Punctuation is a necessary device in every writer’s toolbox, but it’s also a lovely art form that can take writing to the next level.
Imagine living your life without the semi-colon, without the parenthesis! Life would hardly be worth living!
Take Virginia Woolf: she does things with punctuation I can only dream of (of course her writing in general is stunning, but imagine Mrs. Dallowaywithout its dazzling array of punctuation!) Why the stream of consciousness would never be the same!
My English credentials are fairly rock solid (okay, Play-Doh solid), though even I am still learning things. Many things. For example, I have always been a fan of putting periods inside parentheses.
However, today I discovered I have boobooed because you only do this when the parenthesis encircles an entire sentence (not just a little thought tacked on at the end of a sentence). <—— Note conventional usage.
While I am devastated this proves I am not a master of the English language even after a Master’s degree from one of Canada’s
top* most expensive universities, I am baffled that the powers that be would choose to orphan that dear little period when it could be cradled in the arms of a warm, loving parenthesis. I think I will keep putting it inside the brackets, regardless of conventions. Conventions, I eschew you!
After all, Timothy Findley did it. Have you seen how he does his dialogue in You Went Away (1996)? Hardly the stuff of English teachers’ dreams. Findley grabs onto the conventional usage, twists it inside out, and makes it his own. (Not that I am comparing myself to Findley or even Woolf when I still haven’t eradicated I seen from my own speech, thank you rural dialect.)
But it proves there is room for interpretation in creative works, at least once you have established some sort of literary reputation for yourself. (Or if you publish your own blog with no outside interference… muwhahaha.) <—— Happy writer.
Here’s my handy-dandy guide to some of my favourite punctuation.
For years this punctuation mark has suffered a poor reputation because it’s slang for menstruation. Yet in a heartbeat, this full stop can (dare I say it?) punctuate your writing and give it absolute and total authority. The period always gets the last word. Always. It’s the one that says bazinga.
The comma is a languid piece of punctuation that can help you make sense of lists and clauses. The comma helps make your writing a babbling brook, gently rolling over words and letters lazily and beautifully, making art of mere marks on the page. Long live the comma.
The semi-colon is the Frankenstein of punctuation marks. It suffers from an uncertain identity, being neither colon nor comma. Writers use it to link two thoughts that are not quite ready for the full blown em-dash or colon. While the semi-colon is a clever device for getting rid of comma splices, it suffers from its indecisiveness.
This is a powerful piece of punctuation that says what it wants when it wants. There is no arguing with the colon. Bam: it’s there. While you’re supposed to have a complete thought after your colon, sometimes, it can really shake things up: there, shaken up. If there was a piece of punctuation that was in the military, it would be the colon. It gives its order and expects it to be followed.
The Exclamation Mark
The exclamation mark is too eager, like a puppy peeing at the door, excited to meet someone! As if they’ve never met them before! Ohmygod, a person! A person! Though the exclamation mark is not well respected, given its association with puppies and hyper teeny-boppers who must! exclaim! on everything! it is a useful piece of punctuation. Though it lacks subtlety, sometimes a piece of work simply needs an exclamation mark! Use it sparingly, but don’t be afraid of its eagerness when nothing else will do.
Sometimes I can’t decide between the em-dash and the colon—usually I go with the colon if it’s a formal thought, the em-dash if I want to be more casual, more conversational. It’s also a lovely way of setting off thoughts without resorting to the parenthesis, which disturbs flow—sometimes a little too much—when you want a certain rhythm in your prose. The eyes love a good em-dash—though it’s bold, it is still artful, accessible. Life without the em-dash—dare I say it?—would never be the same.
Need to make an aside? You need the parenthesis (after all, the rest of the prose won’t hear it). <—— This is killing me, it really is.
The parenthesis is a whisper from a wise friend, a secret. Your reader will get the feeling they’re reading something special. (After all, it’s all about connecting with you, isn’t it?)
A good parenthesis is like a good secret (too many and you’ll get tired of holding them all in). Peppered throughout the prose, though, you’ll discover them a delightful punctuation that brings meaning to your life.
The Quotation Mark
When not used for quotations and dialogue, the quotation marks are the snarky punctuation marks, like your friend that always uses air quotes when he or she wants to say something especially sarcastic. Use these if you want to be holier-than-thou. If you’re not, you may want to “reconsider” your game plan.
Like a good defense lawyer, the apostrophe can make you look stupid and inadequate in an instant. If you can’t use your apostrophes with panache, you lose all credibility; its inevitable. Learn to use these appropriately or its literary purgatory for you. To master the apostrophe, sound out the word. If it breaks down into two words, it gets an apostrophe. If it doesn’t, don’t use one. It’s possessive. Just like me with cookies.
This is the lazy, airy punctuation that looks as though it has nothing better to do. Want to leave out a big chunk of some quote? Break out the ellipsis. Need to drift off because you forgot what you were going to say? Better use the ellipsis. Use too often, though, and your reader’s attention will just trail off…
These puppies are not just for holding up shelves. They can be an aside to an aside if you’re really clever and want to show a certain authority to your audience that cannot quite be matched by parentheses. Most of the curly brackets and their ilk are useful for math (what dat?) and internet applications, when you want to fancy up your font but can’t bold or italicize your work.
The Question Mark
I assume most people past Grade 3 have this one mastered. If you don’t? Too bad. The question mark is useful to finding out where bathrooms are.
Not to be confused with a member of Guns N’ Roses, so don’t you cry tonight. The slash can separate two things, yet indicate a close relationship. Like my big fuzzy Peg Bundy/cocker spaniel hair. Same, but different. Like Pepsi/Diet Pepsi. They both taste the same, but one has a funky aftertaste.
There you have it: my manifesto of punctuation, derived from many—many!—years of writing and submitting essays, and of reading books! magazines! blogs!
Seeing punctuation as a plaything rather than an obligation can make all the difference in the world. Don’t hate punctuation; make love to it.
* While this is not an actual piece of punctuation, it does function much like the parentheses in that it is an “aside” but with the added delight of looking as though I triedto get rid of it. I love a good affectation.