While thinking about the word punctuation today (which is the kind of thing I do), I considered how similar the word punctuality is to it. I wondered what the link could be. It seemed to me that the concept they share is exactitude. Punctuation allows one to be precise in their meaning in a sentence, and if one is extremely punctual, one allows arrive at the exact moment one should.
And unsurprisingly, both come from the same root word: punctus, the Latin word for point. Which makes a lot of sense. Punctuality, though is an interesting concept. Of course it’s a positive one that we value, overall. We hate if our friends are late when meeting up (if we’re normal). But do we ever admire it? Like the person who never misses a day off work through sickness, are we really impressed by someone who’s never late? Or does it annoy us? Do we think they’re too perfect, too punctilious? I think is why punctuality is often invoked as a kind of back-handed compliment in that great bastion of reading-between-the-lines: the job reference.
Employers have to be very careful when providing references nowadays. Any negative suggestion has to be backed up by clear evidence: otherwise they could be in serious legal trouble. Which is why no-one ever really provides bad references anymore. If an employer is required to provide a reference for someone they don’t have much good to say about, they’ll write around that fact.
The simplest way, for someone who was either simply awful, or left under bad circumstances, is to say: I confirm that Mr. ____________ worked at this company. but sometimes you don’t want to be hard on someone, while at the same time also not wanting to make any other company suffer their ineptitude. So you find any way you can to praise them without actually indicating that they’re good at their job.
They always dressed well.
They didn’t seem to steal anything.
Their fingernails were always well trimmed.
And of course:
They were always punctual.
Once you see that, you know not to hire that person. It’s a very creative way to insult someone terribly by saying they’re not fit for the job they’re applying for, all without actually saying it. It’s a beautiful thing really, that we can not write something and yet instantly communicate that something to someone. We can structure an absence which the reader automatically fills with what we led them to think about. And of course, that politeness, that not wanting to say something bad about someone while also really, really making sure that our reader knows how bad the person we’re writing about is, well that’s really part of what makes the English language so special, isn’t it?