I have a bunch of kids. The oldest three are living on their own, and the youngest turned thirteen on Christmas day. We have rousing debates at my house about pretty much everything, but last Sunday we discussed punctuation.
Not every family would get into that conversation—I get it—but my kids learned to read and write before they attended school. They understood parts of speech and basic literary devices. Grammar is my jam; I love everything about words. And that’s a love I share—sometimes to a chorus of groans—with my offspring.
The question I posed on Sunday evening was: if you had to give up one punctuation mark, which could you live without?
I assumed periods and commas wouldn’t be in the running, and I did allude to the fact that going with a decidedly obscure one might be considered cheating. I mean, come on, when’s the last time you used a percontation point?
One child went with interrobang, you know the combination of a question mark and exclamation point. I called cheater, but she swore she used it on occasion, so I folded. Two others were quick to call semi-colon, which surprised me. I love semi-colons. They’re handy, little dudes who combine a couple like thoughts, sort of halfway between a comma and a period in terms of the weight of the stop they provide.
My answer was the exclamation point. Here’s the thing: it’s useful, sure, but is it necessary? If the exclamatory statement is well crafted, wouldn’t it hold up—even when finished with a period? I dare say yes. I’ve read more than one book where I feel the writing was diminished by the (excessive) use of exclamation points. If a statement doesn’t stand on its own, then perhaps it should be rewritten. Failing all else, beats can help a reader to understand the experience for the speaker. Maybe he slams down his fist or shoves his papers off the table and then says--
I posed the same question to the Twitter writing community, and the answers that followed got me thinking. Most of the books I have on punctuation, and grammar and syntax and the like, aren’t specific to fiction. And, let’s be honest, most are rather dry, not light reading on a lazy afternoon.
Here’s my quick and dirty version of what to do with punctuation:
Period. I think everyone gets this one. It’s a full stop, the end of most sentences
Example: It was a bright and sunny day.
Question mark. Like a period ends a statement, a question mark ends a question.
Example: Where is the nearest bank?
Exclamation point. The end of an exclamatory statement, if you so choose heh heh.
Example: The cat is eating the canary!
Although you might think the use of a period isn’t skillful, allow me to delve into technique a bit. If you’re an observer of fiction, you might have noticed how sentence length—just length—can alter the reader’s experience. A series of short sentences may seem juvenile or jarring to the reader. At the same time, overly long sentences can relax a reader into boredom. Knowing a sentence should contain one idea might help, but either technique—long or short—when used consistently, can be problematic in fiction.
However, in the hands of a master, sentence length can serve a higher purpose. Imagine a series of longish sentences in a suspenseful scene, followed by a short one. It’s like a punch at the end. Personally, I’m a fan of one decisive hit at the end of a scene.
Commas. Commas do a few important jobs in writing. They connect ideas that could otherwise be separate sentences, they provide clarity (or alter meaning), offset an idea, and provide a little pause. The confusion comes from a comma having so many potential tasks in a sentence.
We went to the store, the deli, and the park.
A dog like that, with matted fur, was likely a stray.
She turned to look at me, and then walked away.
Semi-colon. It gets a bad rap, but I’m a fan. It’s best in fiction when you have two short, related sentences and don’t want two choppy sentences back to back. Semi-colons can also separate items in a list (instead of commas) when there are commas within the description of each item. Since that’s unlikely in fiction, I’ll leave it at that.
Example: He shielded his head with his hands; he forgot his umbrella.
You have options, here. You could go with: He shielded his head with his hands, because he forgot his umbrella. Or switch it around. He forgot his umbrella, so he shielded his head with his hands. Or perhaps you want two short sentences. But the semi-colon lets the reader know the two ideas are closely related.
Colon. I think its use is a mite confusing to some, hence its lack of use in fiction. What a colon does best is provide a suspenseful pause, a bit like a comma. What follows the colon is offset. If used well, it’s a great tool.
Example: He wouldn’t climb up to get her: he was afraid of heights.
Hyphen. Is this guy self-explanatory? Hmm, like in self-explanatory, a hyphen joins two words that, together, have a combined meaning. And when two adjectives team up to modify a noun, they must be hyphenated, even though they may not be buddies the rest of the time.
Example: She outlined a seven-point plan for the company.
Em dash. I’m a big fan of the em dash. Unlike a hyphen, it’s made on a PC by making two hyphens, immediately typing the next word, and then hitting the space bar. The two hyphens turn into the long dash. It could be used like a colon, to offset an important bit of a sentence. It also works well to highlight text within a sentence, much like two commas can.
When the meeting ended, I ran outside—I had to get away.
We gathered in the great room—a vast space with the personality of the DMV—and met the priest.
Parentheses typically offset a piece of information, like in the em dash example above, but with greater force. The em dash gently interrupts the flow of the sentence to add extra detail, whereas the parentheses stop the action to do so. My preference, at least in fiction, is the em dash. I feel differently in an article like this one. As you might have noticed, I used some parentheses.
I feel like that covers the basics. The most wonderful thing about English—or perhaps any language—is that once you understand the basics, you come to realize you know very little. Great writing must contain punctuation that does its job without distracting from the words and phrases that draw us in. The structure of sentences, and sentences within paragraphs, should control pacing. Description shouldn’t take us out of a scene but drop us into the center of it.
It’s the subtle nuances of using language that make writing brilliant. I hope you’re inspired to experiment with punctuation, to use it to change the flow of the words you write. Try using em dashes in place of a pair of commas or combine some sentences with semi-colons. Most of all, enjoy the process of writing. How 26 letters and a handful of odd marks becomes a novel is nothing short of magic.
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