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Now…don’t be afraid. You won’t get hurt. And you won’t even be bored (I don’t think) by this post. We’re going to talk about…duhn, duhn, duhn…punctuation.
It is your best tool to convey how the writing is intended to be heard. We talked about rules that should not be broken, and I didn’t list any rules of grammar—because they are broken approximately every 45 seconds by some writer somewhere ( I haven’t tested that particular statistic, but it sounds right to me). But just because you don’t like grammar, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use grammar when it suits you. You don’t have to follow it into the abyss: suffice it to say that one ought to endeavor to appeal to a given audience by communicating in the vernacular with which they are most familiar.
So, write it like you hear it. And then use punctuation to help your readers hear it just the way you meant it.
Victor Borge did a brilliant job in his long stage career of slaying the rules of grammar in his famous “Punctuation” piece. Watch this gem―it won’t help you at all in your writing, but it is hilarious.
The Long and Short of Sentences
Sentences—and in poetry, fragments—have a rhythm that rocks the boat the words are sailing in. Rock it fast and there’s energy and maybe even anxiety. Slow it down and you can calm the image or put reader to sleep. Use the punctuation to help you balance the words with rhythm that works to enhance the meaning.
We all know what a period (.) means. END OF SENTENCE. In reading, it’s also the longest pause. But what about complex sentences? You can join two simple sentences together with a semicolon (;) and you convey a stronger link between the two thoughts. You also create a longer meter to that sentence because it uses more air to get through it. Writing long can invoke confusion, a chatty character, or a complex series of thoughts melding together, depending on the punctuation.
Basic punctuation in a sentence is designed to tell readers when to pause, and how long. If there is no punctuation the sentence rolls from one word straight into the next all carrying equal weight. Not only will this make for bland, boring sentences (like driving in the desert), but often the sentence will be misinterpreted.
If the pause is in the wrong place, then the weight of sentence shifts, along with the meaning. A fun book called, “Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation” by Jane Truss, helps ease you into a lifelong enjoyment of this powerful tool for your writing: punctuation.
The children’s version is even simpler, “Eats, Shoots and Leaves: Why, Commas Really Do Make A Difference,” but may answer all your questions. One of her examples:
“Go, get him doctors!” or “Go get him, doctors!”
But for now, here’s some very general guidelines for punctuation, to help free you from your anxiety and add some additional depth to the words you choose to put on paper:
Commas: Use these frequently to make the reader pause briefly before another, equally weighted thought that follows. They’re like rest-stops on the side of the highway: you’ll still get where you’re going, but you’ll slow down and take the trip in smaller pieces.
Sequential commas: If you’re making a list, you would use sequential commas. Sequential commas are like little birds on the telephone line. You can have one, two, three, or as many as you need, and each one of them weighs about the same. Whether you do it the old way, by including the comma before the word “and,” as in Spring, Summer, and Fall, or you drop it (as is more commonly seen today) is up to you. I like sequential commas, but then, I’m getting older.
Semicolons: These are tricky to use, most often because they are found in the middle of complex sentences. Still, semicolons perform a very useful function; they join two complete sentences to make one. Why? Because joining them marries them to each other; leave out the semicolon and you have two single, unrelated sentences at the same bus stop. Semicolons are often used in nonfiction and expository writing, where it is necessary to build a persuasive argument. They are less helpful in scripts and dialogue-laden writing. I’m sure poets have used them, but I can’t imagine why.
Colons: Colons are used to join two thoughts (not sentences): when the second part explains or paraphrases the first, when introducing a list, or after a subheading. These are hard pauses or breaks: one thought ends, and then you jump to the next. Here’s a better blog post than mine explaining the use of colons.
Dashes: My favorite punctuation—they have so many uses! A dash is so close to the way we really think and talk—wait a minute, I take that back. They signal left turns, digressions, flights of fantasy in the middle of thoughts—all sorts of useful things. As pauses, they’re pretty abrupt—jump in the car and you’re off! Dashes are great to only lightly tap on the shoulder of one part of the sentence with the finger of the other. They don’t really know they’re in the same sentence together.
Ellipses…the most forgetful of all punctuation…what was I talking about…ah yes, ellipses. Ellipses are ponderous, slow, thoughtful little bits of punctuation (three dots, or sometimes four) that indicate a lapse in thought, missing words, a segue, or the passage of time. They are great for showing a character’s pace or thinking, for slowing dialogue, or for slowing down the reader….got it?
What do longer sentences do?
Generally, longer sentences are calmer than short ones—because they usually have a lot of baggage in the form of adjectives and adverbs. That means they slow down to describe the scenery, the mood, or give you some sense of what is going on inside a character’s head.
Maybe that’s why Bernard Mickey Wrangle stood on the Lahaina waterfront staring at the Lanai—staring hard, shifting weight from one boot to the other, occasionally saying “yum” under his breath. From “Still Life With Woodpecker,” by Tom Robbins.
Okay, this is a long, meandering sentence quite typical of Tom Robbins, who loves to tell stories filled with by-the-way kind of interruptions. He uses punctuation here to disarm the reader with a slower sentence that conveys a great deal of information and creates a strong visual picture of exactly what the character is doing at this moment. He strings a few different thoughts together as if they are related, which makes us think they are.
Why does he use the dash? Probably because he’s refining in the second part of the sentence to what he already said in the first part, but taking a bit of a turn.
She yelled for perhaps fifteen minutes, sometimes cupping her hands around her mouth and turning her voice in the direction she imagined the main trail must be, mostly just standing there in the ferns and screaming. From “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon,” by Stephen King.
This is a lovely sentence from a master that in other hands would probably have read, “She screamed loudly for what must have been 15 minutes.” The commas add to the disorder of her behavior, and break the sentence into three actions of equal unimportance. She is screaming, but here we see how and we feel how long it takes. And it just took two commas.
Oh, I’m a fast dog. I’m fast-fast. It’s true and I love being fast. I admit it I love it. You know fast dogs. Dogs that just run by and you say, “Damn! That’s a fast dog!” Well that’s me. A fast dog. From “After I Was Thrown in the River and Before I Drowned,” a short story by Dave Eggers, from the book, “Speaking With the Angel,” edited by Nick Hornby.
You’re right; this is not just one sentence. But it shows what you can do with lots of punctuation—or lack thereof. The missing commas make the short sentences seem even more frenzied, and convey rapidity, energy, and a total lack of cohesive thought very effectively. We get it. He’s a fast dog, and proud of it. This dog cannot even be bothered completing a sentence, so he breaks one into two.
These were just examples I pulled off my bookshelf and flipped to. You can easily do the same. Grab some of your favorite books and open to random pages. Look at the sentences and read them out loud. Ask yourself these questions:
1) What does the sentence sound like? (use descriptive terms like an automatic gun, a babbling brook, a whisper, a cough, etc.)
2) What does it feel like? (warm, angry, lonely, heavy, muddy, light, etc.)
3) What does it look like? Do you see a person? A scene? Or just a lot of words?
4) Where does it take you? Do you naturally move into the next sentences or is it jarring, awkward? If so, was that intentional?
Next, look at the punctuation. How is it used to produce the answers you just gave? That is exactly the kind of power you can and should harness in every line you write.
Punctuation was not meant to dictate to you; it was meant to give you tools by which you communicate beyond the words you lay down on the page.
To explore the nuance of punctuation, and other aspects of grammar in greater detail, here’s a nice blog loaded with posts specifically dedicated to grammar and punctuation.
Read “Eats Shoots & Leaves: the Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation” at least once in your life—it’s an easy and enjoyable read!
And if you decide that it’s all getting too easy and you want move on to the big challenges in grammar and punctuation, there’s always William Safire, the New York Times columnist. His many books capturing a lifetime of essays on the written English language are very readable.
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