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Verbal Energy

Punctuating for the 'steady advance of meaning'

On National Punctuation Day, a reminder of the way commas, periods, and their brethren keep us on track as we read.

My colleagues on the Monitor copy desk and I celebrated National Punctuation Day (Sept. 24) by listening to a webinar by Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute, a writing coach, editor, and teacher whose books include, "How to Write Short" and "The Glamour of Grammar." His theme was "Tools, Not Rules, for Writing and Reading." His overarching idea was that a writer should get beyond merely mastering the rules of punctuation. The goal should be to reach the stage of "rhetorical punctuation" – the point at which the writer exploits the possibilities to the fullest to get a message across.

The word punctuation derives from a Latin word for a point or a mark. Master the rules of these marks so that you can make your point, Mr. Clark said.

I've long been a fan of his work, and was pleased to discover that we are of one mind on some of the style questions that rile and divide the editorial world.

Here's his comment, for instance, about the result when a writer follows British ("logical") punctuation rules and leaves a comma outside close quote marks: "It's like leaving a croissant out in the rain."

The effect of good punctuation is to produce "a steady advance of meaning," he noted.

And here's my riff on that idea: Runners who pace themselves make better overall time than those who start off with a burst of energy that can't be sustained. And so it is that a well-punctuated sentence is likely to be read faster, in the end, because the reader grasps its meaning on the first pass.

Writers who are stingy with commas, for instance, are likely to pile up too much at the beginning of a sentence, leaving their readers unclear what the subject is.

And, for another example, writers create confusion if they want to set off a bit of ancillary material but are careless with the dash and "undash" – the second dash of a pair, meant to indicate that the detour is over and that readers are back on the main road. Such writers leave their readers conducting a sort of unconscious interior monologue: "Oh, that was just an introductory phrase! Where is the verb here?" This does not help communication.

Clark likes to think of a period (or full stop, as the British call it) as a stop sign. A period with white space after (the period at the end of a paragraph, that is) is a stoplight. A comma is a speed bump. A semicolon is a "swinging gate"; it connects two clauses too close in meaning to be happy as separate sentences, but too independent to be set apart with only a comma. A colon is a drum roll: It announces something important is about to follow, if only, as here, an independent clause.

Note the road metaphors here (except for the drum roll). One of Shakespeare's sonnets, No. 27, to be precise, comes to mind:

Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,

The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;

But then begins a journey in my head,

To work my mind, when body's work's

expired....

When we read, we take a journey in our heads. We follow a trail of words across the page just as we follow a road through the countryside. The punctuation marks are the traffic signals, road signs, and other devices that help keep us safe in our travels.

Which is exactly the point.

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