Theodor Adorno’s Philosophy of Punctuation


Ger­man crit­i­cal the­o­rist Theodor Adorno is known for many things, but a light touch isn’t one of them. His work includes despair­ing post-fas­cist ethics and a study on the soci­ol­o­gy and psy­chol­o­gy of fas­cism. Those who dig deep­er into his cat­a­log may know his rig­or­ous­ly philo­soph­i­cal Neg­a­tive Dialec­tics or dense, opaque Aes­thet­ic The­o­ry. Giv­en the seri­ous­ly heavy nature of these books, you might be sur­prised, as I was, to read the para­graph below:

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 mous­tache; I am even more aware of its gamey taste. With self-sat­is­fied peas­ant cun­ning, Ger­man quo­ta­tion marks («> >) lick their lips.

The skill­ful deploy­ment of apho­rism seems typ­i­cal; the play­ful­ness not so much. But Adorno’s short essay, “punc­tu­a­tion marks,” takes a sober turn short­ly there­after, and for good rea­son. Punc­tu­a­tion is seri­ous busi­ness. Sound­ing much more like the Adorno I know, the dour Marx­ist writes, “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.” Okay.

Well, Adorno would just hate what I’m about to do, but—hey—this is the inter­net; who has the time and con­cen­tra­tion to tra­verse the rocky course of thought he carves out in his work? Maybe you? Good, read the full essay. Not you? See below for some bite-sized high­lights.

Punc­tu­a­tion as music: “punc­tu­a­tion marks,” Adorno writes, “are marks of oral deliv­ery.” As such, they func­tion like musi­cal nota­tion. “The com­ma and the peri­od cor­re­spond to the half-cadence and the authen­tic cadence.” Excla­ma­tion points are “like silent cym­bal clash­es, ques­tion marks like musi­cal upbeats.” Colons are like “dom­i­nant sev­enth chords.” Adorno, a musi­col­o­gist and com­pos­er him­self, heard things in these sym­bols most of us prob­a­bly don’t.

The semi­colon: There is no mark of punc­tu­a­tion that Adorno rejects out­right. All have their place and pur­pose. He does decry the mod­ernist ten­den­cy to most­ly leave them out, since “then they sim­ply hide.” But Adorno reserves a spe­cial pride of place for the semi­colon. He claims that “only a per­son who can per­ceive the dif­fer­ent weights of strong and weak phras­ings in musi­cal form” can under­stand the dif­fer­ence between semi­colon and com­ma. He dif­fer­en­ti­ates between the Greek and Ger­man semi­colon. And he express­es alarm “that the semi­colon is dying out.” This, he claims, is due to a fear of “page-long paragraphs”—the kind he often writes. It is “a fear cre­at­ed by the marketplace—by the con­sumer who does not want to tax him­self.” Right, I told you, he would hate the inter­net, though he seems to thrive—posthumously—on Twit­ter.

Quo­ta­tion marks: While Adorno accepts every punc­tu­a­tion mark as mean­ing­ful, he does not accept all uses of them. In the case of the quo­ta­tion mark, his advice is pre­cise­ly what I have received, and have passed on to over­ly glib and thought­less stu­dents. Quo­ta­tion marks, he writes, should only be used for direct quotes, “and if need be when the text wants to dis­tance itself from a word it is refer­ring to.” This can include writ­ing words as words (the word “word” is a word…). Adorno rejects quo­ta­tion marks as an “iron­ic device.” This usage presents “a pre­de­ter­mined judg­ment on the sub­ject”; it offers a “blind ver­dict.”

The ellip­sis: On this mark, Adorno becomes very prick­ly, par­tic­u­lar, and, well… ellip­ti­cal. Three dots “sug­gests an infini­tude of thoughts and asso­ci­a­tions.” Two is the mark of a hack. I leave it to you to parse his rea­son­ing.

The dash: First, we have “the seri­ous dash,” in which “thought becomes aware of its frag­men­tary char­ac­ter.” Dash­es may sig­nal “mute lines into the past, wrin­kles on the brow” of the text, ”uneasy silence.” Dash­es need not con­nect thoughts. The “desire to con­nect every­thing,” Adorno writes, is the mark of “lit­er­ary dilet­tantes.” Thus the “mod­ern dash” is debased, a symp­tom of “the pro­gres­sive degen­er­a­tion of lan­guage.” It pre­pares us “in a fool­ish way for sur­pris­es that by that very token are no longer sur­pris­ing.” Adorno also prefers anoth­er use of dashes—more below.

Paren­the­ses: Par­en­thet­i­cal phras­es (like this) cre­ate “enclaves” and admit the “super­flu­ous­ness” of their con­tents, which is why many style­books frown upon them. Their use in this way “capitulate[s] to pedan­tic philis­tin­ism.” The “cau­tious writer”—writes punc­til­ious­ly cau­tious Adorno—will place par­en­thet­i­cals between dash­es, “which block off par­en­thet­i­cal mate­r­i­al from the flow of the sen­tence with­out shut­ting it up in a prison.” The paren­the­ses do have their place, as do all marks of punc­tu­a­tion in Adorno’s lex­i­cal the­o­ry. But prob­a­bly only if you are Proust.

Read­ing Adorno—on punc­tu­a­tion and any­thing else—can be intim­i­dat­ing. His eru­di­tion, his dis­dain for care­less­ness, mid­dle­brow expe­di­en­cy, and the crude forms of expres­sion giv­en birth by com­merce of all kinds: these are atti­tudes that can seem at times like over­bear­ing elit­ism. And yet, Adorno under­stands the bur­den­some nature of writ­ing pre­scrip­tions. “The writer,” he admits, “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.” Far too many have done so. We “can­not trust in the rules,” nor can we ignore them. What to do? Err on the side of the abstemious says our pok­er-faced Ger­man Strunk; to avoid slop­pi­ness or rote mis­use, fol­low an Epi­cure­an mean: “bet­ter too few than too many.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Cor­mac McCarthy’s Three Punc­tu­a­tion Rules, and How They All Go Back to James Joyce

The Curi­ous His­to­ry of Punc­tu­a­tion: Author Reveals the Begin­nings of the #, ¶, ☞, and More

Hear Theodor Adorno’s Avant-Garde Musi­cal Com­po­si­tions

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (2) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (2)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • CEH in NJ says:

    The link to his bio states that Adorno left Ger­many for Oxford dur­ing WWII. I guess you could say he was a gram­mar anti-Nazi :->. A very enjoy­able his­tor­i­cal vignette.

  • Jonah Stutz says:

    Sol­id post. Any­one who enjoyed it should check out the late David Fos­ter Wal­lace’s essay on lan­guage, Tense Present. May actu­al­ly be able to find a link via this blog as I know DFW is a favorite in this space–and right­ly so. I miss that guy.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.