Jenny Greenteeth
The Power Of Punctuationby
Ian Thorpe
Humour /Humour /Satire/travel/ Britain
After being in decline for a number of years good grammar and punctuation are making a comeback. Not in schools as one might hope, the National Curriculum is still driven by trendy academic theory and Politically Correct Thinking, but more people in adult life are finding out that being able to communicate well through the spoken and written word is an ever more valuable career development tool than a University degree.

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February 2020

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The Power Of Punctuation

The Power Of Punctuation

Ian R Thorpe

10 April 2006

Someone suggested I post an article inspired by Eats, shoots and leaves, Lynne Truss' book on punctuation. One of my favourite themes is the poor standard of writing found on so many websites. I do njot need Lynne Truss to inspire an article on good punctuation though. A quick surf around a few web sites where writers can post their unedited work is enough to get me going.

Sometimes I despair of our language, and of other languages too. The English speaking nations are not the only ones that are abandoning the beauty of language for speed and efficiency, French, Italian, Spanish and German academics complain of the same thing. High speed societies have no time for the love of language, everything is sacrificed to "efficiency." "You don't have to say it well so long as you say it fast," seems to be the way we are going.

One of the ways people are being encouraged to be more efficient in the use of the written word is the marginalisation of punctuation. A quick browse through a microsoft style checker will tell the reader that a lot of punctuation looks fussy and pretentious, commas are unnecessary and that colons and semi colons are obsolete.

This is akin to creative writing teachers telling students to eliminate from fiction anything that does not move the plot along. Thus we get novels that are reduced to mere descriptions of events. There is no atmosphere, no characterisation, the theory being that character is established through action.

Often it is the stuff that is not directly related to the main plot that makes a story. A good example is the scence in Pulp Fiction in which John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson are discussing burgers as they drive towards an assignment to kill somebody. Its the kind of conversation that two guys working at a factory bench would have. And that tells us a lot about hit men in an amusing and unobtrusive way.

Now it is true that in business documents language should be precise and unambiguous and punctuation sparse. But the colon and semi - colon are still as essential as the full stop or period. A colon should appear in a broken sentence where it precedes a list, like so:

What is this thing called love?
What! is this thing called love?
What is this thing called, love?
"What is this thing," called Love.

So how unnecessary are commas? Clearly a misplaced or omitted comma can change the whole meaning of a sentence. And if you look at the second line of that, how redundant are exclamation marks. It is strange is it not that the web generation, the nerds and geeks who whine so loudly about punctuation fascism and claim their right of free speech includes a dispensation to disregard the rules of grammar. They will steadfastly refuse to use commas, inverted commas, colons etc. insisting such things are unnecessary and then fill their work with emoticons which are combinations of punctuation marks.

The fad in education for a number of years is to decry formality in writing and encourace creativity. Many English teachers tell their classes to take a minimalist approach to punctuation, the tools they teach the use of are the ones needed in business. When writing fiction, dialogue or poetry though, all of which should be capable of being read aloud, punctuation marks are like stage directions or, for the terminally trendy, like the emoticons of formal grammar.

Commas are seperators when used around an exclusive clause as in the previous sentence, in this one though the comma simply indicates a short pause that helps the rhythm of the sentence.

A full stop or period (both are right) indicates a longer pause (period) because we have reached the end of one thing (full stop) and are moving on to the next. Like so, which leads me to the elipsis... three stops or periods together, this is only used in creative writing, usually to suggest something unfinished, as if an interruption has lkhjfkjyr... sorry about that, the cat jumped on the keyboard.

A semi - colon would be a longer pause; a stop for breath maybe, while a colon portends something significant: usually something quite menacing.

A semi - colon can also be used to indicate that a sentence is not finished; that there is more to come. And there will be more to come on punctuation for writers soon.

My daughter, a fan of Lynne Truss's book tells me Ms. Truss used the self same joke as I have to illustrate the importance of punctuation by giving the line "what is this thing called love" different meanings simply through changing the punctuation. The joke is neither a Thorpe original nor a Truss original, it was used in a comedy sketch on T.V. in the nineteen seventies but I first remember hearing it in class from an English teacher and my schooldays are so far back in time I can't mention the year without upsetting young earth creationists. I also used a variation on it (too rude to reproduce here) in my stand up act back in the days when I could stand up.

Most grammar is pretty basic stuff, anybody wanting to improve their writing style would do well to invest in a style book from a good publishing house. So I did not ned to look to Lynne Truss for inspiration. I suppose she went to a good school where they learn you English proper, like what I done.

Being too picky about grammar and punctuation in creative writing can be as irritating to the reader as being too lax in observing its rules. Were I for example, to take meticulous care to correctly use subjunctives, gerunds, gerundives, and participles as well as properly placing the objects, subjects, artices (definite and indefinite) and prepositions a text could easily take on a fussy and lifeless quality.

While we are on the subject of "Eats, shoots and leaves" I must warn anyone thinking of using it as a guide to grammar that the title itself is very bad English. It was inspired by a joke in which a Panda goes into a restaurant, has a meal and on being presented with the bill, shoots a gun and walks out. On being challenged the Panda points out that the dictionary definition of a Panda is "bear-like animal, eats, shoots and leaves."

Ha thought somebody, there's a misplaced comma joke there. Not so, because the Panda in the restaurant, if we are doing grammar jokes, eats the meal, fires the gun (which shoots a bullet into the ceiling) and then exits the restaurant.

So while practising grammar is worthwhile, being pedantic about it can land us in all sorts of trouble. But all this reminds me of a story about and English professor, a rather boring and pedantic man, who came home from the lecture theatre one day to find his wife hard at the old rumpy - pumpy twenty to the dozen with one of the students.
"Oh! I'm shocked," exclaimed the errant wife.
"No," replied the English professor, you and your lover are surprised, it is I who am shocked ;-)

The best advice anyone can give to a creative writer is "read your work aloud. If it sounds good, it is good even if the grammar is not perfect.

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