Learning about Punctuation the Lewis Carroll Way

Like most people, I went to school and received a ‘good’ education. I even went to university and earned a degree. Supposedly, along the way, someone taught me how to write. But when I came to edit my first book, I realised I had no idea how to punctuate properly. I knew all about capitals and full stops, of course. I could even manage paragraphs. But commas? I usually sprinkled them into my sentences, in a hit and miss manner. And how was speech properly set out?
To solve my problem, I didn’t go looking for a punctuation workbook. I searched my bookshelf for an example of a well written and punctuated book and then I copied.
Isn’t that a method that works well? We want to know something so we go looking for a good example to use as a guide.
I never used to bother with the finer points of punctuation because I wasn’t sure how to use such devices as colons and semi-colons. For a long time, I didn’t even know their proper names. To me, they were two dots, or a dot and a comma. And I’m supposed to be an educated woman…
But one day, help arrived in an unexpected way.  I started reading Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland out loud to my children, and I became very excited. It wasn’t so much the story (which is great in its own right). My attention was grabbed by how the book was punctuated. I really think Lewis Carroll is a master of punctuation: he knew just where to use all the devices to the best effect. (Do you like how I slipped a colon into that last sentence?)
I enjoyed Through the Looking Glass even more than its predecessor. While I was reading, I had my eye on all the colons, semi-colons, brackets, ellipses, inverted commas or quotation marks… I took note of where they’d been used, and I started modelling my own writing on this fine example. (By the way, I’m still learning, so don’t examine my sentences too closely!)
So if you or your children want to improve your punctuation, download a copy of any of Lewis Carroll’s books. They are all available free online. While you’re noting all the colons and commas, you just might enjoy the stories as well.
Something else…
Do you like the images from the Alice books? I found them on a website called From Old Books.org:

FOBO: From Old Books dot Org
Pictures, Engravings & Extracts From Old Books

Over 3,200 free images in high resolution from old rare antique books. 

What you might find and how to find it:
There are 3263 images listed here; most of them in more than one size. The images are mostly scanned from old books, ranging in date from the 1500s up to the 1920s and early 1930s. Most of them are out of copyright, or public domain.
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  1. Reply

    I just looked at Through the Looking Glass, Sue, and you're right – Lewis Carroll used a lot of colons. I did a search, after that, on Carroll and punctuation and, apparently, his mathematical mind made him view grammar very logically. Did you know he preferred 'wo'n't' to 'won't' because he thought it was a contraction of 'would not'? But, it actually comes from Old German -'woll not' which is derived from 'wollen' meaning 'to want, or will.' Now, if I've just made myself look clever, I should add that this is all I know and I got it all, just now, from a forum about contractions and Lewis Carroll!

    I looked at the pictures site – how lovely! I really like the pictures used for Robert Louis Stevenson's books but there's lots of other nice ones, too. I'll go back later, for another browse.

    Reading books like these is a wonderfully natural way to learn English, isn't it?

    I love learning about the etymology of words. I've just read that Charlotte Bronte used the word 'willn't' and I seem to remember that Jane Austen also used unusual contractions or punctuation.

    This is such an interesting post, Sue! Thank you for sharing what you discovered:-)

    God bless:-)

  2. Reply


    An interesting post? This is an interesting comment!

    I remember now about Carroll's mathematical mind. It all makes sense. But I knew nothing about contractions. Thanks for sharing that. Willn't makes much more sense than won't.

    I am so pleased you had a look at the book and image website. I'm going back to do some more exploring.

    God bless.

    • Amy R
    • August 9, 2012

    Very enjoyable post, my dear. Jack London taught himself how to write by copying out passages from books he knew were well written. Which ones they were, I couldn't say.

    So, you're in good company!

    (What I really liked, though, was how you asked, do you like how I put a colon in that sentence!)

    I would've been thinking the same thing!

    1. Reply

      Thank you dear Amy!

      It is always a delight to see you on my blog. You're excellent company yourself. And those colons are such helpful and impressive devices! I am glad you liked mine.

      God bless you!

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