Monday Motivation: In praise of punctuation

 In Monday Motivation

I got embroiled in a conversation about commas this weekend. As one does. What are the rules for using commas? In my experience, there are writers who use commas with exuberant abandon – and others who are parsimonious to a fault.

I argued that there aren’t strict roles governing the use of commas. Write aloud – a practice I advocate – and you’ll hear where the pauses are, and therefore where the commas should be.

I argued that it’s a really good idea for writers to read Eats Shoots and Leaves, Lynn Truss’s little masterpiece on punctuation.

But what I didn’t say, is what I believe the fundamental point of all punctuation is.

And that is, one: to make clear what might otherwise be ambiguous. And, two: to help reveal the musicality of the language. Punctuation scores your sentences. It shows not only where the stresses are – but where the silences lie.

“I wish you wouldn’t… touch me there,” is a very different proposition from “I wish you wouldn’t touch me there.” The ellipses in the first suggest desire, longing, reluctance. The directness of the second suggests irritation, a touch of anger, even. It comes across as an instruction, more than a request.

Punctuation can isolate a word in a pool of silence, so emphasizing it. I learned early, from an actor, that if you want to stress something, don’t come down hard on the word in question – rather introduce a pause before it.

Compare: It took George months to conclude that what was motivating his every thought, was hatred.

It took George months to conclude that was motivating his every thought was – hatred.

Novice writers assume that punctuation is an add-on, something that a tuppenny-ha’penny editor might be expected to insert after they’ve done the real work, written the story.

But language is music, and stories are symphonies, and symphonies are composed as much of the notes, as of the silences between them.

So pay all due respect to punctuation, for that’s where nuance and subtlety and music lie.

Happy writing,

Richard

P.S. This was written on a Monday and delivered on a Tuesday. Please forgive me…

 

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