Sunday, June 2, 2013

Nunberg - The Linguistics of Punctuation

The Linguistics of Punctuation by Geoffrey Nunberg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

'The Linguistics of Punctuation' does just what it says on the tin. It does it very well... unfortunately. Nunberg provides a wide range of incisive remarks and observations on the function, role and syntax of punctuation in text. The problem is that he tries to place those observations within a generative framework of linguistics that neither accommodates his theory nor would accept it. His work has often been referred to by natural language processing researchers and has a wide range of followers. Trying to go with the flow of mainstream linguistics at the time of publication prevented Nunberg from stating the obvious - most schools of formal linguistics are defined by punctuation. Generative (or government and binding or minimalist or whatever the prevailing term and flavour may be) linguistic theories operate within the confines of written languages, most of which use punctuation to delimit units of language. As Nunberg points out, only modern written English and a few other romance languages are segmented this way - it is not a necessary condition of language. This latter point is not emphasised, however, as that would expose generative theories for the Euro-grapho-centric theories that they are. This does not detract however, from Nunberg's astute analysis of the behaviour of certain punctuation marks (such as parentheses versus parenthetical dashes). What is missing from the book. however, is a long-standing theory of punctuation. As far as I know, nobody has attempted a serious book-length linguistic analysis of punctuation since 1990. Anybody that attempts to will have to work hard to surpass Nunberg's volume. What is need is for someone to bring his observations up to date, or remove them entirely from a generative linguistics-bound paradigm.

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