## Punctuation

Brian Hutchinson, "UBC student writes 52,438 word architecture dissertation with no punctuation — not everyone loved it", National Post 5/8/2015:

There was Patrick Stewart, PhD candidate, defending his final dissertation before a handful of hard-nosed examiners at the University of British Columbia late last month. The public was invited to watch; two dozen curious onlookers saw Stewart attempt to persuade five panelists that his 149-page thesis has merit, that it is neither outlandishly “deficient,” as some had insisted it was, nor an intellectual affront.

Unusual? It is definitely that. Stewart’s dissertation, titled Indigenous Architecture through Indigenous Knowledge, eschews almost all punctuation. There are no periods, no commas, no semi-colons in the 52,438-word piece. Stewart concedes the odd question mark, and resorts to common English spelling, but he ignores most other conventions, including the dreaded upper case. His paper has no standard paragraphs. Its formatting seems all over the map.

The National Post story suggests that the document is a translation from Nisga'a:

He wrote his first draft in the Nisga’a language. That failed to impress at least one senior UBC professor, a powerful figure who would eventually have to sign off on the work, or all would be lost. Stewart was called on the professor’s carpet and told his work was not acceptable. He was asked to translate “every word” of his dissertation into English. “So I did that,” he recalls. “There was still no guarantee it would be approved.”

It turned out well for him in the end:

Stewart’s writing style — the lack of punctuation, the gaps and spaces and poetic license — continued to grate certain professors. “I was asked to be a little more sympathetic to the readers,” he says. “Some couldn’t handle it.” To satisfy some of his critics, he began every thesis chapter with a short abstract, written in “standard academic English.” He refused to fiddle with the rest.

Stewart submitted his “long run-on sentence” dissertation in late February. His oral exam — his defence — came April 23rd. He was nervous. “There were five examiners present,” he recalls. “A bunch of people in the public seats. I had to justify my work. Was it intimidating? Oh, yes.”

Stewart spoke for 30 minutes. Then the examiners peppered him with questions. After two solid hours, someone finally called for a five-minute break. The questions resumed. Once that ordeal ended, Stewart and the audience were instructed to leave the room. The examiners had a private discussion. They voted whether to accept the controversial dissertation, or toss it out.

the phd candidate was called back inside the room     he was told the vote was unanimous     punctuation be damned     he had passed

The dissertation is here — "Indigenous Architecture through Indigenous Knowledge : Dim sagalts’apkw nisiṁ [Together we will build a village]" (warning: 7.9 MB .pdf). It tells a different story about the role of Nisga'a in the composition:

There will be challenges that most readers will face in reading this dissertation in terms of writing style, including format and punctuation, or lack thereof. The use of the Nisga’a language may also be a challenge for most readers. There is a Glossary of Nisga’a words provided on pages xxx to xxxiii and I will be laax’algax [translating] every Nisga’a word and phrase used in this dissertation, in the spirit of reciprocity, into English.

I will make a comment about my use of Nisga’a in this dissertation. Though I cannot be considered in any way fluent in Nisga’a, I attempted to use the language in order to acknowledge my heritage and, more importantly, to strengthen the use of Nisga’a in the academy. […] It was never my intention to write the dissertation in Nisga’a, though it may have been interesting to have done so […]

In my initial submission to the Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, I privileged the Nisga’a language as related above, agreed to provide an english translation for each nisga’a word and phrase. This manner of writing is not without precedent. Marker (2009) writes, “The Coast Salish stories of Xa:ls, the creator-transformer…” and not “The Coast Salish stories of the creator-transformer Xa:ls” […]

In an attempt to be responsive to the request for consistency in the Preliminary page listings/headings, including the Table of Contents and the Appendices headings listings, I will follow the English [Nisga’a] format. In the main body of the dissertation however, I will use a Nisga’a [English translation] format.

Further:

I made concessions during the writing of this dissertation, recognizing the concessions the university is making and the risk the university is taking in supporting this dissertation. As you will have noticed, or if you have not, please note that the Title Page, Abstract and References are all written in standard or conventional academic English. In order to address those persons without the time to invest in reading this dissertation, I have decided to insert a Précis [summary] in standard or conventional academic English at the beginning of each adawaak [story / chapter] that will outline/summarize the main points contained in the adawaak [story / chapter]. This Preface also started out in standard and conventional academic English but it will soon begin to transform.

And it's not quite true that there's no punctuation. Here's his table of the symbols that "will be used as a way to connect and emphasize thoughts and words":

But spaces are the main form of punctuation, and this method works well enough:

1. ### AntC said,

May 10, 2015 @ 3:59 pm

So if we globally edit 4 consecutive spaces to full stop, space, capitalise the next word; and 3 spaces to comma, space; don't we get rapidly to more conventional punctuation? This is just a different convention, as might have been seen in manuscripts (with punctuation or spelling) before the printing press imposed uniformity.

Is Stewart doing anything more than thumbing his nose at current conventions? I can't see it providing evidence of the original work required for a dissertation. (Not that I'm commenting on whether the content is original.)

2. ### Guy said,

May 10, 2015 @ 4:12 pm

Skimming over the paper, it doesn't seem to have any intelligibility difficulties, and it defends and explains the formatting decisions cogently, so I don't see any problem. I will note, however, that although the paper speaks of disregarding punctuation and "grammar", it doesn't appear to actually diverge from standard English grammar. In fact, aside from eschewing periods, commas and capitals, (which it compensates for with the use of white space) and adopting the use of "shaped text", it appears to be fairly conventional formal English – It doesn't even seem to use contractions. So it's really more a matter of writing in a "poetic" style, as opposed to the expected style, than actually eschewing all stylistic norms.

3. ### Donkeyrash Hubcousin said,

May 10, 2015 @ 4:53 pm

Patrick Stewart doesn't need grammar. He just needs to issue the command "make it so!"

4. ### David Morris said,

May 10, 2015 @ 5:42 pm

Is there anything in the terms and conditions of PhD study which states: 'A thesis must be written in conventional standard academic English'?

5. ### Ralph Hickok said,

May 10, 2015 @ 7:14 pm

@David Morris:

As one who has edited and formatted a large number of PhD theses and dissertations, I can say that standards vary greatly from one university to another and from one field of study to another. Some university departments are very strict, even to specifying precise margin sizes and, of course, most of them specify the style guide that is to be used. However, I have no idea what the penalty might be for deviation from these rules.

6. ### Thor Lawrence said,

May 10, 2015 @ 7:16 pm

7. ### Jerry Friedman said,

May 10, 2015 @ 7:22 pm

david morris  maybe    but the basic condition of phd study is that you don't get the degree unless the members of your committee accept your thesis    i've never heard of any rules about what reasons are and are not valid for rejecting it    and in this case i can imagine committee members might have refused to read it

8. ### Eugene Volokh said,

May 10, 2015 @ 7:24 pm

I'd always understood the function of a dissertation to be the production and publication of knowledge, so that others can build on it. The work should thus be intelligible, not just intelligent. Indeed, the reason given to taxpayers and donors for subsidizing Ph.D. programs is precisely the development and spread of new knowledge. Making the work more opaque, whether by writing it in an almost unknown language, or by writing it in English in a way that makes it harder for people to read and pay attention to (and makes it less likely that they will read it and pay attention to it), strikes me as a violation of this understanding; and it's also an imposition on the dissertation committee, since it makes it harder for them to read and evaluate the work. Or am I mistaken on this?

[(myl) I agree with you.But (as other commenters have observed) Stewart's style in this document is pretty readable — I've read many dissertations and academic articles that are harder going (for purely stylistic reasons, not because of intrinsically difficult concepts or formalisms). And all the brouhaha about punctuation has doubtless resulted in many more readers for this document than for other dissertations in the same program…]

9. ### Jerry Friedman said,

May 10, 2015 @ 7:25 pm

sorry     make that "refused / said they were unable to read it    (i'm not good with slashes)

10. ### GeorgeW said,

May 10, 2015 @ 7:31 pm

Slightly off subject, but I am told that although modern Arabic uses punctuation, that it is not required for good writing which makes use of "connectors" (and, but, however, etc.). I attended a lecture years ago a American University of Cairo in which this was discussed.

11. ### Scott said,

May 10, 2015 @ 7:31 pm

At first this style seemed semi-poetical, but then I realized what it actually is–text-speak! Just imagine a linebreak everywhere he inserts a tab.

He uses the same conventions: whitespace instead of punctuation to indicate pauses, no capitalization, usage of / and … in the meanings he gives. I assume he was not trying to do this, seeing as he cites poets such as e e cummings as precedent for his style. Honestly it takes a lot of the revolutionary edge off of the thesis once you start reading it like a Skype chat.

He says "I will introduce you, perhaps for the first time and for others perhaps not, to a way of writing that reads as if speaking". It surely says something that someone consciously trying to make writing more oral replicated the conventions of text-speak.

12. ### Jerry Friedman said,

May 10, 2015 @ 7:31 pm

I'm not good with quotation marks either.

Thor Lawrence: Even in the U.S., you can write your dissertation in a language other than English if the members of your committee can be expected to read it. The first example I found says you can't do that without "exceptionally compelling reasons", though.

13. ### Ken Miner said,

May 10, 2015 @ 8:24 pm

David, I don't think so. A colleague and I always dreamed of somebody writing one in Latin, just to see the reaction, but no one ever did.

14. ### J. F. said,

May 10, 2015 @ 9:31 pm

Remember the good old days when classical Chinese wasn't printed with Western punctuation?

15. ### David Morris said,

May 10, 2015 @ 10:43 pm

Thanks for all the replies. Yes, French as well being in Canada.

NOWIWANTTOWRITEATHESISONROMANARCHITECTUREWRITTENLIKETHIS.

16. ### Eli Nelson said,

May 10, 2015 @ 10:55 pm

18. ### Victor Mair said,

May 11, 2015 @ 12:12 am

In informal writing, I sometimes lapse into this style (replacing punctuation with a varying number of spaces, depending on how much separation I want to indicate between clauses and other parts of the text I'm writing) when I'm too tired or too lazy to exert the effort to make the sometimes hard calls that are necessary among periods, commas, colons, semi-colons, dashes, hyphens, upper and lower case, single and double quotation marks, different types of brackets, italics, bold, underlining, etc.

Some relevant LLog posts:

"A proliferation of hyphens" (4/26/15)
"When commas are crucial to comprehension" (4/9/09)
"One comma too many" (5/20/10)
"Annals of comma placement" (11/30/10)
"Fact-checking commas" (2/6/09)
"Can you have a comma before because?" (8/4/11)
"Visual aid for the final serial comma" (9/18/11)
"The Oxford Comma is your friend" (12/10/13)
"Beneath the footsteps of commas" (5/13/09)

Those are mainly just about commas, and I'm only getting started, but it's late and I'm tired. Suffice it to say that it takes a real effort to punctuate intelligently and clearly.

And, yes, J. F., I do remember the good / bad old days when Classical Chinese was devoid of modern punctuation and how, when such texts are punctuated, there are often sharp differences of opinion about where to insert commas, periods, etc. Given their druthers, however, most folks nowadays would prefer to have texts with punctuation than not. The punctuation, while not infallible, makes reading an awful lot easier.

19. ### John Lavagnino said,

May 11, 2015 @ 1:57 am

That style of presentation is very similar to what the poet David Antin has used in a number of books, going back to the 1970s; one example is available here.

He calls this kind of thing a "talk poem", and they usually start as talks, later transcribed and worked over. Highly readable, since of course they aren't conventional texts that have lost their punctuation but are written to be presented this way; same thing with the works of a poet like W. S. Merwin, who writes in conventional short lines but without punctuation.

Antin has an MA in linguistics and it comes up frequently in his writings. Language Log readers might enjoy "the structuralist", in his collection what it means to be avant garde from 1993. It has a good deal of material about the history of Volapük and about the idea that the sounds of language actually do have intrinsic meaning. The structuralist of the title is not a structuralist in any conventional sense.

[(myl) Indeed — excerpt here.]

20. ### Joseph Bottum said,

May 11, 2015 @ 4:16 am

J.V. Cunningham's little poem on a friend's graduate degree might echo Eugene Volokh's point: "For you have learned, not what to say, / But how the saying must be said."

21. ### David Marjanović said,

May 11, 2015 @ 5:22 am

A colleague and I always dreamed of somebody writing one in Latin, just to see the reaction, but no one ever did.

During WWII someone in the Netherlands wrote a thesis about the Basque language in Latin. Apparently nobody batted an eye. But that's a linguistics department we're talking about…

22. ### Ralph Hickok said,

May 11, 2015 @ 8:20 am

I was rather annoyed by Stewart's citing of E. E. Cummings as justification for his approach. Cummings wrote a great deal of prose (e.g., The Enormous Room, EIMI, and the many short pieces collected in E. E. Cummings: A Miscellany) and he used conventional punctuation and capitalization in those works. Furthermore, I own every book ever published under Cummings' name (except CIOPW, which is a collection of his art) and his name is always "correctly" capitalized on the title pages.

23. ### Alan Palmer said,

May 11, 2015 @ 8:38 am

I, like several other commentators, didn't have much difficulty understanding the extracts quoted from the dissertation. I was pleased, though, to read the final sentence of the National Post article:

the phd candidate was called back inside the room he was told the vote was unanimous punctuation be damned he had passed

.

24. ### R Fandango said,

May 11, 2015 @ 9:13 am

@David Morris: surely you mean not ARCHITECTURE, but ARCHITECTVRE.

25. ### Mr Punch said,

May 11, 2015 @ 10:16 am

I can see writing in a language and form that is widely understood in the society or in academia (English, French, Latin …) or in a language in which one is fluent. This appears to be neither; it's a political act, or a work of art, and half-baked in either case. Sorry, I can't take it seriously.

May 11, 2015 @ 10:37 am

@R Fandango: and VVANT, not WANT.

27. ### Eugene Volokh said,

May 11, 2015 @ 11:00 am

"And all the brouhaha about punctuation has doubtless resulted in many more readers for this document than for other dissertations in the same program." Good point!

28. ### J. W. Brewer said,

May 11, 2015 @ 11:39 am

I can assure Eli Nelson that the tendentious "amerikkka" spelling variant is not a result of These Darn Kids and the Internet. I personally remember coming across it in the late '70's, when our adolescent access to computer technology was limited to a pair of TRS-80's in the back of a junior high school math classroom, and google books shows instances back to 1968. (The parallel "KKKanada" doesn't seem to go back as far, with only one unambiguous google books hit prior to 2000.)

29. ### john Lawler said,

May 11, 2015 @ 1:04 pm

Indeed, this reminds me very much of David Antin's work, which bears strongly on the poetics and noetics of communication and linguistics.
Antin's talk poem "tuning" from his eponymous book (New Directions 1984), where he goes into some fascinating details about why he left Chomskyan linguistics (long story short, he felt it was not treating meaning honestly), impressed me so much that when the Web came along, I put up the first half or so of the piece on the Web, typed in as close a resemblance as I could manage in html of the original printed version.

30. ### Jair said,

May 11, 2015 @ 2:24 pm

What is the function of a Ph.D thesis? It is not a work of art. It is not a personal journal. As I understand it, a Ph.D thesis should take a central idea and communicate it as simply as possible. As such, any word that serves as a barrier to communication should be cut, and any words that might help the reader's understanding should be inserted. A significant portion of the time one spends writing a thesis is spent organizing ideas to make them as simple to understand as possible. When I see someone purposefully obfuscate their work I can only assume that they considered their unadorned ideas to be too simple to impress their peers.

That's not to say Stewart's work is unintelligible. But surely it would be easier for most of us to read if it were written with standard punctuation.

31. ### Mark Mandel said,

May 11, 2015 @ 2:50 pm

I privileged the Nisga’a language as related above, agreed to provide an english translation for each nisga’a word and phrase. This manner of writing is not without precedent. Marker (2009) writes, “The Coast Salish stories of Xa:ls, the creator-transformer…” and not “The Coast Salish stories of the creator-transformer Xa:ls”

32. ### David Morris said,

May 11, 2015 @ 5:42 pm

@Fandango: Yes, indeed. I was looking for a 'U' to style as a 'V' and managed to overlook that one.

33. ### J. W. Brewer said,

May 11, 2015 @ 7:54 pm

I am very impressed by the Antin piece linked to by Prof. Lawler. Interesting substance aside, it reads nicely and understandably like a transcript of someone talking (in a giving-a-talk setting rather than conversational setting, but still oral) without working strictly from a script that would pass muster as formal academic prose. So yeah, why transcribe such a talk into paragraphs and sentences punctuated like formal academic prose? But that gets us back to the question of what sort of genre the doctoral dissertation is supposed to be and whether it ought to (or at least may in appropriate circumstances) resemble a knowledgeable fellow talking extemporaneously about the subject versus a presentation with a little more structure or indeed so much structure that it cannot be produced other than in edited writing.

34. ### Rod Johnson said,

May 11, 2015 @ 9:42 pm

What is the function of a Ph.D thesis? It is not a work of art. It is not a personal journal.

Unless it is. Certainly both works of art and personal journals have been "submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Ph.D.", as have proofs, pieces of music, lecture series and god knows what else. Dissertations are understood in various ways in various disciplines, and are published in a variety of media. Everyone mistakes the particular version they were exposed to as the version.

35. ### Greg Diamond said,

May 11, 2015 @ 10:20 pm

"Making the work more opaque, whether by writing it in an almost unknown language, or by writing it in English in a way that makes it harder for people to read and pay attention to (and makes it less likely that they will read it and pay attention to it)"

Given its context, this has got to be the funniest thing that I have read today.

May 12, 2015 @ 3:56 am

@J.W.Brewer: Abbie Hoffman used "Amerikkka" (or maybe "AmeriKKKa") around 1970. I'm pretty sure it's in Steal This Book, although "Amerika" is more common.

37. ### Bean said,

May 12, 2015 @ 6:21 am

Like other types of academic papers, some PhD theses are easy to read and some aren't, and much of it depends on who's advising the student on the editing (i.e., the advisory committee), and also whether or not the student is pliable enough to listen to the advice. You can imagine the genealogy of bad writing getting passed down from one academic "generation" to the next just as good writing does.

There is always subtle political commentary in a PhD thesis because you are trying to examine something new in a framework of previous work. You are inevitably going to imply that "Smith (1990) missed this crucial thing that I am going to explore", or "Smith (1990) failed to see the implications of his result which I will replicate and provide a workable theory for", or "Smith (1990) did some very good work but now we have better digital signal processing so we can look at the same idea another way". It doesn't have to be insulting, of course, but Smith might read it that way.

And an honest question: Don't people write theses on, e.g., Italian literature, in Italian, even if they are at an English-speaking university? Or do they write in English? Presumably their examiners will also be well-versed in Italian literature. I read this story as, this guy wanted to write about Nisga'a architecture in Nisga'a, he was told "no, you must write in English" so he wrote in English, reluctantly, trying to pay homage to Nisga'a throughout and yes, also making some political commentary about the state of First Nations in Canada.

38. ### Oona Houlihan said,

May 12, 2015 @ 10:08 am

39. ### Eugene Volokh said,

May 12, 2015 @ 10:34 am

Greg Diamond's comment (and Mark Liberman's earlier response) reminds me that I should have put things more precisely. When I spoke of "[m]aking the work more opaque, whether by writing it in an almost unknown language, or by writing it in English in a way that makes it harder for people to read and pay attention to (and makes it less likely that they will read it and pay attention to it)," I meant paying attention to *while reading* — the sort of attention that needs to be paid to scholarly work for it to do its job. I agree that this controversy has drawn more public attention, and likely even attention within the discipline, to the paper. But it still seems to me that writing the dissertation this way makes it harder for people to actually follow it while reading it. (The original proposal to write the dissertation in an almost unknown language would have made the paper even less readable by most fellow scholars, of course.)

To be sure, as Oona Houlihan points out, "the more 'erudite' reader" could read and understand the paper even without punctuation; indeed, even non-erudite readers can. It just seems to me to be much harder for readers to do that. And when there is a deliberate decision that makes it harder, then the dissertation is not, I think, well tailored to serving the purpose that dissertations ought to serve: Contributing to the common stock of knowledge (rather than just serving as a vehicle for the author's self-expression, personal, political, or otherwise — something for which there are many other fora.

40. ### J. W. Brewer said,

May 12, 2015 @ 11:47 am

41. ### Old Gobbo said,

May 12, 2015 @ 1:25 pm

@ John Lawler: can I add my thanks as well for posting this (very legible) musing. Incidentally I wonder if there is not a misprint three-quarters of the way through: ‘in fact we have to learn than name "color" ‘ – ‘than’ should perhaps be ‘then’

42. ### Rob Solheim said,

May 12, 2015 @ 1:26 pm

Brings to mind the work of the late Jose Saramago. Punctuation is non-standard, and the text looks very dense, but you soon get used to it. And he got a Nobel for his efforts.

43. ### Mooloo said,

May 12, 2015 @ 5:30 pm

Brings to mind the work of the late Jose Saramago. Punctuation is non-standard, and the text looks very dense, but you soon get used to it. And he got a Nobel for his efforts.

EInstein got a Nobel too, and his work is genuinely hard to follow. The key is that Saramago and Einstein weren't writing for architects, so easy readability isn't relevant to their work.

Writing awkwardly in Stewart's manner is a political act. It is up to the committee to decide whether that is appropriate or not in the circumstances of architecture.

I imagine most people will just think he is a dick for doing it, and further lower their esteem of out of touch academics. I would prefer that the academy actually work harder to make their work useful and accessible (in both senses).

44. ### first approximation said,

May 13, 2015 @ 12:25 am

If he wanted his work to be unreadable he should have done it the traditional academic way: turgid, jargon-filled prose. :P

45. ### MZ said,

May 13, 2015 @ 2:11 am

Quoted above:
One issue might be the potential US readership of the work beyond your committee. So, e.g., (limited sample; n=1) the dissertation-reworked-as-academic-press- monograph of a college classmate of mine who is a professor of German is in English, with all of the extensive bits of quoted German accompanied by English translation (that last bit might have been a change from the dissertation stage to the monograph stage?). But this makes sense if you assume the American academy might have a reasonable number of humanities scholars/students interested in the topic (the relationship between a particular theme of Kant's and certain work of Goethe/Schiller/Hoelderlin) but not be able to read a 200-page monograph in German,

Interestingly, in academic writing for the field of Classics, any text quoted in Latin or Greek will be followed by an English translation. Any text quoted from German, French, or Italian will generally not be translated. I was under the impression that most humanities PhD programs require their students to learn French and German.