Thursday, September 24, 2009

Punctuation without fear

Today is National Punctuation Day, one of those gimmicky holidays on which one can be jocular or sober or both. Last year I posted a sentence that incorporated the standard punctuation marks. This year, some practical advice.

The comma

By now you should have figured out where the comma is required, such as setting off appositives and nonrestrictive clauses, and where it is discretionary to mimic the rhythms of speech.

What some of you have not grasped, and I’m talking to you journalists in the back of the room now, is the difference between a compound sentence and a compound predicate, because a lot of you habitually omit the comma in the former and wantonly insert it in the latter.

Attend, please:

When two independent clauses are joined by and, but, or or, separate them with a comma. The trumpet sounded, and the marchers set forth.

When a subject has two verbs, it is not necessary to separate the verbs with a comma. The trumpet sounded and propelled the marchers forward.

The semicolon

No one has written more vividly about punctuation than Nicholson Baker, whose 1993 essay, “The History of Punctuation,”* is reprinted in The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber.

The semicolon, he writes, the latest-arriving of the standard punctuation marks, is “even now subject to episodes of neglect and derision. Joyce preferred the more Attic colon, at least in Ulysses, and Beckett, as well, gradually rid his prose of what must have seemed to him an emblem of vulgar, high-Victorian applied ornament, a cast-iron flower of mass-produced Ciceronianism; instead of semi-colons, he spliced the phrases of Malone Dies and Molloy together with one-size-fits-all commas, as commonplace as stones on a beach, to achieve that dejected sort of murmured ecphonesis so characteristic of his narrative voice—all part of the general urge, perhaps, that led him to ditch English in favor of French, ‘pour m’appauvrir’: to impoverish himself.

“Donald Barthelme, too, who said that the example of Beckett was what first ‘allowed [him] to write,’ thought that the semi-colon was ‘ugly, ugly as a tick on a dog’s belly’—but he allowed that others might feel differently. And still the semi-colon survives, far too subtle and useful, it turns out, to be a casualty of modernism. It even participates in those newer forms of emotional punctuation called ‘smileys’ or ‘emoticons’—vaguely irritating attempts to supply a sideways facial expression at the close of an E-mail paragraph—e.g., :-) and >%-(. The semi-colon collaborates in the ‘wink’ or ‘smirk,’ thus—;-).”

The dash* and the hyphen

Hyphens join; dashes separate.

When you make use of compound modifiers, as in Mr. Baker’s “one-size-fits-all commas,” make sure that each part of the compound is linked with a hyphen.

When you make use of a dash to indicate some discontinuity, some branching off from the main line of the sentence, make sure that you have a dash, not a hyphen. Take the trouble to learn how to make a dash in your word-processing software. (Those of you bold enough to embark on the subtleties differentiating the use of the en-dash and em-dash can resort to the Chicago Manual of Style. Should you not return by sundown, we’ll send out a search-and-rescue party.)

And, I’m talking to you journalists in the back of the room again — sit up and pay attention — stop using all those dashes for mere parenthetical elements that could just as well be set off with commas.

The period

When you have said all you have to say, come to a stop.

*The essay is a review of Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West by M.B. Parkes.

**Mr. Baker devotes considerable space in his essay to his admiration of the nineteenth-century fondness for the dash combined with the comma, semicolon, or colon in the works of Trollope, Thackeray, George Eliot, Carlyle, Ruskin, and Newman, though, regrettably, according to the Chicago Manual of Style, “dash-hybrids are currently illegal in the U.S.”


  1. Let me point you, from a copy-editor-ly point of view, to the Temeraire novels of Naomi Novik, the first of which is His Majesty's Dragon. They are historical fiction set in a slightly different Napoleonic Wars, and by "different" I mean "with dragons". They are also a triumph of rhetorical punctuation style in an age almost entirely structural; the perusal of a few pages will show it, and it becomes more intense as the series goes on.

    When reading the books out loud to my wife, I found that if I paused "one" at every comma, "one two" at every semicolon, "one two three" at every colon, and "one two three four" at every period (all rapidly counted), I achieved an entirely natural reading style. (Not that I can't do that anyway with the most modern of punctuations.) But I appreciated the assistance, all the while marveling at the utter defiance of all copy-editor dogma. Note, for example, on p.7 the blatant comma splice in "What a splendid specimen, I must get out my measuring cords." Anathema by modern standards, but exactly the way the speaking voice actually speaks, with just the briefest of pauses between the two sentences.

  2. This is exactly why I have no objection to relaxed punctuation in quoted dialogue or fiction that attempts to mimic a speaker's voice. What might be called musical punctuation, with your characterization of the punctuation marks as equivalents of rests, exists side by side with structural punctuation. A careful editor has to be able to accommodate both, balancing their respctive claims.

  3. It's unfortunate that in its conception, the so-called, entirely invented National Punctuation Day is really just Whinge About Punctuation Day rather than the basis of a civil and interesting discussion about how to use punctuation.

    Thank goodness there's this blog entry to counteract all that. :-)

    As an aside, my fellow technical writer-type person Brett Zalkan once made this amusing observation: "Semicolons are like advanced positions in the kama sutra: not for everyone, and certainly not to be attempted by folks who don't have a grasp, so to speak, of the basics."

  4. Re the independent clauses separated by a comma: remember the FANBOYS acronym (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so).

    As to "When a subject has two verbs, it is not necessary to separate the verbs with a comma": while I agree, I have noticed that the New Yorker uses a comma. Other mags seem to use one as well (like the New Republic), so I wonder if this rule is shifting.

  5. I'm quite aware of the "rules" mandating commas to separate compound sentences and forbidding them between compound predicates. But personally I prefer to follow my instincts. If the coordinate clauses of a compound sentence are short and closely linked(as in the "sounded--marched forth" example), I don't like to chop up the sentence with a comma. Conversely, if compound predicates are lengthy, a comma can often help the reader by bringing the sentence structure into focus. And fortunately there's no legislation to prevent me from deciding whether to insert commas on an ad hoc and completely inconsistent basis.

  6. I just recovered from National Talk Like A Pirate Day, and now you tell me I have to celebrate National Punctuation Day! Is there no let-up to these festivals?

  7. A pet peeve is sentences that contain more than two dashes. If a sentence has two or more parenthetical phrases, set them off with parentheses or commas, not dashes. Otherwise, you get hash like this: "A boy -- the tallest he'd ever seen -- carried a ball -- no longer round after being struck a thousand times -- down a road -- unnamed as yet -- to an unkempt diamond."

    Everone should celebrate National Punctuation Day by drinking himself into a comma.

  8. If one is driving, does that mean one only drinks oneself into a semi-comma? Or does one just come to a complete caesura?

  9. I'm with Ms. Terse on this one. My kids have several pirate-talk books, and one of their birthdays is on Talk Like A Pirate Day--shiver me timbers! I agree with Patrick, as well. But I'm happy there's a punctuation day. My favorite is the semicolon, which almost no one properly respects these days. And the holiday reminds me that I have a very serious addiction to parentheses, which really only point out my lazy tendency to speed through thought rather than to properly and logically demarcate ideas.

    It's been years since I saw the word "caesura." Brava.

  10. I'm sure the semicolon is underappreciated and frequently misused; I saw the evidence almost daily from my copy editors and reporters.
    I would say, though, that its awareness is at a high point, for during the past several years, I've read dozens of blog posts, print articles and other takes praising the semicolon or offering an education on its use.
    If people are trying to use it, that's not a bad thing -- even if they are often getting it wrong.

  11. I work in the Writing Center at a college and we tell students not to use semicolons because it seems like a difficult punctuation for them to learn. Most students haven't mastered the basics of punctuation yet, so teaching them how to use a semicolon just doesn't seem worth it when they still don't know how to use apostrophes or commas correctly. I was never taught how to use them during all of my education (I have a BA in English), which proves that it's easy to get away with not using them. I can use them now, but I still do so sparingly. They definitely are neglected.

  12. As depressing as Krystal's comment is -- that our colleges and universities enroll students who require remediation because they cannot use the simplest English punctuation correctly -- I don't doubt it for a minute.

  13. Patrick: Paired dashes are perfectly fine things. "Parentheses minimize, paired dashes emphasize, commas merely enclose."

  14. Thank you so much for the write up. You taught these topics in a very simple way and made it easy to understand me.Thanks a lot. I like your idea of learning Complex sentences. Looking forward for more such articles.