Punctuation: using it wisely

From Rick:

Punctuation is a topic of concern for most writers, and I get questions about it all the time from various places. Those who have followed our blog for a while will notice that this is also one topic we’ve not covered very much. There’s a good reason for that, aside from the fact that it’s a BIG subject and one worthy of an entire book.

The primary reason is that Scott and I are working on a book that deals with punctuation specifically geared to fiction writers. And we’ve been working on this for three years or so. We figured it was going to be an easy project, something we could crank out in a few months. Yeah, right.

The good news is that we’re putting the finishing touches on it, and it WILL be published this fall by 13Thirty Books. We’ll let you know when it’s available.

Recently, the topic of the appropriate use, and overuse, of certain punctuation marks came up. The particular discussion involved one author’s love of ellipses (those three dots you see in writing … ) as used for trailing off speech and thoughts and how his reviewers commented on his possible overuse of this mark.

I’m not going to discuss the proper use of ellipses here. We’ll save that for the punctuation book. Rather, I’m going to talk about punctuation in general and its proper use. I should mention that while the following post does not comprise a specific excerpt or excerpts from our book, it does embody the principles that we base our book on.

(1) The PRIMARY purpose of all punctuation is, and has been for centuries, to bring proper meaning and clarity to the writing. By extension, punctuation is a tool to help give the writing the greatest possible impact.

To that end, periods (along with the question mark) and commas remain the strongest pieces for that purpose. A few (hyphens and apostrophes) serve as spelling marks to alter or modify the meaning or grammatical purpose of certain words. Most of the others are decorative, accents as it were, and mostly nonessential–although quotation marks do serve a divisional and clarifying purpose. Still, they’re not required, as some writers like to demonstrate by not using them (whether we agree with the practice or not).

The other marks, including the exclamation mark–and with the exception of quotation marks–are largely decorative accents that can enhance. But like any decorations, if they can get out of hand, they can overshadow what they’re supposed to be accenting. Imagine a Christmas tree so laden with lights, ornaments, and other adornments that the tree itself is no longer visible and serves merely to support its decorations.

I’m not in any way eschewing semicolons, colons, dashes, ellipses, or parentheses. I fully support their use. In moderation. But punctuation can be abused to the detriment of the writing it’s supposed to be enhancing. As with putting alcohol and pharmacological substances into our bodies, punctuation needs to used appropriately and responsibly.

FOR THE RECORD: I’ll be the first one to support the right to use any piece of punctuation in whatever quantity the writer chooses as long as the writing is being served.

(2) We cannot use the works or chosen conventions of other writers as justification for our use/misuse of accepted conventions.

One of the most abused punctuation marks–mostly by novices–is the exclamation mark. Overused, it becomes meaningless, little more than turning up the volume on the whole piece of writing instead of selectively where we want it to be increased. Yet there are some well-known, well-respected writers (Tom Wolfe?) who overuse it.

The fact that we can find respected authors using/misusing a tool or technique does NOT justify it for the rest of us. For example, Harper Lee in To Kill a Mockingbird uses “livingroom” as one word. While we can accept it as her stylistic approach, does that make it acceptable in a broader context and give us license to spell it that way? We can’t say, “Well, Harper Lee did it, and she won a Pulitzer Prize, so that means she’s right and everyone else is wrong.” I’m quite certain that she didn’t win the award for her spelling convention of “livingroom.”

Likewise, your classical authors’ particular use of punctuation does not serve as validation that they must be correct and that any writer is free to follow their examples. We also must recognize that punctuation conventions change over time (and today UK conventions vary slightly from US conventions).

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, it was more acceptable to put question marks and exclamation marks after mid-sentence phrases. We still see that practice on occasion today, and it’s acceptable in some situations, but it’s not a widespread practice.

(3) Punctuation conventions (and note that I said “conventions” not “rules”) exist and readers expect writers to be aware of them and to follow them. Yes, we’re allowed to deviate, but we should do so only when it serves the best needs of the prose and not because we’re enamored with a particular punctuation mark.

USE PUNCTUATION RESPONSIBILITY! Since this post began as a discussion on ellipses, I’ll include a bit of advice on that mark. What’s the CORRECT use of ellipses? The original purpose of the ellipsis (…) in writing was to indicate an omission in text quoted from another source when the writer didn’t want to quote the entire selection. By extension, ellipses can be employed to represent a training off or a pause in speech (as for thought or uncertainty), but they are not used not for an interruption (this is what the dash does).

The dash (em-dash, –) and the ellipses mostly serve opposite purposes. While both represent a break of some sort, the type of break they represent is different, and they are not interchangeable. Ellipses should be used primarily in dialog and thoughts and restricted in use outside those.

It’s been said that no writer (or editor) can punctuate for another writer. This is mostly true. Punctuation can be a matter of individual an individual in some cases.

I find it interesting that sometimes when classic works are reprinted in modern editions, editors will often “clean up” the “older” punctuation and even some spellings that may not be current. This happens frequently when the works by UK authors are printed in US editions. The British spellings (colour, labour) and word usage (“boot” for the trunk of a car; “kerb” for curb; “call box” for phone booth) will be changed. If you look at the Amazom.com reviews of works by UK authors, you’ll often see some reviewer complaining about the “misspelling” in the book, because the reviewer is unaware that UK some spellings ARE different from those in the US.

TO SUMMARIZE: The purpose of punctuation is to improve the writing and to make it easier for the reader to follow. Any time a preponderance of one or more of the “rarer” forms of punctuation appears in a piece of prose, there’s a risk of disrupting the flow and pulling the reader out of the story. A page littered with ellipses is going to stand out visually and likely distract a reader, who will try to figure out what’s going on with them.

A good analogy is listening to a speaker who constantly says, “ah” or “um” during his speech. You’re going to be quickly distracted and soon annoyed if it continues, with the result that all you’ll remember about his speech are his annoying habits, not the content.

Improperly used or abused punctuation is just as bad as poor grammar and spelling and will stand out (and ultimately lose the reader’s respect for the author), while properly used punctuation may hardly not be noticed. The effect of well-used punctuation, however, will make your prose (not the punctuation) stand out. And that’s what you want.

Therefore, if readers and reviewers are complaining about your punctuation, that should tell you that the punctuation is not doing its intended job and is overshadowing your prose.


One thought on “Punctuation: using it wisely

  • Good stuff!

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