A while back I asked if anyone could tell me who was responsible for “the change [in Russian punctuation] (deplorable, in my view) from an intuitive system of the kind Dostoyevsky used to the rule-based system familiar to all modern readers”; nobody answered, but I was reading about Aleksei Remizov in Georgii Adamovich’s smarmy but enlightening collection of biographical/critical essays Odinochestvo i svoboda [Solitude and freedom] when the answer leaped out at me: “…убедить, что наша школьная грамматика произвольна и неосновательно-тиранична, что мы сами себя обворовали, доверившись Гроту и другим лжезаконодателям…” Grot, that was it! (Not that far from my wild guesses: “Korff? Gets? Shtumpf?”) So I googled him and found a nice biography and a Russian Wikipedia article on punctuation, which I am memorializing here in case I want them again.


  1. I totally read that as “which I am memorizing in case I want them again,” which I found a bit odd.
    Anyhow, thanks for pointing this out. I’ve always wondered why Russian punctuation is so bizarre.

  2. I read it the same, wondering why our treasured LH would want to commit to memory a Wiki article on Russian punctuation. The possibility that someone (especially someone with a background both in math and languages) would find Russian punctuation bizarre is itself bizarre — to me — even beyond the limits of imaginable bizarreness. For once one accepts its axioms (all axioms in the world are arbitrarily chosen), Russian punctuation is governed by perfectly reasonable rules, and although a few of these rules can be difficult to properly apply, they form a set that covers every thinkable situation, leaving, however, a degree of freedom to the creative writer. English punctuation, on the contrary, is as illogical as it gets, being governed primarily by “intuition” (which most people don’t have anyway) and chaotic style guides. Not that English needs its punctuation axiomatized but still, what can be more bizarre than a system based on intuition?
    Last but not least — Grot revised and standardized Russian orthography. His system was revised by the 1918 and 1956 spelling reforms. LH’s question about punctuation remains unanswered.

  3. No, Grot did punctuation as well. From the Vikipediya article: “Один из виднейших представителей этого направления Я. К. Грот…” Of course you find Russian punctuation reasonable and normal; you grew up with it. For someone who grew up with a system where a comma implies at least a slight pause, it’s a trial having to ignore all those commas when reading aloud, and it would be beyond my powers to put them in in the right places if I were writing Russian prose. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “bizarre” as Chris did, but I don’t care for it, and clearly neither do some Russians (Remizov, Adamovich).

  4. Sorry for the off-topic content, but there’s something that I already want to ask for some time. I heard that in Soviet history there was a time when the government decided that all foreign names should be translated into Russian, for instance Einstein became the Russian equivalent of one stone. Of course, the system was abolished fast. I’d like to know some more about this peculiar time. Could someone provide some information?

  5. LH, Remizov was an odd character, a phony “folk” writer who liked to model himself to a sort of leprechaun, in his personal life as well as in his writings. Pushkin called Onegin a novel. Chlebnikov was creating заумный язык and insisted everybody should switch to it for everyday communication.
    Writers can do with language or think of it in any creative ways they see fit, that doesn’t make them linguists or authority on organising that language.
    As to comma, it is used for pause in Russian, also. Russian punctuation and orthography is much, much more logical than English; it has rules that’s easy to remember and exceptions are numbered, like zhi/shi &c. Which, btw, makes learning Russian much easier than learning English. I remember an American teacher on language courses for immigrants who often told us to memorise this or that usage, “because there is no explanation other than English is crazy”.

  6. My fault indeed — Grot addressed punctuation in his work as well but in lay talk his name is associated much more with his contribution to spelling. (BTW, the Wiki entry is lifted from the classical Rozental guide.) As far as punctuation goes, Grot’s normative writings appeared after normative grammars by Grech, Buslayev and Vostokov had — which means Grot was by no means the only standardizer but apparently the one whose recommendations suited educated users of the language the best. Dostoyevsky’s original spelling and punctuation were apparently highly idiosyncratic and did not conform to any of those standards.
    There’s a lot to be discerned from the way a native Russian speaker punctuates her writings. I’m particularly sensitive to the use of the comma after odnako, for one.

  7. Besides, I noticed an inexplicable aggressively negative tendency towards Russian in foreign speakers whose profession or interest includes knowing it. I don’t know the reason for it, surely not infantile frustration for being inadequate to the level of difficulty?

  8. I suspect learning Russian is still terribly difficult because of the verb aspects and funny prefixes/suffixes (although no funnier than in German) but Grot’s and others’ rules make learning Russian grammar and punctuation, at least, a well-structured, logically transparent process.

  9. So does someone want to explain to the non-Russian speakers what the big deal about Russian punctuation is? What ARE these rules, and why do they divide us so?

  10. See here, f.ex. First that Google sent my way.

  11. Sorry, I’m a Mac user.

  12. Can you type “google” on Mac?

  13. Matt: It divides up sentences according to syntactic parts, so that in Russian you write (for example) “I know, that he’s here.” But you don’t pause between “know” and “that.” Which I find counterintuitive. But of course if you learned it in school, it seems natural.

  14. But I do pause in that sentence, LH, especially if I want to emphasize the first part. If there’s no emphasis, than it’s a case of the simple sentence. Comma goes in front of что only in сложно-подчинённых предложениях.

  15. But I do pause in that sentence, LH, especially if I want to emphasize the first part. If there’s no emphasis, than it’s a case of the simple sentence. Comma goes in front of что only in сложно-подчинённых предложениях

  16. Thanks, LH. Yes, Tatyana, I can, but none of the first few results seemed to include anything that objectionable, and it seemed to me that it would be easier just to ask the complainants directly than to try to deduce the problem myself.
    “I am a mac user” meant “Although the software you have helpfully directed me to looks like it would answer many questions, I cannot run it.”

  17. Can you run Wikipedia?
    Here’s a link; however sketchy the article list comma usage it gives the general idea.

  18. Yeah, I saw that, but I still didn’t really understand the objection to the system, perhaps because (unlike people who can read old books in Russian) I have no idea what the pre-reform norm was and so can’t really tell what’s been lost/gained.
    By the way, doesn’t German do something similarly unintuitive-to-English-speakers with commas?

  19. Yeah, and let’s face it, any system is going to seem unintuitive to people who didn’t grow up with it.

  20. Dunno, I always thought the Russian system made a lot of sense, intuitively, and the grammar seemed logical and orderly. But I got laughed at whenever I told Russians that. So I stopped.

  21. Aw, PeFe, I feel much better now. Although I seem to recall quite – positively – negative statement coming from you. I must be drank at the time: ain’t we all?
    (LH, how do you like creative punctuation?)

  22. I like it!

  23. I! like — it; too.

  24. [besides unique treatment to, some might say, total disregard of, tenses, spelling and subordinate cases] – but that’s how I hear it!

  25. I’ll bite: what is the zhi/shi exception?

  26. That’s a mystery to me too. Maybe Tatyana will drop by and clear it up.

Speak Your Mind