Axiom of Communication: Punctuation

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Family Communication: Cohesion and Change explores communication within families and how certain models change the way family members perceive the communication process. The family is, in essence, the communication system. The shared experiences of the family develop in patterns. These patterns are difficult to identify because the participants have been involved in the communication system with the same players for a long time and emotional support is contingent on many factors.

The third axiom of communication theory is punctuation. Communication between people is not a stream of continuous conversation but rather segments of communication punctuated by seemingly arbitrary stimulus-response groupings. The division points are called punctuation. This verbal punctuation acts in the same way as punctuation does in written documents. Ideally, there would exist a common meaning and agreements about the punctuation. However, more commonly that punctuation attaches peculiar or misunderstood meanings to the message. Significant message distortion occurs because of the unpredictable uses of punctuation. Punctuation implies that the nature of a relationship is contingent upon the punctuation of the communication sequences between communicants.

For example, someone’s touch during an exchange may punctuate a conversation segment to mean as a loving act or a forceful act. Communication occurs whether or not the punctuation was deliberate or logical. Successful communication is a circular exchange between the sender and the receiver. However, one’s message may not be received clearly because of the perception of the message. Communication flow is sometimes ambiguous about who are the sender and receiver. The simultaneous mutual influence process occurs in a context that deals with role expectations. Sometimes the process is successful when the message is clearly received and feedback is clearly given. Communication context and punctuation gives the sender and receiver time to revise and clarify messages.

Viewing communication interactions from one’s own point of view is a product of punctuation. The conversations between people differ depending on the culture. In contexts where culture is the result of shared experiences, the punctuation process is almost unconscious. The basis for punctuation is the undisputed belief that there is only one context and that the speakers know that context to be the true reality of the thing. Additionally, any departure or viewpoint that differs is because one party is illogical. Because of the way to resolve this type of conflict is to have further discussion about the difficult conversation, the problem is difficult to surmount.

Another problem with the viewpoint related to punctuation is that further discussion about the communication problems is usually explained in terms of cause and effect. However, cause and effect only apply to the circular definition of communication. Discrepant punctuation of a conversation jointly experienced interaction is often the source of conflict between people. As an example, from my life, I would like to offer a short version of a recent conversation with my mother in which the lack of punctuation negatively affected a discussion.

Me: This year I would like to donate some toys to the Catholic Church program whereby we have a specific family with children to buy for rather than just donate money or canned goods. My mother: So what friend of yours that you want to hang out with is doing this program?

Me: Actually, I read about it and there are children in our area who have been identified by their parents or parents as unlikely to get any gifts this year because their folks are unemployed.

My mother: Do you have the time and the money to do that kind of project? What if these kids demand all sorts of expensive software and games?

Me: That is not going to happen and we would choose the gifts anyway. I just thought that we would enjoy giving to one family with children in our immediate area.

My mother: We will just have to agree to disagree about this. I want to do it the same way we have in the past. Give some money and food donations to the same charity have in the past. And guess what? When you get out of school and have a job then you can give your money away to whoever you want but I am the head of this household so I make the decision!

This communication exchange may be read using the punctuation axiom. Using punctuation as a sequence of events explains how this conversation went so poorly. By the end of the discussion, both my mother and I had were left with bad feelings. There was no revision; there was, in essence, no punctuation because the conversation became combative early on. This conversation will affect upcoming events and conversations between us. I feel that my mother just wanted to fight and insult me no matter what the topic. My mother apparently views as rebelling against the ways she has always done things. There was no attempt to understand and the communication problems between us will continue because my mother reacts to every idea I have as being costly and insubordinate. Therefore, we will continue in this vein until I graduate and move out on my own.

Trying to make sense of this conversation between my mother and me reveals that we held different attitudes toward charitable contributions. However, we held some beliefs in common. We both possess a consciousness about the value of charity. If we had the ability to renew the discussion with communication tools then we might be better able to understand each other’s perspectives on the subject. Using the axiom about punctuation would give us the opportunity to build a context whereby this type of argument does not happen. If both of us were willing to participate in a conversation where all sentiments and viewpoints were considered equal the conversation context would have been different. Perhaps it would not have devolved into a conversation that ends with my mother shouting at me. Communication is a sequence of events. The result hinges on the events understood from the frame of observation.


Galvin, K. M., & Brommel, B. J. (1986). Family communication: Cohesion and change.Glenview, Ill: Scott, Foresman.