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Whats Punctuation, and Where Can I Get Some?

 


      Punctuation has been under attack lately.
      Perhaps not all punctuation, or even the majority (unless we’re fending off broadsides by Gertrude Stein, of course), but certainly a significant proportion. And the assault has actually been going on for the best part of a century (largely originating with Ms. Stein, as well). Yet its recent assailants seem more ruthless than those of generations past (again, with the exception of Gertrude — but more on her later).
      Oh, the period is still tolerated (if people can squeeze it into a tweet)…and the comma survives among the walking wounded, alternately snubbed or forced into overwork, shouldering more of some sentence’s burden than it ought to in its weakened condition.
      Meanwhile, other punctuation, which had only been sadly ignored before, now finds itself on someone’s arbitrary hit list, and the culprits putting out contracts on these hapless punctuation marks are usually editors.
      I, for one, am weary of reading other editors’ submission guidelines in which they rail against certain types of punctuation. I keep running across comments like these: “There is no place for semicolons in fiction”; “This goes for colons, too”; and “Don’t — for the love of our dogma — use ellipses in your work.” Then there was this, concerning parentheses: “Almost never used in novels. So don’t use them in yours.” (For some reason or other, they felt it necessary to put that last comment in bold, and its final sentence in 18 pt. type.)
      Really.
      It’s not so bad as all that, you say; prose is more vigorous without the ornamentation of unnecessary punctuation. Well, when the punctuation is genuinely superfluous or faulty, I’d have to agree. However, if you equate vigor with staccato bursts of short, pithy sentences, or mistake it for confusing rambles in which it’s unclear which phrase modifies what, then we part literary ways.
      I’m certainly no prescriptivist, but punctuation — when used effectively — exists for a reason. The thing I find most difficult to tolerate in anyone’s writing style is lack of clarity. So I don’t subscribe to this modern propaganda about semicolons, for example, somehow interrupting the poor, witless reader’s intellectual flow. What does interrupt that flow is a failure to comprehend with any precision what an author’s trying to communicate, because the author is either too ignorant or arrogant to coherently punctuate his prose.
      So, let’s spend a few moments considering our long-suffering punctuation, especially a few useful marks that generally get neglected — except when they’re being maligned by various editors of modern fiction.
      According to “Jed” Bartlet, on The West Wing, “There are fourteen punctuation marks in standard English grammar. Can anyone name them, please?” — and he should know. Not only was he President of the United States for seven seasons, but far more literate than anyone actually elected to that office during the same period. I defy you to produce a more erudite source. (Okay, he omitted the slash, or virgule, but so what? Once, after calling his wife “mon petite fromage,” she asked him, “You speak four languages; how come none of them is French?” “Nothing’s wrong with my French,” he said defensively. To which, she responded, “You just called me your ‘little cheese!’ ” Anyway, the slash is debatable and the cheese comment beside the point. But I’m pretty sure Aaron Sorkin wrote the “punctuation” episode, so I rest my case.)
      Here they are, if you’re still pondering:

  1. Period/(Brit.) Full Stop (.)
        2. Comma (,)
        3. Semicolon (;)
        4. Colon (:)
        5. Question Mark (?)
        6. Exclamation Point (!)
        7. Apostrophe (’)
        8. Hyphen (-)
        9. Dash ()
      10. Quotation Marks/(Brit.) Inverted Commas (“ ”)
      11. Parentheses ( ( ) )   (You know, the things I’m placing all the others inside of — as a matter
            of fact, the things I’m placing  this
aside inside of)
      12. Brackets ( [ ] )
      13. Braces ({})
            Note: In Britain, the last three are all called brackets, of one sort or another.
      14. Ellipsis ()
 

      And they all have their uses. Since this isn’t meant to be a tutorial, however, we’ll just gloss over the less controversial symbols. That’ll leave us more time to focus on the scandalous ones — sort of like a celebrity gossip column…except about punctuation.
      A period is still rather functional whenever we come to…well, a full stop. If the sentence is interrogatory, however, we might wish to end it with a question mark instead, just to let other people know by inflection what’s really going on. Or, when the sentence is prone to excitability, we might close it with an exclamation point. (I confess, here and now, that this is my least favorite punctuation mark. Irrational, I know, and I realize I’m not being fair to it — but we all have our prejudices. At least I own up mine. It all started many years ago, when I noticed overwrought schoolgirls putting upwards of three of them at once after some perfectly mundane statement…like expressing their opinion that another pubescent, of the opposite sex, was “cute.” Since then, I cringe whenever I see one, even if the heroine in a manuscript is in the process of falling off a cliff and — quite reasonably — says, “Help!” in a loud, clear voice. But that’s just me. I’m seeking treatment for the problem, and try not to let it interfere with my editing.)
      Apostrophes allow us to form possessives and contractions, and that’s quite useful. I may not be overly possessive, but I’m particularly fond of contractions.
      Hyphens let us stick compounds together…until we get tired of bothering, and simply use more linguistic glue.
      Quotation marks tell us when someone’s talking — other than the author, of course, who’s probably been going on for (p)ages.
      Aside from some traditional uses, commas were originally meant to show natural, rhythmic pauses. Usually, they still do. They have another purpose, though, to differentiate various parts of a sentence and tell the reader clearly which one refers to another.
      The semicolon, when used well, serves to amplify this clarification. Many a modern sentence is muddled due to excessive reliance on commas and an abhorrence of semicolons. In addition, a semicolon can be used to join two thoughts that might stand as separate sentences, which might be read as solitary ideas but which have an intrinsic relationship to each other that wouldn’t be obvious without it. As far as rhythm goes, it was meant to denote more of a pause than a comma and decidedly less than a period.
      A colon essentially announces that something’s coming. What follows might be as pedestrian as a shopping list, I’ll grant. But perhaps it’ll be something more, something that elucidates what immediately preceded it. I don’t know about you, but even if the next item is merely one in a series of items to be purchased for a stir-fry, I relish the anticipation.
      Parentheses are handy for inserting thoughts within other thoughts, to delineate an extraneous idea from its surrounding text. Of course, in the hands of a good writer, these ideas are seldom genuinely extraneous, and the parentheses serve principally as clarifying punctuation. Used properly, this can produce a layering of concepts which can’t be duplicated by a morass of commas and dashes. (The same reasoning applies to brackets in general.)
      Dashes are employed similarly to parentheses, but they’re more interruptive, more abrupt. Temporarily pulling the reader up short in this manner can be quite effective in narrative fiction, but the technique is sometimes used excessively these days. This overindulgence probably comes from so many writers having been admonished not to use the far more subtle parentheses, or gentler ellipsis, that they no longer have any idea how to do so.
      Ah, the mysterious ellipsis. It has several functions, the most common of which — for the average citizen — being as an insertion mark to show where material has been deleted from a direct quote. That’s its “normal” role, at any rate, as touted by the Chicago Manual of Style (a fine reference guide, by the way…if you’re working on your thesis in art history, or tuning up an article for Scientific American). For a fiction writer, however, that usage is almost entirely beside the point. In narrative fiction (or colloquial writing — like this essay, for instance), an ellipsis is generally used quite differently. First of all, it shows hesitation in dialogue — definitely not an omission of words. It can also indicate the trailing off of a thought, or narration that’s simply left hanging. And it can mark a suspended pause in the midst of a sentence, which neither a comma nor a semicolon would adequately convey.
      Each of these marks has its purpose and can be used to improve clarity in prose. But if some modern editors had their way, we’d summarily dispense with nearly thirty per cent of all the punctuation at our disposal.
      Frankly, I haven’t seen enough clear writing in recent decades to convince me we should dispense with thirty per cent of anything that might improve it.
      I try to give those editors the benefit of the doubt: they probably do have original thoughts, from time to time — even if these prejudices aren’t among them. No, that kind of slash-and-burn approach to punctuation goes back a ways. What this discussion wants is a broader scope, and some historical context.
      Because, once you’ve dispensed with colons and semicolons, parentheses and ellipses — plus every comma that hasn’t been consigned to forced labor — after you’ve red-penciled most of the big words and cut all the sentences into bite-sized pieces…why stop there? Why not finish tidying up the few written words you’ve kept?
      I mean, who needs apostrophes, really? Most of us don’t know where to put them anyhow. And capitalization is just pretentious. Certain words behaving as if they’re more important than others isn’t consistent with democratic principles, is it? no, i think not. In fact, why do we even have to use a question mark.

      All right, anarcho-syndicalist though I am, I admit the penultimate sentence made me wince. And I can’t help feeling the last one would look better with a curvy line above that little dot at the end. Honestly, don’t you? Well, let me tell you who’d disagree.
      Which brings us to some background on this topic. There’s nothing new under the sun, as they say, and our recent revisionists aren’t half as radical as Gertrude Stein was. Punctuation may never have had a more bitter enemy. I apologize in advance for the following series of
 quotations, but they’re relevant to a critical appreciation of this issue. Allow me to present a few of Ms. Stein’s insights into punctuation: 

When I first began writing, I felt that writing should go on, I still do feel that it should go on but when I first began writing I was possessed by the necessity that writing should go on and if writing should go on what had colons and semi-colons to do with it, what had commas to do with it, what had periods to do with it what had small letters and capitals to do with it to do with writing going on which was at that time the most profound need I had in connection with writing. What had colons and semi-colons to do with it what had commas to do with it what had periods to do with it.

      Obviously, she had as much fondest for repetition as disdain for punctuation. Some of her gentler critics have called her style “dense,” others “impenetrable.” I’m afraid I don’t usually feel that generous towards it. I’ll concede this much for her writing: it often manages to be utterly boring without ever quite attaining total incomprehensibility. But wait, she’s not finished yet: 

There are some punctuations that are interesting and there are some punctuations that are not. Let us begin with the punctuations that are not. Of these the one but the first and the most the completely most uninteresting is the question mark. The question mark is alright when it is all alone when it is used as a brand on cattle or when it could be used in decoration but connected with writing it is completely entirely completely uninteresting. It is evident that if you ask a question you ask a question but anybody who can read at all knows when a question is a question as it is written in writing. Therefore I ask you therefore wherefore should one use the question mark.

      Really? (Lest you doubt my contempt for her logic, please compare this paragraph with the sixth one in the article. Note that the word really, when standing alone as a complete thought, might either be intended as a statement of contempt or as a contemptuous question. The inflection entirely depends upon whether or not it’s followed by a question mark. Now you see it…now you don’t. Go figure, Gertrude.) Please bear with Ms. Stein a bit longer, however — there’s not much more:  

Besides that periods might later come to have a life of their own to commence breaking up things in arbitrary ways, that has happened lately with me in a poem I have written called Winning His Way, later I will read you a little of it. By the time I had written this poem about three years ago periods had come to have for me completely a life of their own. They could begin to act as they thought best and one might interrupt one’s writing with them but one could come to stop arbitrarily stop at times in one’s writing with them that is not really interrupt one’s writing with them but one could come to stop arbitrarily stop at times in one’s writing and so they could be used and you could use them. Periods could come to exist in this way and they could come in this way to have a life of their own. They did not serve you in any servile way as commas and colons and semi-colons do. Yes you do feel what I mean.

      Oh, do you, now? At any rate, that’s the thoughtful rationale of the most profound critic modern punctuation has ever encountered.
      And now that I’ve allowed Ms. Stein to undermine the argument against punctuation, by letting her present the case against it in her own words, I can afford to play devil’s advocate for a moment.
      Avant-garde experimenting with punctuation (and capitalization, spelling, even grammar, for that matter) can display a writer’s brilliance. There’s e. e. cummings, for example, and… Well, he’s the only one who readily comes to mind. Just remember — before you try this at home — it helps if you really are brilliant. (The editor of this publication assumes no responsibility for damages, real or implied, to anyone’s ego or literary efforts, which might be incurred by attempting this process.)
      Furthermore, the complete lack of punctuation can occasionally be a very effective technique. But again, the wholesale deletion of punctuation marks is best accomplished by a deft hand. This may sound counterintuitive, but simply removing all punctuation from your writing actually requires exceptional talent. At least, if you intend the writing to be any good. Consider James Joyce. He used no punctuation whatsoever — except for two periods — in the entire last section of Ulysses. Otherwise not so much as an apostrophe. He didn’t strip all the punctuation from Molly Bloom’s soliloquy through casual disregard, however. He did so for effect. Joyce was busy perfecting Stream of Consciousness at the time, and attempting to portray the flow of his character’s thoughts. If you think you can do half as well at this, you’re welcome to give it a go.
      When he used punctuation, however, he certainly knew how to do so correctly. If you check, you’ll soon discover that he found plenty of occasions for punctuation (including semicolons, by the way) throughout the rest of the book. And whenever he deliberately ignored conventions, it wasn’t because he was ignorant of them. Joyce was a master craftsman.
      In this sense, his evolving style is reminiscent of Picasso’s. I don’t know how much of that artist’s early work you’re familiar with, but viewing it will inform you that he had a marvelous grasp of literal representation long before he went in for Cubism. In much the same way, reading Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man deepens your appreciation of what Joyce had accomplished by the end of Ulysses.
      From the general to the specific, then. You may recall I mentioned semicolons in connection with that book. I did so in order to prove that James Joyce bore this particular punctuation mark no ill will. But a lot of folks do, these days. People who probably possess a lot less talent than Joyce had are currently trying to put the semicolon out of business. The revisionists seem to have fixated on it.
      Of all our beleaguered punctuation, the semicolon has stirred up the worst furor lately. In France, where they call it the point-virgule, controversy has raged for the past few years between those who’d exterminate it (their expression, not mine) and a growing band of staunch defenders. In case you’re eager for details, there’s quite a good article in The Guardian (April 2008). I must say, though, that neither that article nor any other I’ve read on the topic has mounted a very spirited defense of our much-maligned English semicolon.
      The story goes that two nineteenth century Paris law professors once resorted to swordplay over a punctuation dispute, fighting a duel about whether a point-virgule or colon should end a certain passage.
      No one died, apparently — and I don’t normally advocate violence in defense of one’s linguistic principles. Still, you have to admire this Gallic passion for their language.
      Fast-forward a century or two, and here are the French, bringing up Victor Hugo, Marcel Proust, and Voltaire to man the barricades; while we’re relying, by and large, on the dithering, half-hearted opinions of a few of our contemporaries to repel the attack. Surely we have more ammunition than that.
      As it turns out, we do. In the interests of objectivity, however, I’ll let some opponents of the semicolon draw first blood. Since I’m being sportsmanlike about it, perhaps you’ll pardon me for refuting them as we go along.
      And I’ll apologize, once more, for the next reference. Nevertheless, I’m afraid I have to quote it, because Gertrude Stein’s fellow opponents of semicolons frequently cite her opinion — though often restricting themselves to the initial line reproduced below. I suspect it’s because that line sounds a good deal more rational when segregated from all her other comments on punctuation…even when divorced from the line immediately following it. (So now you know why I’ve inflicted the full extent of her remarks on you.) But I swear I won’t be quoting her again after this: 

They are more powerful more imposing more pretentious than a comma but they are a comma all the same. They really have within them deeply within them fundamentally within them the comma nature.” 

      Yeah, I know. Score one for the defenders — she’s not that good on offense. In all fairness, however, there are other, quite coherent, people frequently quoted for their disapproval of this punctuation mark. As George Orwell explained in a letter to his editor:  

I had decided about this time that the semicolon is an unnecessary stop and that I would write my next book without one.

      Fair enough: that’s a style choice. What most people aren’t aware of, though, is that he failed in this ambition. His next book was Coming Up for Air, published in 1939, and the novel contains semicolons.
      Probably the most famous critique — and the most scathing — came from none other than Kurt Vonnegut. I’ll reproduce it here in its larger form, so that you can appreciate the full extent of his sarcasm: 

If you really want to hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be a homosexual, the least you can do is go into the arts. But do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites, standing for absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.

      Hey, I’m a great admirer of Vonnegut. (Orwell, too, I assure you.) He produced wonderfully lucid prose, and I don’t suggest for a moment that adding a few semicolons to it would have improved his work any. In fact, that would be a particularly heinous form of sacrilege. He sure liked colons, though — go read Breakfast of Champions again, if you don’t believe me.
      And he also liked sarcasm…so much so that I doubt he’d be particularly bothered by mine. Here’s another
 comment from Kurt Vonnegut:

When Hemingway killed himself he put a period at the end of his life; old age is more like a semicolon.

      Now, I don’t know who committed the sacrilege here, whether it was The Associated Press (who quoted him originally) or Vonnegut himself; though I suspect the former of actually inserting that literal punctuation mark into his sentence. I still hold Vonnegut responsible, however, since he chose the word. And if semicolons are utterly meaningless, then so is the remark.
      You could argue that this is precisely what he meant to express: the senselessness of growing old — and you’d be right, of course. But Vonnegut chose not to commit suicide. (Yes, I know he discussed it incessantly and there was a failed attempt twenty-three years earlier; but he actually opted for old age, dying at eighty-four.) He didn’t really approve of Hemingway’s choice, you see, and Vonnegut was something of an authority on the subject, his mother having killed herself when he was temporarily home from the army — on Mother’s Day, 1944. What’s more, he mentioned that his father, although as fond of guns as Hemingway was, and very unhappy later in life, remained proud of not taking his own. “And I’ll do the same,” Vonnegut said, “so as not to set a bad example for my children.” If a period really had more intrinsic meaning for him, why did he opt for that semicolon?
      You can say I’m belaboring the metaphor, but I’m not the one who selected it. I would have said old age is more of an ellipsis…

      (Incidentally, I blame a lot of this on Hemingway — the punctuation stuff, not the shotgun shells. But we’ll get back to that.)
      As far as rules go, Vonnegut once wrote a list of them for short fiction (which I recommend, and you can find in the introduction to Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction). After doing so, however, he also said that Flannery O’Connor had violated practically all of them, then added: “Great writers tend to do that.”
      And so it goes.
      Nonetheless, it’s obvious that Kurt, Jr. didn’t care much for semicolons.
      So — besides James Joyce — who did?
      Well, I’m glad you asked.

      I doubt the necessity of defending their semicolons would have occurred to Emerson or Thoreau; they had better arguments to attend to.
      Rudyard Kipling used ’em, and so did Jack London. Not to mention Frederick Douglas, Ambrose Bierce, Joseph Conrad, E. M. Forster, Oscar Wilde…
      Perhaps you don’t recall any — since they didn’t, after all, impede the flow of his prose — but Lewis Carroll employed semicolons in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, The Hunting of the Snark, etc.
      It’s been said elsewhere that Somerset Maugham disdained them, but simply examining his writing proves this isn’t true. (Orwell, by the way, credited Maugham as the modern writer who’d influenced him most.)
      Truman Capote didn’t regard them as affected in any way (and even if he was, his writing wasn’t).
      G. K. Chesterton had no trepidation about semicolons, either. You’ll discover them scattered throughout most, if not all, of his published work — including his fiction.
      Mark Twain always kept a few handy. He put some into nearly everything he wrote. Including Huckleberry Finn, as a matter of fact, where he used them in every chapter. Apparently, he didn’t think semicolons too snobbish for colloquial narration.
      Likewise, John Steinbeck used ’em to help punctuate The Grapes of Wrath.
      And in the novel by D. H. Lawrence, semicolons didn’t seem to inhibit Lady Chatterly from getting together with the gamekeeper.
      Speaking of fellows named Lawrence, this would probably be a good time to throw in one of my favorite comments on this subject, from one of my favorite authors. George Bernard Shaw, when corresponding with T. E. Lawrence regarding the latter’s book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, writes: “
You practically do not use semicolons at all. This is a symptom of mental defectiveness, probably induced by camp life.
      (Shaw, it should be noted, employed an idiosyncratic style of punctuation in his plays, contrived to force actors into speaking his dialogue precisely as he’d written it. You can see from his other writing, though — not to mention his further criticism of how Lawrence handled the colon — that he was well aware of standard usage, and not afraid to speak his mind on the topic.)
      How much more do you need to hear? If Twain and Shaw didn’t put your mind at rest, would it really help to tell you that Joseph Heller didn’t feel semicolons were inappropriate in Catch-22? Don’t make me resort to Virginia Woolfe.
      So, where did this penchant for minimalism come from, this infatuation with short sentences, and decimation of punctuation marks? It’s tempting to lay this all to ol’ Gertrude, but Stein didn’t really have that much influence over the punctuation of others. What she did influence, however, was a literary circle that orbited her salon in Paris. And one of the new writers she befriended was a young American. In the end, he wasn’t quite so repetitive as she, didn’t chuck out all his question marks and commas. And he turned on her — as he did nearly all of his literary friends. But he eventually had a greater impact on American style than any writer of the twentieth century. I told you I blamed a lot of this on Hemingway.
      If you haven’t noticed by now, I can’t help feeling Hemingway was vastly overrated. Oh, I know that’s not what your school teachers told you
… But we’ll save my critique of his prose for some other time. (I’m sure to get mail on this — which I’ll just file with all the irate letters on Strunk & White.) Suffice it to say, he was the chief proponent of a minimalist style.
      In other words, those short, declarative sentences referred to earlier. And I can tell you where he came by this idea.
      When Ernest was just eighteen, he got a job with The Kansas City Star, and spent an entire six months there…honing his craft. He later attributed his terse style to this experience, saying that the newspaper’s style guide contained the best rules he’d ever learned for the business of writing.
      I’ve read some of his output from this period, without being overly impressed, but it is reminiscent of what he produced later. I’ve also read that style guide.
      Here’s how it begins: “
Use short sentences.”
      Young Ernest took that to heart. (Except when he was ignoring it.) And the myth was born.
      Although The Kansas City Star’s style guide from 1915 is somewhat dated, it still contains a lot of excellent advice…for a brief, informative newspaper story about a burglary or fire. It wasn’t really intended for churning out novels.
      I don’t recall Hemingway actually saying much about semicolons — he was too busy being mysterious about how he composed such concise sentences — but I have caught him using them from time to time (despite what you’ve been told). Nevertheless, I suspect that most of this semicolon stigma can be attributed to Hemingway adulation, and the minimalist mystique.
      If you really want to read someone who wrote for newspapers most of his life (more than forty years with The Baltimore Sun), and could do so in sentences of any length, employing all sorts of punctuation, I’d refer you to H. L. Mencken.
      So, what can we conclude from all this?
      Not much, really. Certainly not the demise of punctuation, or even a very bleak prognosis for the semicolon.
      Yeah, I know we have Twitter these days, but people also predicted the impending death of punctuation when Western Union began charging extra for it in telegrams. Somehow, written language managed to survive.
      Because, when people had more to say on a page than they could fit into a telegram, some folks still cared about saying it clearly. Those who didn’t give a shit had never bothered anyway — so we ended up about even.
      And we will again.
      Anyhow, I doubt that people who really don’t care have read this far, so my concluding remarks are for those who do. These aren’t pronouncements, just a few parting thoughts.
      The sole reason for punctuation is clarity. Period. If using more of it — or less —  will improve your writing, I suggest you do. But it’s like seasoning in a recipe. If you’ve already put a bunch of punctuation in there, and you still don’t know what you’re talking about by the end of a paragraph, you might have used too much…or still too little…or simply the wrong kind. (It’s also possible, of course, that you put inferior ingredients into that paragraph, failed in their preparation, or assembled them haphazardly — but that’s another essay.)
      The interrobang (?!) is not a punctuation mark. I’m not saying don’t use it, I’m just saying that readers won’t respect you in the morning if you do.
      Emoticons are tacky. If you decide against using semicolons, that’s entirely up to you (and some very good writers have gone that route), but if you do use one, it is not equivalent to a hieroglyphic wink tipped onto its side.
      It’s best to learn the rules before breaking them. Doing it the other way round lacks finesse.
      Be wary of hard and fast rules.

      Anyone’s rules. Where writing is concerned, you shouldn’t rely solely on someone else’s authoritative opinion. (Though I don’t pretend to have that sort of authority, this definitely includes mine.) Read widely, in order to glean what you can from any writer who does it well. But imitation isn’t wise; it won’t serve you in the end.
      And style is a choice you’ll have to make. If your prose lacks clarity, however, you’re sure to have chosen poorly.

 

 


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