That was clearly the dilemma of councillors in Mid-Devon this month when they ruled to banish all apostrophes from the county’s street names ‘to avoid confusion’. At a stroke, or lack of it, they have turned ‘Baker’s View’ into ‘Bakers View’, a haiku of enchanting ambiguity.
Does ‘Bakers View’ still mean a view once taken by Sir Samuel Baker, the Victorian explorer, after whom the street was named? Or a stance traditionally assumed by local bakers at the summer solstice when they gather to view the rising of the dough? Or does it now mean nothing at all, like a novel by Martin Amis?
Yes, punctuation matters!
It’s also a dilemma. If we get it wrong as authors, agents won’t read beyond our cover letter. Get it right and somebody in a different culture will chide us for illiteracy. Because punctuation is not a science. Like spelling, it varies with the culture.
For example, do we use single quotation marks for reported speech, or double ones? Americans favor double quotes; British authors use single ones. So nested quotations can become as challenging as a computer algorithm. A Brit author might write (and I quote): ‘“According to Fowler, ‘it is not always necessary to place quotation marks around an “odd” word’,” he said.’
A New York publisher would attempt to transpose those quote marks into ‘American’ usage, go mad and strike out the entire sentence in despair.
And should we put a comma or colon in front of quoted speech, as in: ‘he said, “Good morning.”’? An academic would use a colon, American novelists a comma, and British authors - taking their cue from James Joyce - might use neither. After all, the ‘open quote’ mark is perfectly adequate by itself to indicate the start of a speech statement. A comma or colon is superfluous, a mere tic of culture.
For a look at the accepted American use of quotes Heidi Thomas posted an excellent article here in her Grammar ABCs series.
Commas are great rogues in other respects.
Until the 18th century, most literary works were written to be read aloud and a comma indicated where the reader should draw breath. (That’s why every line in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales breaks in the middle. Breathe in!) As more people became literate, and literary works were written increasingly for the eye, the comma became an instrument of logic not voice. It marked the rational units in an argument.
But some authors still write for the voice and use commas in the way that Chaucer intended. ‘He wandered down the path, and plucked a rose.’ Modern copy editors, especially in America, would strike out that comma. Superfluous! they’d cry. But is it? Not at all. It modulates the cadence. A comma is an instruction to the voice, and it can licitly appear before a conjunction, or anything else, as here.
The punctuation war grows fierce when debating the allocation of full stops in reported speech. Nobody would deny that, in a sentence entirely enclosed in quotation marks, the full stop or period should come before the final quote mark, as in the following sentence. “Here is an example.” But what if the sentence contains other matter before the quote? In that case, a Brit would put the full stop after the quotation mark. For example: ‘He said, “This is an example”.’ An American would write: ‘He said, “This is an example.”’
The American usage is neater but the British form is more logical. The purpose of a full stop is to close a unit of meaning. So it must go at the end of a sentence. Mustn’t it? Our variances in usage are perverse. A tic of culture.
The semi-colon is an endangered species.
At least there’s one punctuation mark on which both Americans and Brits are in total agreement: the semi-colon. That’s because neither of us use it any more. Apart from a few apocryphal glimpses in John le Carré novels, the semi-colon has vanished from the English landscape along with the colon. No doubt, the predation of copy editors is to blame. Upon sight of a semi-colon, they reach for their style books, shoot it down and insert a full stop.
All readers of The Blood-Red Pencil should make a stand against the tyranny of style books and insert a semi-colon in their stories at once. At best, it might improve the cadence of our tales; at worst, it will reward our copy editors with gainful employment.
What do you think about punctuation? Does it really matter, provided our meaning is clear? Or should we follow the style books in a quest for rigor?
Dr John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has been a successful commercial author for 42 years. A wealth of further ideas for writing fiction that sells can be found in his free 14-part story course at: Writers-Village.org/Academy-intro