The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Justice and Punctuation

Dear Unknown Friends:

We’re very glad to publish in this issue “What Is the Best Punctuation for the Self?” It is one of the many, wonderful “bulletins” Eli Siegel wrote for Aesthetic Realism Dramatic Presentations during the 1960s and ’70s. These were humorous; were often about current events; were always about the human self, in its confusion, its lowness and height, pettiness and grandeur.

The impetus to our printing this bulletin now is the fact that a book about punctuation has been high on the bestseller lists, in both America and Britain. The book is Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, by Lynne Truss, and its popularity was a huge surprise, including to its author. Ms. Truss loves punctuation and is furious that she sees it misused at every turn. She writes with ferocity and jocularity. (The title comes from a joke about a panda, whose habits are described in a poorly punctuated wildlife manual.) She gives many examples of the horrific punctuation that is so prevalent. And she says that only a few people, “sticklers” like herself, even care, but that we “sticklers” should rise up and do something about it.

Why Is It Popular?

Yet why has this book been selling in such numbers—and not only to “sticklers,” we can be sure? I think it is because, along with those who care about punctuation, there are thousands who are ashamed that they don’t. In fact, I’d say that every person who has been careless about punctuation is deeply ashamed, for a reason Aesthetic Realism explains: because punctuation is no mere arbitrary, academically imposed system, but is a matter of ethics. It is a means of being just to words, ideas—and the world itself.

That’s why I am writing on the subject here. Eli Siegel loved punctuation, and I love it. He showed what no other critic, philosopher, or grammarian saw: that punctuation has to do with justice at its largest and most urgent; with human life at its deepest and most immediate; with reality in its wholeness; with beauty as such.

Lynne Truss’s book has been able to evoke in many persons the repressed hope to be exact about punctuation. And the reason is in these sentences from Mr. Siegel’s1951 lecture Aesthetic Realism and Grammar:

Grammar is about the drama in words. I once made up a little couplet: “You don’t know grammar / If you don’t see the drammer.” [TRO 1153]

Ms. Truss sees drama in punctuation. Take this very likable passage on page 79 of the American edition (NY: Gotham Books, 2004), in which she describes the comma as a kind of “grammatical sheepdog”:

The comma...tears about on the hillside of language, endlessly organising words into sensible groups and making them stay put: sorting and dividing; circling and herding; and of course darting off with a peremptory “woof” to round up any wayward subordinate clause that makes a futile bolt for semantic freedom.

The Biggest Drama

What, though, is the biggest drama, the fundamental drama, of punctuation? It is outlined in the following Aesthetic Realism principle, stated by Eli Siegel:

The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.

In this statement is the means for people to be really interested in punctuation—and to use punctuation to see themselves, humanity, and reality better. (And I’m not speaking theoretically; I’ve taught grammar to college freshmen with that principle as the basis.)

Junction and Separation

For example, the most important opposites in punctuating are junction and separation. Lynne Truss is writing about these in the passage on the “sheepdog” comma, which goes about “dividing” words and also “herding” them together.

Let us take, for punctuation purposes, the principle I just quoted: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” The comma between world and art separates them; it says these are two distinct entities. (World art, without a comma, would be something else—a single idea.) Yet that comma between the two words doesn’t separate entirely: it tells us that the world and art are joined too, that they have to do with each other in a sentence which is still going on, and that we’ll find out what they have to do with each other as we continue reading the sentence.

Then there is the colon between the sentence’s two clauses. It certainly divides them. Yet it also tells us (for this is a function of the colon) that there’s a deep equivalence between the two ideas—that’s how inseparable they are. “The world, art, and self explain each other”—then the colon says, What follows is what it means that they explain each other—“each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”

In Our Lives

Every mark of punctuation joins and separates at once in some fashion, and each differently. However, junction and separation are also the biggest matters in our personal lives. How fundamental junction and separation are with us, Mr. Siegel describes in these great, kind sentences in Self and World:

We all of us start with a here, ever so snug and ever so immediate. And this here is surrounded strangely, endlessly, by a there. We are always meeting this there: in other words, we are always meeting what is not ourselves, and we have to do something about it.*

We are separate from the world, for we are ourselves. We are also joined to the world. And so much occurs about that separation and junction—including pretense, agony, bliss, hope, confusion. Here are a few examples of trouble about these opposites:

There are separation and junction as people smile at others in social life yet have hidden, disparaging thoughts within themselves. There are separation and junction as a woman is embraced by a man yet feels, “He doesn’t know who I am, what goes on in my mind.” There are separation and junction as a person devours a piece of cake and feels that this makes up a bit for a world he dislikes; he joins the cake to himself as a means of feeling more separate from everything else. There have been terrible separation and junction in history as the leaders of a nation have attacked and manipulated people elsewhere in the world (junction), while being aloof from those persons’ feelings and disregardful of the facts, aloof from truth itself (separation).

When we see that the comma, semicolon, period, and their grammatical companions are about joining and separating in a way that is beautiful and just, and that this is what we want to do in our own hours and days, we’ll not only love punctuation but use it to be fairer to everything.

There Is Contempt

Lynne Truss asks about punctuation, “Why is it so disregarded?” And she says, “The obvious culprit is the recent history of education practice” (p. 13). But the biggest culprit is the thing in the human self which Mr. Siegel identified as the cause of all injustice: contempt, “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” What Ms. Truss and others don’t see is that justice to the structure of sentences is part of the large matter of justice as such. We can be uninterested in the function of semicolons for the same reason that we can be uninterested in algebra; or the history of art; or the feelings of a human being. The big mistake grammarians make is the mistake persons in every field make: they see their field and what it deserves as too apart from everything else. These sentences from Eli Siegel’s Self and World explain why punctuation “is so disregarded”:

The first victory of contempt is the feeling in people that they have the right to see other people and things pretty much as they please. ...The fact that most people have felt...they had the right to see other people and other objects in a way that seemed to go with comfort—this fact is the beginning of the injustice and pain of the world. It is contempt in its first universal, hideous form. [P. 3]

Contempt is a disproportion between self and world. And the feeling in it—“I matter much more than other things, so I can do whatever suits me with them”—makes us cold to people, even brutal. It can also make us feel we can fling apostrophes anywhere we please, or leave them out altogether.

While contempt can make people disregardful of punctuation, it can also make people who care about punctuation be excessively disdainful of others. Part of the charm of Ms. Truss’s book is the no-holds-barred way she asserts her objection to bad punctuation. For example, she writes:

No matter that you have a PhD and have read all of Henry James twice. If you still persist in writing, “Good food at it’s best” [instead of “its best”], you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave. [P. 44]

That, of course, is funny and hyperbolic. And I share her critical feeling. But there is also in Eats, Shoots & Leaves a disgust with humanity and the world which is inexact and is too much a “victory of contempt.” Then, because the writer has a false superiority, she also is subject to the feeling of false inferiority (with which we punish ourselves for contempt). Here are some passages that show the superiority-inferiority mix-up:

Everywhere one looks, there are signs of ignorance and indifference....[One feels] the justifiable despair of the well educated in a dismally illiterate world....Sticklers never read a book without a pencil at hand, to correct typographical errors. In short, we are unattractive know-all obsessives who get things out of proportion. [Pp. 2, 49, 5]

What We Can Feel

The word Lynne Truss uses so often, stickler, has both superiority and inferiority with it. There’s inferiority because the word indicates pettiness. A person who insists on accurate punctuation would not see herself as a stickler—would feel she was after something large and kind—if she felt the following, for example: As I’m interested in how the semicolon shows that clauses are at once individual and related, I’m using it to ask how I am related to other people (including those who don’t punctuate well). As I fight for the proper use of the apostrophe to indicate the possessive, I’m using it to be interested in accuracy about possession or ownership as such—how have I wanted to possess things and people?; how and by whom should the world itself be owned? Aesthetic Realism makes such seeing, such feeling, possible. And I love it for doing so!

In the following essay, written as an anonymous bulletin, Mr. Siegel uses his noted poem “One Question,” of 1924. This poem, with its amazing brevity, is beautiful. It puts together, in both its meaning and its musical sound, our self-assertion and our bewilderment. It is about the human self, to which Mr. Siegel was so grandly fair.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

What Is the Best Punctuation for the Self?

Finally an Attempt at an Answer

[An unsigned bulletin by Eli Siegel]


There are some editors and a few other people who think that punctuation is important. However that may be, we have found that punctuation is important as to the greatest of all questions: What is the self? what is my self? and what does it have to do with things that don’t seem to be myself—near and ever so far?

Having arisen from a careful study of Eli Siegel’s poem “One Question,” which has been called the shortest poem in the world,



we were impelled to relate punctuation to the self. First, we thought of I, which is the grammatical term for myself, without any punctuation following whatever. This way:


The I seemed to be, without punctuation, in an unlimited land of unknownness and difference. If you do not punctuate any word, you leave it at the mercy of what went on before and what may be later. The I, then, without punctuation, is accompanied by anonymous, unending territory.

Period, and More

And then you can put a period after the I. This way:


You then feel that the I has been stopped, maybe in a manner that it didn’t want. The peace that comes to the I with the period after it, is certainly an offset to the unbounded anonymity present with no punctuation—still, the self doesn’t want to be summed up by a period.

Now we come to what scholars call the comma situation. The comma situation, as you might surmise by now, is I accompanied by a comma. This is the way:


This makes the I displeasingly tentative, kind of shiftless.  It seems to be lost on the road between a bank and a restaurant, or between itself and another person or another thing.  So this isn't all that I wants either.

A tremendous dignity is given to the I when it is followed by a colon. This way:


You feel it has something to say and has import. It is addressing other things and other things may be listening, or should be listening. Still, an I with a colon, while putting on an impressive show, doesn’t seem entirely happy.

Nor is it happy followed by a semicolon; the semicolon is insulting; it has the shiftlessness of the comma with more pretense. It looks this way:


There is too much semi in the I already, and it doesn’t want more semi with the semicolon.

Drama and some comfort are added to the I followed by a question mark:


Not knowing who you are is better than having the answers with the answers cold and displeasing. However, no question mark brought all happiness; question marks are good for questioning unhappiness and lessening unhappiness, but they bring no fully satisfying internal harvest on their own.

And there is no doubt that I can be followed by an exclamation mark. If we are not astonishing to ourselves and occasionally to others, forces have not been just to us. At least this looks interesting:


But the success does not last. The pungency and surprise in the exclamation mark grow less and fade somewhat.

There Are These

To have the I followed by a dash is insulting and a little frightening:


The I topples, even without punctuation, so why should it present itself as toppling through a dash accompanying it? The dash has some use, but it takes away from the firmness, the confident verticality, of the I as such.

The most insulting punctuation mark you can give to the I is two marks of parenthesis. This way:


To have the I, which wants to insist on its own being, made an afterthought or a transitional incident by being in a parenthesis is galling, and even, perhaps, inaccurate.

Brackets serve the same insulting purpose, with the addition of confining the I. The I looks as if it weren’t wholly invited to exist when within brackets. How sad our only self looks this way:


The Best Answer

So what to do? The best answer we have come to may not be immediately gratifying to many. In keeping, however, with the principle of opposites, there is this, which looks a bit like a mathematical symbol. The I is in parenthesis, giving it tentativeness, enclosure, and specificity; however, within the parenthesis is also a question mark. This makes for what used to be called tension. The parenthesis and the interrogation mark are in a true battle. The parenthesis hugs the I while the question mark asks what it means. In this way, the self as security and the self as seeking are both honored.

We recommend, then, the following punctuation for the I:


At least we have given the matter thought.

*(NY: Definition Press, 1981), p. 91