Punctuation | Ways in which speech is organized, cut up, or articulated. In a given context, punctuation refers to the group of occurrences by which speech reveals its syntax, distributes its semantic effects, and allows its recipients to participate (or not) in what is being said.

Written sentences use signs to let readers know about cuts, changes in level, or rhythms that correspond to an ideal syntactic organization of speech. However, outside of reading, we do not speak using sentences. What we know about sentences is a resource that allows us to construct what we . Oral discourse also contains hints of punctuation, taking part as it does in socio-cultural customs and practices. This entry on brings together a range of such practices that involve organizing and carving the flow of interactive speech into segments.

Sentences and punctuation

Some ways of punctuating the flow of speech resemble those used by sentences: for example, one could use conventional typographic signs to transcribe the way that Laurent Terzief or Louis Aragon modulate different uses of space to signal periods, semi-colons, commas (see also Un Coup d’couteau dans l’machin), or even colons and interpolated clauses, as in this excerpt of a lecture by Gilles Deleuze. In his sketch comedy show, Michel Leeb uses this analogy between sentence punctuation and narrative production as a comedic resource (see also Silence). On the other hand, when a doctor dictates a diagnosis, they utter punctuation signs in a much less pronounced way.

Punctuating units of speech

Given that speech is much more than, or perhaps not at all, just “saying sentences,” oral punctuation lets us hear the work a speaker is putting into cutting up and binding units that do not correspond to grammatically complete or correct sentence forms. A first example can be seen when using lexical elements. Phrases like “well,” “actually,” “brother,” “yes” can be used to mark the end of units of speech, as well as questions that tag their recipient like “right?” or “no?” The same process can be seen when starting units of speech, like “so” or “well then,” as in this excerpt of the presentation of a conference.

Speakers also have non-lexical tools at their disposal to help them place markers between units of speech when talking, like “uh” (in Mark Leckey’s conference), the typically New York-sounding “ahm,” or even less lexicalized phonemes (as in this presentation of a conference). Silence can also have a punctuating function, as in this excerpt of a Jacques Lacan conference (see also Libéraux sociaux, socialistes de marché). Acoustic forms can also function as tonal scripts for building units of speech, as in this excerpt where Léon Zitrone announces Joe Dassin’s death (see also Les Philosophes parlent aux philosophes).

Punctuation is more than a marker

However, techniques for punctuating one’s discourse are not limited to demarcating units of speech. These techniques also serve to establish a certain relationship to what is being said, as in this excerpt where a young man regularly uses the phrase “yeah, right,” or this one, using “there you go.” In both cases, the speaker is giving the conversation a kind of critical update as it moves along. In the same vein, we have Jacques Rancière’s “OK,” whose function could be to bring the enunciative situation up to date; or even Abel Ferrara’s “you know” or Patrice Chéreau’s “you see,” aimed more directly at their interlocutors.

Using punctuators or binders can help solve problems linked to speech that one feels needs support, as in this voicemail message, where the speaker tries to be present despite it all, with “euhs” and tongue clicks, or in this excerpt where Dan Graham uses the American “ahm” to prop up speech that struggles to be fluid due to a stutter (see also Donc, donc and the entry on Residue).

The use of punctuated forms can also help build lists (see the entry on Series). This can happen with single items, as when saying “and all” in this excerpt, or simply by using regular acoustic forms (see Elle fait toujours la belle, Y’a la chimie, la bureautique, Les philosophes parlent aux philosophes). These punctuating elements can even incorporate a judgment of the very list they are building, like when Ségolène Royal enumerates President Sarkozy’s campaign promises.

Finally, let us note how punctuation is not only the work of speakers, but can also take shape through the attentive participation of interlocutors, as in this excerpt where Carlo Ginzburg punctuates Francesca Isidori’s turn to speak with actions signaling his presence and desire to ratify what is being said. Furthermore, and more generally, punctuation is linked to the specificities of the enunciative situation or activity taking place: we know Bernard Pivot will not read a text the same way he does a dictation.


Trouver la belle

Writing workshop scene from Le Papotin, directed by Alexandre Plank for L’Atelier Fiction, France Culture, 2017.

De tous ces immondices

Bailiff's report, from the show Les pieds sur terre, France Culture, 2015.

Elle est un peu voilà grognonne

Excerpt of a video posted on YouTube, 2016.

Lucien de Batempré rame

Michel Leeb, excerpt of the comedy sketch “La Ponctuation,” 1984.

Le Théâtre-Texte

Laurent Terzieff, excerpt of the show La Nuit des Molières, France 2, 1988.

Dans l'état le plus gluant

Paul Claudel, excerpt of an interview with Jacques Madaule and Pierre Schaeffer, 1944.

L'avocat du diable

Carlo Ginzburg, Francesca Isidori, excerpt of the show Affinités électives, France Culture, 2007.

Il avait quarante-deux ans

Léon Zitrone, excerpt of the news hour, FR3, 1980.