So, I have been rambling on here for six months – my thanks to all of you for bearing with me – and realize that there is one subject I have avoided with conspicuous consistency: punctuation. I am not sure why, but it’s a matter that deserves redress.
Caveat lector: I am essentially talking prose, here; the relationship between poets and punctuation being a horse of a very different hue. Not that no rules apply, but that poetic structure – line breaks, stanza breaks, even visual design – can serve as punctuation in its own right. That said, when it comes to punctuation and modern poetry, the editor in me tends to side with the gnome, less is more. But that just me. You poets must find what serves your verse.
Few problems arise over periods or question marks; the one concludes a basic declarative sentence, the other, an interrogative.
It was Scheherazade’s 101st night in the Pasha’s service.
For her life’s sake, could she find one last tale to tell?
Exclamation points are also simple. They express rage, wonder, downright astonishment. As an editor, I urge you to employ them sparingly. If the passion is not in the words and actions, in the prose itself, such punctuation is cosmetic at best. Use at your peril!
More thorny for us scriveners are the interior punctuation marks: commas, dashes, colons, semi-colons, ellipses, apostrophes, even quotation marks and parentheses.
Commas give us pause, literally; they create those moments in which, reader or writer, we catch our breath, regroup our thoughts. We use commas for meter and meaning, to break long sentences into easily digested chunks.
According to standard usage, there are eleven rules for using commas, including separating independent clauses – two short related sentences that can stand along but which you choose to combine – when preceded by a conjunction (and, but, if, et al.); setting off modifiers and non-essential clauses from the rest of a sentence; around parenthetical phrases; and before direct quotations. I refer you to Elements of Style for pithy examples of each. In short, use commas to illuminate, not muddy, your purpose, for, in a heartbeat, a misplaced comma can careen your tale into entirely unintended territory.
One use of commas that is the focus of increased debate is what’s known as the serial or Oxford comma. The eponymous Oxford comma – so called because it was rule of thumb for Oxford University Press publications – is that last comma in a list falling just before the conjunction:
She foraged through the produce aisles for snow peas, daikon, and baby eggplant.
This is the standard for Strunk & White, Chicago Manual of Style, U.S. government documents, and Oxford University Press – though not Oxford University PR department, go figure. It is not standard for the AP and most newspapers, nor, for everyday Commonwealth prose (UK, Canada, Australia, etc.) Personally, I like the Oxford comma; I was raised on it and use it religiously. I find it lends that extra smidge of exactitude to one’s prose. If, when you receive your Man Booker, you say, “I want to thank my parents, Iris Murdoch and Graham Greene,” chances are some folks are going to assume you spring from a very rare, if unwarranted, literary pedigree. However, “I want to thank my parents, Iris Murdoch, and Graham Greene,” leaves no doubt as to your lineage or intent.
Use of the serial comma has become an increasingly cultural and personal choice. In the end, remember consistency is key. Use it or not, but be uniform throughout your manuscript.
A few brief notes…
Colons ( : ) come before lists or illustrative examples (do not capitalize the word after the colon no matter how tempting it may be). When a conjunction is absent, use semi-colons ( ; ) rather than commas to join independent clauses. Dashes are often considered interchangeable with parentheses, though I beg to differ. To my chagrin, I used the latter a lot until I realized what fell inside their emoticon moues read as more of an afterthought than I intended. I now use dashes almost exclusively, keeping their contents more immediately tied to the tale. I am also personally fond of semi-colons, though I know many writers who can go pages without using a one. Authorial idiosyncrasies abound! Again, know the rules, then make the choices that work for you.
I now realize why I avoided discussing punctuation: it is a mare’s nest of a subject. I am going to have to push quotations, brackets, and apostrophes off to next week. In the meantime, if you have any specific questions, feel free to ask and I will try to answer.
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