The Punctuation Effect: Definition and Examples

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The use of laughter as the oral equivalent of punctuation at the end of a spoken phrase or sentence.

The term punctuation effect was coined by neuroscientist Robert R. Provine in his book Laughter: A Scientific Investigation (Viking, 2000). See Examples and Observations, below.

Examples and Observations

"[Uncle Emil] was a big, rough, hearty man who was missing one whole finger and part of another from accidents in the steel mill, and his language was goodhearted, loud, punctuated by laughter, and not at all suited for Sunday school." (Michael Novak, "Controversial Engagements." First Things, April 1999)

"During conversation, laughter by speakers almost always follows complete statements or questions. Laughter is not randomly scattered throughout the speech stream. Speaker laughter interrupted phrases in only 8 (0.1 percent) of 1,200 laugh episodes. Thus, a speaker may say, 'You are going where? . . . ha-ha,' but rarely 'You are going . . . ha-ha . . . where?' This strong and orderly relationship between laughter and speech is akin to punctuation in written communication and is termed the punctuation effect. . . .
"The punctuation effect holds for the audience as well as for the speaker; a surprising result because the audience could laugh at any time without speech-related competition for their vocalization channel. No audience interruptions of speaker phrases were observed in our 1,200 laugh episodes. It's unclear whether the punctuation of speech by audience laughter is cued directly by the speaker (e.g., apostphrase pause, gesture, or laughter), or by a brain mechanism similar to that proposed for the speaker that maintains the dominance of language (this time perceived, not spoken) over laughter. The brains of speaker and audience are locked in a dual-processing mode."
(Robert R. Provine, Laughter: A Scientific Investigation. Viking, 2000)

"[The] punctuation effect is highly reliable and requires the coordination of laughing with the linguistic structure of speech, yet it is performed without the conscious awareness of the speaker. Other airway maneuvers, such as breathing and coughing, also punctuate speech and are performed without speaker awareness." (Robert R. Provine in What We Believe but Cannot Prove: Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Uncertainty, ed. by John Brockman. HarperCollins, 2006)

Glitches in the Punctuation Effect

"The shared rhythm of laughter-inducing comments and responses--comment/laughter . . . comment/laughter, similar to a call-response pattern in gospel music--suggests a powerful, neurologically based attachment/affiliation dance in action, such as that described by Stern (1998).
"Others have noted, and Temple Grandin has described in her autobiography on dealing with her own autism, what happens when there is a glitch in this processing mode. Grandin says that being autistic has meant she is not able to follow the social rhythm of laughter. Other people 'will laugh together and then talk quietly until the next laughing cycle.' She inadvertently interrupts or starts laughing at the wrong places . . .."
(Judith Kay Nelson, What Made Freud Laugh: An Attachment Perspective on Laughter. Routledge, 2012)

Filler Laughs

"When paying for food in Leipzig, I was struck by how much of my daily interaction was punctuated by laughter that was totally detached from what I was doing. I would buy some beer and cookies and give the clerk a twenty-euro note; inevitably, the clerk would ask if I had exact change because Germans are obsessed with both exactness and money. I would reach into my pocket and discover I had no coins, so I would reply, 'Um--heh heh heh. No. Sorry. Ha! Guess not.' I made these noises without thinking. Every single time, the clerk would just stare at me stoically. It had never before occurred to me how often I reflexively laugh; only in the absence of a response did I realize I was laughing for no reason whatsoever. It somehow felt comfortable. Now that I’m back in the U.S., I notice this all the time: People half-heartedly chuckle throughout most casual conversations, regardless of the topic. It’s a modern extension of the verbalized pause, built by TV laugh tracks. Everyone in America has three laughs: a real laugh, a fake real laugh, and a 'filler laugh' they use during impersonal conversations. We have been trained to connect conversation with soft, interstitial laughter. It’s our way of showing the other person that we understand the context of the interaction, even when we don’t." (Chuck Klosterman, Eating the Dinosaur. Scribner, 2009)

Victor Borge's "Phonetic Punctuation"

"[T]his punctuation effect is not nearly as strong as Provine has stated above. But his usage points out the possibility of other intrusions as well into spoken discourse, e.g., as in a statement such as 'The church bell just outside the window punctuated the pauses in their conversation.' For the most part, however, punctuation remains part of the silent world of the written. The only exception to this that we know of is the extraordinarily idiosyncratic system of oral punctuation for spoken discourse devised by the comedian/pianist Victor Borge (1990), his so-called 'Phonetic Punctuation.' His facetious explanation was that his system would prevent the frequent misunderstandings in oral conversations. He used brief vocalized sounds as intrusions into the speech stream for each of the types of punctuation as he read aloud. The effect was a cacophonous and unusually humorous chain of sounds that truly intruded upon the stream of spoken discourse and hacked it into small pieces. The extraordinary redundancy had the effect of reducing the message itself to background noise--for the sake of the humorous. And in the course of time, this presentation has become one of Borge's most popular routines." (Daniel C. O'Connell and Sabine Kowal, Communicating with One Another: Toward a Psychology of Spontaneous Spoken Discourse. Springer, 2008)

"Each of the pause markers we customarily use--commas, periods, dashes, ellipsis, exclamation points, question marks, parentheses, colons, and semicolons--suggests a different kind of beat. Victor Borge built a career on illustrating the differences among them with a comedy routine he called 'phonetic punctuation.' As he spoke, he'd sound out the punctuation marks we usually glide over silently. A period was a loud thwok, an exclamation mark was a descending squeak followed by a thwok, and so on.
"Maybe you had to be there. But from a writer's point of view, Borge made an important point. Try following his lead and sound out each punctuation mark in your mind. Periods create the sharp, crisp break of a karate chop. Commas suggest the smoother rise and fall of a speed bump. Semicolons hesitate for a second and then flow forward. Dashes call a sudden halt. Ellipses ooze along like spilled honey." (Jack R. Hart, A Writer's Coach: The Complete Guide to Writing Strategies That Work. Anchor Books, 2007)

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Nordquist, Richard. "The Punctuation Effect: Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). The Punctuation Effect: Definition and Examples. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "The Punctuation Effect: Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).