I used to have a phrase that I would regularly repeat to my students in the first-year college writing class: “Writing is not about commas, it’s about ideas.” In saying that, I was trying to counteract the effect of bad beliefs the students had picked up, and the bad teachers who had helped inculcate those pernicious beliefs. I knew horrible college writing teachers who seemed almost indifferent to the ideas in a piece of writing, but who put enormous weight on whether all the mechanics were correct. In contrast, I would also sometimes tell students that you can pay someone to fix your punctuation (it’s called a copy editor—I was a copy editor for a hunting and fishing magazine), but you cannot pay someone to express your ideas.
Having said that, I add that having correct punctuation is extremely important. Let’s try an analogy here and see if it works. The purpose of driving a car is not to have working spark plugs, but without working spark plugs, you will not achieve the real purpose of getting somewhere. Punctuation is merely part of the mechanics that make the writing system work, but the more you get it wrong, the more the system breaks down. It’s also incredible but true that although everyone makes mistakes in punctuation, if anyone catches you in a mistake they begin to think “illiterate dumbass” and quit reading.
So punctuation is dreary. I know. I used to teach this shit. But get it wrong and see how far you get, illiterate dumbass.
If you’re a frequent and careful reader of this blog (I know you are, that was just a rhetorical question) then you will have noticed that I seem to use quotation marks “wrong”. Like that. Isn’t the period supposed to be inside the quotes? Yes, in American usage the period as well as the comma are always inside quotation marks. In Britain, however, the period and comma go either inside or outside, depending on what makes sense. Such a practice requires more thought, so naturally I’m not going to advocate it for widespread American use. In the sentence above I put the period outside the quotes because it ends the entire sentence, not just the one word in quotes.
This difference between American and British practice indicates something about punctuation. Like other aspects of language, punctuation is part of a social system, and thus it can change over time and in various places. Even in American practice, punctuation has changed over time. If you read Walden by Henry David Thoreau, you will find that commas appear far more frequently than in modern writing. This is because in Thoreau’s day commas had begun to be made in factories, so a box of commas was extremely cheap, and therefore they were in common use.
Raise your hand if for just a tenth of a second you were thinking “Really?” Actually, there were simply different social practices for punctuation, and also in Thoreau’s writing I’ve found weird combinations that I would never allow my students to use, as in this quoted bit: “and might still inspire a natural terror in its denizens; — now far behind his guide, barking like a canine bull toward some small squirrel…” What I would object to here is the semicolon followed, for no apparent reason in my opinion, with a dash.
The semicolon, by the way, is optional in your life. You are not required to use it, ever. Seriously. There is always a decent way to word a sentence so as to avoid the semicolon, though I don’t mind keeping it for emergencies when I run low on the normal punctuation bits. Like what if I was on a desert island and nearly out of periods?
Another form of punctuation that is never actually required is the exclamation point, with one exception. That exception is if you write for magazines sold in the checkout line at supermarkets. For supermarket magazines, every headline on the cover must end in an exclamation point. The practice was optional until October 2003, when Congress passed the law unofficially called the Lindsay Gets New Tattoo Bill. Now these magazines look as if the editors are really excited! About almost everything!
In a recent blog post (recent meaning any possible time before now), I talked about my most hated form of punctuation, the apostrophe. Here I will expostulate on my personal favorite in terms of humorous potential, namely, the uninformed use of quotation marks to emphasize a word. Just for the record, in case you need this, quoting one word does not add emphasis. Italics add emphasis (see previous sentence). Quoting one word potentially adds irony, as in the following:
- Home cooked meals just like “Mama” made.—Whoever it was cooking those meals, she made us call her Mama, or we didn’t get any food.
- We sell “bread” cheap.—Whatever they’re actually selling, I don’t want it.
An interesting aspect of the fact that punctuation is actually a social practice is that it will continue to change, and if you pay attention, you can see it happening. It wasn’t so long ago that a combination like : – ) looked pretty stupid. I mean, it still looks pretty stupid, but now it means something. Much more interestingly, as new technology expands our range of options, we are just now on the edge of changes in which color will be incorporated into punctuation, as well as perhaps other possibilities. Who knows where we’ll go?