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Phonetic Punctuation: How Do You Hear Punctuation Marks in Your Writing?

I once wrote a post suggesting that writers should think of their writing as music, but what happens when someone takes this seriously? What would happen if we actually sounded out punctuation marks when we spoke, for instance? Well . . . we would then be using what Victor Borge aptly calls phonetic punctuation. Though he approaches the idea with humor, it’s worth noting that, in addition to being a comedian, Mr. Borge was also a conductor and a pianist. It’s probably fair to say that he understood punctuation in ways many writers do not.

Punctuation is a tricky thing. All those marks decorating the page, silent and unavoidable in our writing. Yet, those marks — which have no actual phonetic transcription, no sound (minus Victor Borge’s interpretation) — are the rhythmic backbones of words. How is that?

When you use punctuation in your stories, you are transcribing beats — pauses — that enhance and maintain the rhythm of your prose. But if you think of it from the standpoint of sound, as he does in the video, perhaps it may change your perspective. If you think of letters and words as the carriers of sound and meaning, then punctuation marks are the bridges, the ropes stringing them together.

Punctuation is a tool, and though it’s relatively easy to use within the given rules of a language, it’s still one of the most difficult tools in the writer’s arsenal to master. You have to learn to hear it the same way you hear letters and words: every pause, every stop, every small inhalation. That’s what gives your writing a pulse.

Alas, since I’ve got 10,000 more words to write for my thesis by the middle of December, all writing effort is going to it at the moment, which is the primary reason why there will be no editing post this week. However, so as not to leave you all empty-handed, I’ll share this amusing, yet linguistically thought-provoking video of phonetic punctuation. Enjoy!

How do you hear punctuation marks in your writing?

23 thoughts on “Phonetic Punctuation: How Do You Hear Punctuation Marks in Your Writing?

  1. Great post, and thanks for adding more depth to my view of punctuation; I never thought of it as transcribing beats – pauses – that enhance and maintain the rhythm of prose. Thanks for adding the Victor Borge video too (although I think that would have been better to watch if there wasn’t subtitles).

    Could you tell me what your thesis is on?

    • I’m always happy to talk punctuation, so I’m glad you enjoyed the video. I agree, the subtitles were somewhat distracting, but oh well . . . people still got the point, I hope. πŸ™‚

      Sure! Not many people ask that question. πŸ™‚ For my thesis, I’m doing a stylistic analysis (how and why linguistic features are selected in a text) of three poems by the Estonian poet Betti Alver. I’m focusing on how she uses repetition on all linguistic levels to enhance meaning.

      • I’m always happy to read about it; although (do you think it’s okay to precede some connecting words with a semi-colon as I’ve just done? R. L. Trask says that you must with some) I’m starting to develop an interest in written words and why those little symbols have such an impact on people. I’m going to build a reading list on it, soon hopefully.

        That’s only a few poems but it does sound like you’re going to be in-depth when it comes to writing about her use of repetition. Good look with it.

        • I’d have to look up the semi-colon rules. I wouldn’t say it’s incorrect, but it would probably be more correct if the connecting word wasn’t there, as then you’d be connecting two independent clauses. Good question.

          And thank you. Yes, three poems isn’t much compared to her entire body of work, but there’s a lot to research! πŸ™‚

          • Good point. It probably would make more sense if the connecting word wasn’t there. I’ll apply your suggestion to my writing and see how it turns out.

            Haha, I’ve just seen my spelling error, I meant luck not look. Your blog of all places isn’t where I want to be making mistakes! But yes I agree. All the best with it.

    • I’m glad you think so! I was worried I’d be slacking for using a video in my post this week, but I’m really happy to see people enjoyed it.

  2. I’m sorry, what were you saying, I can’t stop laughing πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚

    I thoroughly enjoy your editorial lessons (which I so desperately need with my writing), but this was just – epic.

    I loved the way Victor was able to interleave humor with the understanding of punctuation in the written word. Truth be told, I have a difficult time with punctuation. I should probably brush up on some of the accepted rules. This was certainly an eye-opening way to bring awareness of the importance of punctuation to the front of our consciousness, thanks for sharing Michelle, and best of luck with the thesis πŸ™‚

    • Glad you liked the video, Dave! πŸ™‚ Maybe we all needed a Friday laugh?

      What problems are you talking about? πŸ˜› I see no problems with your punctuation. Punctuation can be tough. But one of the things I love most about knowing the rules of punctuation is that knowing the rules means I can break them. I also love seeing how it changes the way I read my own prose. Best you can do is experiment and see what works for you and for the sentences on the page.


  3. Well, that video just made this Friday grand. I cannot stop laughing. A brilliant thought and thank you for sharing. Now punctuation will be forever be popping, cracking, snapping, and whistling in my mind.

    • That’s the best way for it to be, I think. You’ll never write a question mark without giggling again. πŸ˜›

  4. I love Victor Borge, and this is one of my favorite segments ever! To me, punctuation is the drumbeat in the orchestra of words. It’s the underlying but oh-so-important rhythm that organizes the music of the words.

    • Well said, and you’re absolutely right! I love comparing writing to music, so that made my day to see someone else do it too. πŸ™‚

  5. I *do* hear punctuation, and I think always have, though not with the energetic sound effects Victor Borge gave to it. For some reason, it tends to sound like jazz rhythms to me: the underlying (overall) beat of the drums and piano, and above it the melody or improvisation, which are presented in groupings called–not coincidentally, I think–phrases. Thanks for the humor *and* the insight. And good luck with the 10,000 words.

    • Ohh, that’s a fascinating comparison. You actually ‘hear’ your punctuation as music. Jazz rhythms, huh? As I recall, you like to listen to jazz when writing, too, right? Maybe that has lent meaning to your work in subtle ways.

      I feel the rhythm of the marks the same way I feel air when I breathe, I suppose. Intuitively, naturally, necessary. Not a great comparison, but that’s how writing is for a lot of people, I think — intuitive. With that said, I love reading how the process works for other people. Thanks so much for sharing.

  6. Victor Borge is my all-time favorite comedian! I often think of phonetic punctuation when I’m writing. Especially during the editing stage when I read everything I’ve written aloud to myself. Hehe! Is it weird I hear his voice in my head with every punctuation mark during that time?

    • Oh, so you hear his voice when you read the punctuation marks? That’s funny. How do you manage to edit without laughing? πŸ™‚ Well, the way he pronounces the marks does make them sound like they’re written, in some strange way. Hehe.

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