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Posted, Dec. 10, 2004
Updated, Dec. 10, 2004

QuickLink: A75398

Writing Tool #35: Use Punctuation
Proper punctuation can help a writer control how fast -- or slow -- a reader goes.

By Roy Peter Clark (more by author)
Senior Scholar, Poynter Institute

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Use punctuation to control pace and space.

Some teach punctuation using technical distinctions, such as the difference between 'restrictive' and 'non-restrictive' clauses. Not here. I prefer tools, not rules. My preference shows no disrespect for the rules of punctuation. They help the writer and the reader, as long as we remember that such rules are arbitrary, determined by consensus, convention, and culture.

If you check the end of that last sentence, you will notice that I used a comma before 'and' to end a series. For a quarter century, we at The Poynter Institute have argued about that comma. Fans of Strunk & White (that's me!) put it in. Thrifty journalists take it out.


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As an American, I spell the word 'color,' and I place the comma inside the quotation marks. My cheeky English friend spells it 'colour', and she leaves that poor little croissant out in the cold.

Most punctuation is required, but some of it is optional. That leaves the writer with many choices. My modest goal for the next 750 words or so is to highlight those choices, to transform the formal rules of punctuation into useful tools.
'Punctuation' comes from the Latin root 'point.' Those funny dots, lines, and squiggles help writers point the way. To help readers, we punctuate for two reasons:

  • To set the pace of reading.
  • To divide words, phrases, and ideas into convenient spaces.

You will punctuate with power and purpose when you begin to consider pace and space.

Think of a long, long, well-written sentence with no punctuation except the period. Such a sentence is a long straight road with a stop sign at the end. The period is the stop sign. Now think of a winding road with lots of stop signs. That analogy describes a paragraph with lots of periods, an effect that will slow the pace of the story. The writer may desire such a pace for strategic reasons: to achieve clarity, convey emotion, or create suspense.

If a period is a stop sign, then what kind of traffic flow is created by other marks? The comma is a signal to keep going -- but with caution; the semicolon is a speed bump; the parenthetical expression is a barricade; the colon announces a crossroads; the dash is a tree branch in the road.

A writer once told me that he knew it was time to hand in a story when he had reached this stage: "I would take out all the commas. Then I would put them all back." The comma may be the most versatile of marks and the one most closely associated with the writer's voice. A well-placed comma points to where the writer would pause if he were to read the passage aloud. "He may have been a genius, as mutations sometimes are." The author of that line is Kurt Vonnegut. I have heard him speak, and that central comma is his voice.

The semicolon is what we called in driver education a "rolling stop." More muscular than the comma, it is most useful for dividing and organizing big chunks of information. Here Robert Louis Stevenson describes an adventure game in which boys wore cheap tin lanterns -- called bulls-eyes -- under their coats:

We wore them buckled to the waist upon a cricket belt, and over them, such was the rigour of the game, a buttoned top-coat. They smelled noisomely of blistered tin; they never burned aright, though they would always burn our fingers; their use was naught; the pleasure of them merely fanciful; and yet a boy with a bull’s-eye under his top-coat asked for nothing more.

The parentheses introduce a play within a play. Like a barricade in the middle of a street, the parenthesis forces the reader to drive around it to regain the original direction. Parenthetical expressions are best kept short and (Pray for us, St. John of Belushi) witty.

My great friend Don Fry has undertaken a quixotic quest to eliminate the dash. "Avoid the dash," he insists as often as William Strunk begged his students to "Omit needless words." Don's crusade was inspired by his observation -- with which I agree -- that the dash has become the default mark for writers who never mastered the formal rules -- namely me. But the dash has two brilliant uses. A pair of dashes can set off an idea contained within a sentence. A dash near the end can deliver a punch line.

Edward Bernays uses both kinds of dashes in describing the purposes of propaganda:

We are proud of our diminishing infant death rate -- and that too is the work of propaganda.

Propaganda does exist on all sides of us, and it does change our mental pictures of the world. Even if this be unduly pessimistic -- and that remains to be proved -- the opinion reflects a tendency that is undoubtedly real.

That leaves the colon, and here's what it does: It announces a word, phrase, or clause the way a trumpet flourish in a Shakespeare play sounds the arrival of the royal procession. More from Vonnegut:

I am often asked to give advice to young writers who wish to be famous and fabulously well-to-do. This is the best I have to offer:

While looking as much like a bloodhound as possible, announce that you are working twelve hours a day on a masterpiece. Warning: All is lost if you crack a smile.

When it comes to punctuation, all writers develop habits that buttress their styles. Mine include wearing out the comma and using more periods than average. I abhor unsightly blemishes so I avoid semicolons and parentheses. I overuse the colon. I prefer the comma to the dash but sometimes use one -- if only to pluck Don Fry's beard. 
Bug - Writer's Toolbox

1. Make sure you have a good basic reference to guide you through the rules of punctuation. I favor "A Writer's Reference" by Diana Hacker. For fun, read "Eats, Shoots & Leaves," a humorous if crusty attack by Lynne Truss against faulty punctuation, especially in public texts.
2. Take one of your old stories and re-punctuate it. Add some optional commas, or take some out. Read both versions aloud. See if you can hear a difference.

3. In your next story make conscious decisions on how fast you'd like the reader to move. Perhaps you want readers to zoom across some physical landscape. Or maybe you want them to tiptoe through some technical explanation. Punctuate accordingly.

4. Read the essay above and discuss the uses of punctuation. Feel free to challenge my choices.

5. When you gain confidence, use all your tools to have some fun, not only the punctuation marks described above, but also ellipses, brackets, and capital letters. Here is some inspiration from James McBride describing a preacher in "The Color of Water":

"We…[silence]…know…today…arrhh…um…I said WEEEE…know..THAT [silence] ahhh…JESUS [church: "Amen!"]…ahhh, CAME DOWN…[Yes! Amen!] I said CAME DOWWWWNNNN! ["Go on!"] He CAME-DOWN-AND –LED-THE –PEOPLE-OF –JERU-SALEM-AMEN!"  

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