The writer’s eye: punctuation

This isn’t a blog about the how-tos of writing, but since getting involved with a live roleplay group including several aspiring writers, I think I’ve got something useful to say on the subject. So pardon me while I interrupt normal service with something useful for a change!

Everything They Never Told You About Dots

No doubt you remember from school that punctuation is the most boring, irritating and incomprehensible part of written English.

Today I’d like to present an alternative view. Punctuation is straightforward, easy to understand, and an incredibly useful writing tool when you know what it’s trying to achieve.

The problem is that most people are taught punctuation as a set of arbitrary, prescriptive grammar “rules”. There’s no rhyme or reason given for why those rules should exist – no overview that helps you understand the point of learning them. So most of us think of punctuation as a pointless irritation and cheerfully forget the rules as soon as we have the chance. What I’d like to do here is give you the why of punctuation, which will hopefully make it easier for  you to learn and remember the bits of it you need to make your writing clearly communicate your ideas.

Banksy's Caveman by Lord Jim

Banksy’s Caveman by Lord Jim

First, a bit of theory. Where did language start? We didn’t always have writing systems – all languages began as spoken things. All stories, since we’re talking about writing fiction here, started life as tales told round a fire, or anecdotes recounted to a friend. Voices talking, not letters on paper. So when we invented writing, what we were trying to do was create a system that captured on paper (or clay, or wax tablets, or papyrus or whatever) all those lovely communicative nuances of the language we already had. We wanted a system that could make us see the look on the storyteller’s face, or hear the tiny pause before the punchline – so that the story would have just as much drama as it did around the fire, or we’d laugh just as hard at the joke as we did with our friend.

And there the human race hit the first problem. Translating things between two different mediums never gets perfect results. Make a 3D sculpture of an object in a painting and you’ll have to decide what the back looks like for yourself. Make a movie out of a novel and there’ll be fans out there who think you’ve butchered it, because visual movies and written fiction just don’t function the same way. Try to write down a spoken story and… what? You stop every few lines and describe what the storyteller was doing? Waving his hands? Smiling all over her face? Do you write down exactly how long the pause before the punchline was?

Well, no, because all that would interrupt the reader’s ability to immerse themselves in the story. Which is just what you don’t want to do if you want your readers to really feel things. So instead of using the speaker’s body language and vocal inflections as ways to communicate subtleties, writing developed its own subtleties that help put those things across.

Some punctuation is simply practical. Question marks, for example – they’re a very basic tool that lets readers know that we’re asking whether you own a horse and not simply telling you (somewhat redundantly) that you do. Try it out. Read these aloud:

“You own a horse?”
“You own a horse.”

That’s actually not the stuff we’re interested in here. You need your bog-standard punctuation to make what you read comprehensible (trust me, bad punctuation gives people headaches trying to decipher it), but it’s not where you look for the literary special effects. I’m talking about commas, colons and semicolons, and full stops. Full stops are a two-edged sword – in the basic sense they mark where your sentence ends, which is to say where one particular little bit of self-consistent content stops and another starts. (Exercise: look at picture number 5 in this article and put the full stops in where they ought to be. This is also a perfect example of why reading badly punctuated work gives headaches to people like me.)

But as you get further into writing fiction, you realise that full stops can also be used with a certain amount of discretion. How you chop up a block of text into sentences affects how it “feels” to read. Why? What’s that doing in written language that we’d achieve in a different way in speech?

Well, the short answer is pauses. Which come with a couple of related things in language, namely stress (emphasis) and intonation. When someone’s talking, where they put the stress tells you what’s important. Take this amusing grammatical gag:

Capital letters are the difference between helping your Uncle Jack off a horse and helping your uncle jack off a horse.

Photo from linked site

Photo from linked site

Actually, what the capital letters do here is change where the stress (emphasis) goes. Specifically, they tell you that the stress goes on the phrase “Uncle Jack” as a unit, which in terms of the meaning of the sentence demonstrates that Uncle belongs with Jack, that Uncle Jack is the important subject of the sentence and that therefore,  ‘help [someone] off a horse’ must be a phrasal verb in this case – moreover one which doesn’t have a direct object. The reason we need all this information is the reason the joke is funny: because of what would happen if the clues to the stress weren’t there. What would happen without the capital letters is that we’d use the default type of emphasis that English has, and accidentally change the meaning. What we do automatically in English is to stress a sentence thusly: SUBJECT verb OBJECT. UNCLE jack off a HORSE. If we do that with this sentence, we can’t tell that jack belongs with uncle, so uncle is an ordinary noun and the next word is the verb because that’s how English works. And whatever noun comes after all the bits of the verb is the object of the verb. Read the joke out a few times. See it happening?

Stress changes depending on where you put full stops, too. Advice for writing action scenes (chases, fights, and equally sex scenes in some cases) often includes the idea of using short, clipped sentences to help keep the tension going. Jane Austen, possibly the least action-oriented writer ever created, is praised for her beautiful prose with its long, graceful sentences balanced in the middle with a semicolon: pretty much the exact opposite of action. But look through the excerpt linked here again and you’ll notice that where something actually *happens* – a rare enough occurrence in a Jane Austen novel – the sentences do indeed get a lot shorter and more to the point. Ms Austen herself knew how to do action too – she just never bothered.

Another exercise, then. Let’s take one of those long, elegant Jane Austen jewel sentences and repunctuate it a bit to see what a few full stops change.

This was very amiable, but Charlotte’s kindness extended farther than Elizabeth had any conception of; its object was nothing less than to secure her from any return of Mr. Collins’s addresses by engaging them towards herself.

This was very amiable. But Charlotte’s kindness extended farther than Elizabeth had any conception of. Its object was nothing less than to secure her from any return of Mr Collins’s addresses – by engaging them towards herself.

Again, read them aloud and listen for the differences in your voice. The second version reads a little more dramatically, no? You can see how that might work well in an action scene.

Let’s move on to commas, then. Commas have less of an effect on overall stress patterns but they do very commonly indicate where to put pauses. Some critics would say that I overpunctuate horrendously when I write – I pepper everything with commas. (I like dashes too. Count the ones in this article!) It took a poet friend of mine with an excellent ear for the sound and music of language to realise that I’m actually indicating where the pauses go to anyone who wants to read my prose out loud. I’ll never make a playwright – the actors would be furious with me for telling them how to interpret what I write – but I also get told a lot of the time that people can really feel the places and situations I describe. And that’s what we were trying to achieve, no? I’m not putting in an aside to tell you what the expression on my face as I tell the story is, I’m letting you hear, through the way I structure my writing, where the emphasis and pauses in my voice would be. You can’t see me tell the story, but as a writer I’m going as far as I can towards helping you hear me.

So commas, once you’ve achieved the basics of knowing where you can and can’t use them correctly, are another bit of discretionary punctuation that you can abuse for stylistic effect. Read your work out loud; are you putting in pauses or stress changes where there’s no punctuation on the writing to carry that across? Are there punctuation marks telling the reader to do something that you don’t actually intend when the thing’s read aloud? Practise. It’ll start to come naturally with time.

Colons and semicolons are likewise to do with pauses, but they’re a bit more specialist than your ordinary everyday comma. The website I linked to above has more instructional PDFS on these slippery little devils if you want to confuse yourself with the hard facts, but generally I’m a bit lax about correctness of usage with these two. The rule of thumb is that these guys are for joining up different chunks of language when the chunks you’re dealing with are longer than just a word, and complicated in their own right. Used artistically, colons also seem to be a more emphatic marker of a changeover point than semicolons. “Quick: to the Batmobile!” (The Joker is holding Commissioner Gordon hostage!) versus “Quick; to the Batmobile.” (Put your bloody boots on, Robin, we’ll never get there before the takeaway shuts at this rate.)

So to summarise – the important thing about punctuation is not to learn the rules by rote and apply them robotically, it’s to understand the rules well enough to know how you can abuse them for your personal writerly gain. Like everything else in language, punctuation is a communication tool – but you can use any tool two ways. You can use it simply and straightforwardly to get the storytelling job done, or you can use it artistically to make something beautiful and deeply emotionally moving. To be a readable writer all you need is the first stage; to be a really great writer, you need to put some work into the second.

Keep reading it aloud, and keep thinking.

Image by Jacob Bøtter

Image by Jacob Bøtter

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One thought on “The writer’s eye: punctuation

  1. Dan Sheppard says:

    You can maybe tell something about a person’s character by their favourite punctuation mark: mine is the colon.

    I like the colon because it is says “Onward: to the prize!” when a semicolon would say “Well, unless we walk down this path as well, our walk won’t have been symmetrical; walks should be symmetrical in order that their structure is pleasing to the eye”. And yet the colon does admit the possibility of some kind of conjunction between thoughts unlike breathy staccato “Jesus Wept” sentences. I suppose it’s the semicolon’s role in lists that makes me always think of it as having a tendency for tedious completeness or recapitulation. All hail the colon.

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