Punctuation

This is going to seem like a relatively random posting, but as I’ve been writing on my novel, reviewing a friend’s novel and having some discussions about Biblical interpretation, I’ve been thinking a lot about punctuation lately. Here are some of my musings:

Punctuation is critical in all forms of writing; understanding and properly using punctuation lends authority to anything you write. In my experience, most people do not use proper punctuation. I don’t mean that they make occasional mistakes in their punctuation–everyone does that. I mean that they flagrantly ignore the rules of punctuation and how to use (and intentionally misuse) those rules to greatest effect.

The most egregious culprit is the semi-colon. When I was a graduate student and teaching assistant in English, I would (usually frustratedly and spontaneously after grading the first round of tests) spend a class period reviewing grammar and punctuation with my classes, with a particular focus on the semi-colon. Much to my dismay, what I typically found is that after this session, many students would liberally disperse semi-colons throughout their writing in an effort to seem more capable writers. “What’s the problem with that?” you ask? Nothing, if done correctly. But my students seemed to sprinkle semi-colons over their papers like literary glitter without regard for whether their sentences required glitter. Have I mentioned that I hate glitter? It’s craft herpes–once you’ve contracted it, you’ll be finding it on you forever.

So my students committed a cardinal sin of writing–using something (whether punctuation, a word, a stylistic device, etc.) you don’t understand in an attempt to come across as more talented than you are. Like most good writing techniques, punctuation is most effective when subtle, when it influences the reader without their perceiving that it is doing so. Like much social subtlety, this is crass when recognized and only acceptable in polite society when carefully concealed. The improper use of punctuation breaks the illusion, making this manipulation painfully and embarrassingly clear. A misused piece of punctuation–whether a comma splice or an unneeded semi-colon for instance–thrusts itself into the mind of the reader like an unwanted and socially awkward guest who cannot read the room. It breeds mistrust of the writer and should thus be avoided at all costs.

I think many of us, myself included, are embarrassed to look up rules of punctuation when we don’t know a proper usage. These are things we’re taught in elementary school, so we assume that they are so basic that a person of reasonable intelligence would not forget them. Nothing is farther from the truth. We start learning punctuation and grammar early because these things are difficult and require much practice. Writing is like a muscle, not like riding a bicycle–it atrophies if unused. Because of that, there is nothing wrong with having to refresh your memory about “basic” grammatical concepts. If it’s that big a deal, clear your browser history afterward. But, for the love of God, look up the rule in the first place if there’s any question.

The opposite of the above is, thankfully, also true. The proper use of punctuation is an extremely effective aspect of writing style. To be clear, the word “proper” as used here relies heavily on context. In (most) professional writing, rules of grammar and punctuation should be kept religiously. In fiction writing or circumstances where the perspective and mind of the author are part of the writing itself, the rules should be liberally–but carefully and thoughtfully broken.

I came across an excellent example of this (and probably the impetus for this post) while starting to read a friend’s young adult novel. The novel (at least as far as I’ve gotten) is told in the first person point-of-view of a sixteen year-old young woman. The style of the writing is clipped, using short sentences, sentence fragments and well-placed punctuation to convey the fleeting, sometimes confused and quite excited thoughts of this character as she attends a sort-of debutante party that she knows represents a crucial fork in the road of her life. The character comes to life not just in her words, but in the way that the punctuation groups her thoughts into clusters, abruptly changes subjects and gives us a feel not just for what she thinks but how she thinks. That is great writing; the kind we should all strive for. I’d love to include some examples here, but it’s not my writing to share.

And in that effort, we should bear in mind that there are a number of approaches to punctuation in any writing, but fiction in particular. I would–admittedly making this up as I go–call the above example an heuristic approach to punctuation. But maybe I ought to be less pretentious and call this a “character-based” approach. Alternatives, if you like, might be to call this a “stream-of consciousness” approach or even a “Joycian” approach. The punctuation defines the character, not the author or the style of the writing itself necessarily.

We might alternatively use a dramatic or theatrical approach. In dramatic works, actors are trained to use the punctuation as keys to the pacing, pauses and breaths in speech. Here, the punctuation serves as a code to help the written word mimic normal speech patterns. I find that most people naturally follow this approach when reading aloud, whether or not the piece is dramatic. So, using this method, good punctuation should be used to assist the flow of the text for the reader and to enhance both comprehension and enjoyment of the text. Does this sometimes overlap with the first-described approach? Probably, but not necessarily. Some people don’t think or speak in ways that are easy for others to understand, and not all points of view in narrative are going to be able to characterize and define those involved in the action described.

A more formal adherence to the “rules-as-written” of punctuation would likely serve the same function as the theatrical approach, though perhaps with a different feel. The ease of communication of content is paramount here, but should not be sacrificed for other cognitive effects that might be created in the mind of the reader through creative and effective punctuation.

I don’t think that it’s necessary, nor probably even helpful, to spend a lot of time trying to categorize your punctuational approach by the groups given above (or any others for that matter). What is important is to be intentional about your punctuation. This takes us back to Professor Brooks Landon’s comment that writing is “brain hacking.” Punctuation is an integral part to how your text creates, divides and sequences images and thoughts in the mind of the reader. Your punctuation should always be calculated to bolster the substance of the text to your desired effect. Is that easy? Hell no. But it’s certainly worth the effort.

 

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