By Virginia Parker Staat
“Making love to me is amazing. Wait, I meant: making love, to me, is amazing. The absence of two little commas nearly transformed me into a sex god.”
If improper punctuation rankles you to the point that you grab the nearest red-tipped pen and fear using it to go vigilante, join the club. When confronted with ill-used or absent punctuation, too easily I find myself in a rant, explaining that a keyboard has more than 26 letters on it and that the punctuation keys are for more than merely decoration… but I digress.
Proper punctuation is a powerful writer’s tool. It makes sentences easier to read, offers clarity, and improves flow. It enhances nuance, tone, and mood. Sloppy punctuation can confuse your reader. At its worst, improper punctuation can completely change the meaning of a sentence. Multiple Internet posts even proclaim that commas can save lives. Consider the following example of a life nearly lost:
Let’s eat Grandpa!
Let’s eat, Grandpa!
I might have been a writing professor except for punctuation. I know myself too well. I relish using the Oxford comma, the delicate ellipsis, and graceful quotation marks. Initially, teaching punctuation would have been a joy. I feared, however, that my normally happy nature would dwindle as I spent night after night correcting horrid comma splices, interjecting missing semicolons, amending possessive apostrophes, and rectifying hyphenations. At some point, I would have snapped, perhaps using my pen to stab little holes in a student’s paper where proper punctuation should have resided… or worse. I feel certain that the experience would have left me in my old age alone and bitter.
If you struggle with proper punctuation, fear not. Reference books abound; however, Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation is one of the most irreverent yet helpful tutorials on punctuation available. This brief quote encapsulates her book, “No matter that you have a PhD and have read all of Henry James twice. If you still persist in writing, ‘Good food at it’s best’, you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.”
Other notable (and less militant) reference books include Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, by Mignon Fogarty; The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White; The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation, by Jane Straus; and The Chicago Manual of Style. Online resources include Grammar Girl’s website (grammar.quickanddirtytips.com), The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation website (grammarbook.com), and the tongue-in-cheek Apostrophe Protection Society (apostrophe.org.uk).
I admit that I am greatly unsettled by the growing trend to diminish punctuation. Punctuation stitches words together, gusseting clauses and hemming sentences. Like a seamstress who insists on using pins rather than thread to hold her work together, a writer who ignores the importance of punctuation makes his craft more difficult for himself and his readers.
As writers, I believe that the weaving and texture that punctuation brings to our work offers a certain eloquence and precision that allows our readers to connect with us more deeply. Proper punctuation fosters trust and assures readers that you have made every effort to express your thoughts so that there is no fear of misinterpretation. Ultimately, I believe that punctuation brings an added element of honesty to our words, earning us the right to be read.
Producing a well-punctuated manuscript can mean the difference between clarity for your readers or their being lost in translation. As Lynne Truss says, “The reason it’s worth standing up for punctuation is not that it’s an arbitrary system of notation known only to an over-sensitive elite who have attacks of the vapours when they see it misapplied. The reason to stand up for punctuation is that without it there is no reliable way of communicating meaning.”