Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Punctuation - Is There Any Point To It?

What do new authors hate even more than agents who don’t acknowledge their manuscripts? The apostrophe! Why? It’s like a Christmas gift from an uncle with poor taste. They don’t know where to put it.

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 passed away in 2016. He held a PhD in Creative Writing, judged the Writers’ Village story competition and was a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. Prior to getting his doctorate degree, he spent 40 years as a commercial author and chairman of a major PR company. His Writers’ Village short story contest drew 1500 on-line entries each year from all over the world. Some of his blog posts are archived here, (however the writing class enrollment and downloads are no longer available).


  1. I'm a big fan of the semi-colon; I use it all the time.

    Excellent post!

  2. to punctuate or not

    to punctuate
    or not
    to some
    it matters
    quite a lot
    to others
    not a jot

  3. Thanks, Stuart. I can always rely upon you to be both witty and wise!

  4. Steady on, John! I'm trying to develop a reputation as a grumpy old sod here!

  5. People can't remember how to correctly use semicolons, commas, etc.; they either avoid them or stuff them in like lettuce in a taco shell.

  6. I'm always befuddled by the quotes before or after the 'full stop' when it's not straight dialogue. Whenever possible, I use italics.

    Let's eat, Grandma.
    Let's eat Grandma.

    Punctuation matters. I don't use semicolons very much, and never in dialogue.

    Maybe recorders of audio books should follow Victor Borge's example and include punctuation when they read.

    And don't get me started about people who use apostrophes to indicate plurals.

    Terry's Place

  7. Excellent post, John, and I loved the poem, Stuart. Sorry that John blew your grumpy old sod cover. (smile)

    What about the semi-colon, or colon, being used in dialogue? I have seen the usage in some books and it pulls me up short. People don't speak in grammatically correct sentences, so I think the dialogue should be written to reflect that. Thoughts?

  8. Rats. No one told me the semi-colon was dead. I am partial to it and its cousin; the comma.

  9. Punctuation marks are the vegetables of writing ... no one likes them, but they are good for it (or is that 'you'?)." er . Stop, for Petes ... uh, Pete's sake.

  10. Maryann, thanks. As for semi-colons and colons in dialogue: if you look at them as having different 'weights', so that the comma is one beat, the semi-colon two and the colon three, it'll give some sense of how the character is speaking. At least, that's my understanding of their use in this context.
    Don't you love punctuation and its role in making your writing individual, providing, of course, you understand the rules before you bend them?

  11. I was taught British punctuation but I have an American editor. Confusion ensued for a time.

  12. Excellent, John! This is something we all struggle with, whether as new writers, experienced writers, or editors! There are still some hard and fast rules, but in fiction, those rules can be bent at times.

    Elspeth, I'll bet it was difficult to transition from British to American. I had some trouble changing from journalistic rules to fiction rules at times!

  13. I used semi-colons in my novel and my editors and copy-editors at Sourcebooks had no problem with it. I won't use them in dialogue, though, because they're hard to hear. In dialogue you can do everything you need to with comma (short pause), em-dash (longer), period (longer yet), and ellipsis...(indeterminate but longer than a period, I'd say. Three times as long.)

  14. Thank you for this post. Commas, semi-colons, colons add richness to the reading experience. Without them, reading is a blob.

  15. Thank you for this post. Commas, semi-colons, colons add richness to the reading experience. Without them, reading is a blob.

  16. Love it! By the way, I still use the semicolon . . . but then, I'm a dinosaur from the first half of the twentieth century.


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