Yes, Punctuation Matters

I’ve been told, by people younger than me, that I shouldn’t use punctuation in my texts. Exclamation points are okay—the more the better it seems. And question marks, when necessary. But otherwise I’m just supposed to type all of the words in one long uninterrupted stream interspersed with the occasional emoji which takes the place of punctuation I guess and trust that the person reading my text will understand what I’m trying to say

…. Oh! That sentence was finished?

This texting advice is almost offensive to me. I’m an editor and, for me, punctuation is a necessity in all forms of writing. And that’s not because I’m a stickler for rules (although, I do admit that I find a particular—or peculiar—delight in language rules). Punctuation is necessary for full communication of our ideas in writing. It improves writing. I recently read that punctuation is the written equivalent of the enhancements of spoken language: hand gestures, body language, facial expressions, pauses and tonal variations. Very few of us speak without using these non-verbal cues to enrich and clarify our words, and to add meaning and emotion to what we are saying. Punctuation does this service in our writing.

The most familiar, and probably most used, punctuation marks (besides the period) are the exclamation mark and the question mark. Some would say the first one is overused (!!!), and young people especially are cautioned not to put too many of them in their writing, almost as if a “boy-who-cried-wolf” effect will happen and their statements won’t be taken seriously. Sometimes though, things are just really exciting! As for question marks, who knows if they should be left out. Or… who knows if they should be left out? See? I just proved the usefulness of a question mark right there. Both of these marks are valuable additions to writing, and even the texters who disparage punctuation like to use them.

Quotation marks are a form of punctuation that is actually falling out of use. Not in the academic writing that I edit, where they are necessary when using the words of other writers. But I have noticed an increasing lack of them in fiction, where dialogue between characters is distinguished by indenting lines instead of cluttering up the page with all of those little marks. But what if a character has a lot to say, like they often do in Thomas Hardy novels? Quotation marks let you divide up those long speeches into paragraphs to make for easier reading. Or what if your publisher wants to save paper and doesn’t want all those separately, indented lines? You might have to collect a succession of short-sentence dialogue into one paragraph, and quotation marks will help you distinguish the different speakers. Or, what if you’re an absent-minded person trying to do too many things at once, including read a book, and you lose track of what’s going on? Quotation marks are a quick visual cue that someone is speaking—that dialogue is happening—and they help you keep better track of what’s going on.

Two other forms of punctuation that are becoming more ubiquitous are em dashes and en dashes. I’ve used several em dashes already, including in that last paragraph. These are the longer “dashes” that we most often see in news stories or magazines, and in academic bibliographies. The en dash is supposed to be the width of a capital “N” and the em dash the width of a capital “M”—thus their names. En dashes are used when showing ranges of numbers and dates (e.g. 2018–19 season), and also to add clarity when forming complex compound adjectives (a Nobel Prize–winning scientist).

The em dash is the longest in length of these dashes. Three em dashes can be used in certain bibliographical formats when repeating an author’s name. But the most creative use of an em dash is to denote a “break” in the writing and set off the information contained within the em dashes from the rest of the text. This can be done with great literary flair, especially when the em dash is employed alongside commas and brackets. These three forms of punctuation can be used to create different kinds of breaks. Consider these three sentences:

Her hair (which wasn’t really blonde) blew across her face.

Her hair, blonde and curly, blew across her face.

Her hair—what was left of it—blew across her face.

In the first sentence, the bracketed part is like a whispered aside, a piece of gossip injected into the conversation. In the second sentence, the part separated by commas is a matter-of-fact description, a piece of information that it would be good for you to have. The brief pause created by the commas, draws a bit of attention to the words and makes you focus on the image of blonde, curly hair for a moment before moving onto what else is happening. In the third sentence, the em dashes are like a car squealing to a stop, and force you to notice and ponder the words they contain. These three examples show how punctuation can be used in the same way that hand gestures or changes in volume would be in spoken language: whispering in brackets, normal volume in commas, and so many other things—shouting, sarcasm, sternness—in em dashes.

My favourite form of punctuation is the comma. I love this little squiggle, and not just because my academic focus leans towards the Oxford comma (the final comma in a list of things, coming before the words “and” or “or,” often used in scholarly writing). Commas can add so much to a sentence. True, there are a lot of rules (and disagreements) as to their use, and people worry about using them correctly. But they are one of the best tools writers have to inject creativity into their work. Deftly used commas can divide a sentence into parts to help increase understanding of complex ideas, clarify meaning, and invite the reader to focus on certain words and phrases.

I think this last use is the best way to deploy a comma, because this is where the punctuation can really affect the emotion and beauty of the words. Take the last line from one of my favourite novels, The Great Gatsby: “And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Those commas separate that sentence into three parts, and as we focus on each part individually, images appear in our minds and, as we contemplate those images, emotions are inspired. Those commas force us to take breaks and think about the individual parts of that sentence and at the same time consider what they all mean together. We would read that sentence quite differently, and feel differently about it, if those commas weren’t there.

And that is the genius of punctuation. It is an essential part of writing, not just for its “nitty-gritty” contribution, but for its creative enhancement as well. Very few of us speak without using our hands, our faces or our voices to add expression to our words. Why would we want to write without the expressive possibilities that punctuation gives us? And returning to texting, and its social media counterparts such as Twitter and Instagram, these forms of writing are becoming the most common means of written expression. Why would we hobble the potential of our communication by eliminating an essential and valuable part of language? So, I won’t be deterred. I will continue to use punctuation in my texts, even if that makes me a language dinosaur. I will end my text sentences with a period—or, if I know it really bothers my reader, a happy-face emoji (which is big and round, just like a period.)

There are some very good language blogs that do a great job of explaining the curiosities and rules of language, including punctuation. A couple that I used in writing this piece are grammarly(https://www.grammarly.com/blog/) and Grammar Girl (https://www.quickanddirtytips.com/grammar-girl). These are great resources, alongside some of the more traditional ones, like the mighty Chicago Manual of Style (https://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/home.html). Whatever kind of writing you do, take the time to make use of such aids.

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