. So did Lowth think of the correlation between punctuation marks and musical notation himself?

The Linguistics of Punctuation, Nunberg
Source: University of Chicago Press

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2 Responses to Geoffrey Nunberg, Robert Lowth and punctuation theory

  1. Paul Nance says:

    Could Lowth’s linking of punctuation with musical notation be related to his interests in Hebrew poetry? The psalms, he believed, were chanted responsively in ancient Jewish liturgy. And surely he knew that Jews still chant the texts using the Masoretic punctuation for stress, meter and pitch.

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