Sam Leith in The Guardian:
A couple of weeks ago I saw David Crystal give an after-dinner speech at the august annual conference of the Society of Indexers and the Society for Editors and Proofreaders. In it, he recalled having been an adviser on Lynne Truss’s radio programme about punctuation. She told him she was thinking of writing a book on the subject. He advised her not to: “Nobody buys books on punctuation.” “Three million books later,” he said, “I hate her.”
Making a Point is this prolific popular linguist’s entry into the same, or a similar, market. Truss’s book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, was energised by her furious certainties about the incorrect use of all these little marks. Crystal’s is a soberer and, actually, more useful affair: he puts Truss’s apostrophe-rage in its sociolinguistic context, considers the evolution of modern usages, and gently encourages the reader to think in a nuanced way about how marks work rather than imagining that some Platonic style guide, if only it could be accessed, would sort all punctuation decisions into boxes marked “literate” and “illiterate”. (Or literate and illiterate, if you prefer.)
As Crystal writes, scribes started to punctuate in order to make manuscripts easier to read aloud: they were signalling pauses and intonational effects. Grammarians and, later, printers adopted the marks, and tried to systematise them, as aids to semantic understanding on the page. The marks continue to serve both purposes. “This,” Crystal writes, “is where we see the origins of virtually all the arguments over punctuation that have continued down the centuries and which are still with us today.”
His central argument, buttressed by countless well-chosen examples and enlivened by the odd whimsical digression, is that neither a phonetic, nor a semantic, nor a grammatical account of our punctuation system is singly sufficient.