Punctuation-Shmunctuation

When speaking aloud, you punctuate constantly—with body language. Your listener hears commas, cashes, question marks, exclamation points, quotation marks as you shout, whisper, pause, wave your arms, roll your eyes, wrinkle your brow.

In writing, punctuation plays the role of body language. Careful use of those little marks emphasizes he sound of your distinctive voice and keeps the reader from becoming bored or confused…punctuation exists to serve you. Don’t be bullied into serving it.

Russell Baker

I’ve always found quotes to be a valuable and concise source of wisdom and inspiration, and for me, the above quote is a true gem. It contains one supposed error of punctuation; can you spot it? Does it help or hurt the effectiveness of the statement?

For many years I pursued a blue-collar existence, language and writing were for communication only, defined by function, not form. As a result, I’ve had a problem with punctuation since, as an adult, I began writing again for the first time since high school. Commas are particularly troublesome. I just can’t seem to get the hang of those little curved marks. Thinking of it as a written form of body language gave me a new approach to punctuation, at least during the first draft. However, that leads to another question. Should grammar and punctuation even be a consideration during the first draft? Probably not, but don’t tell that to my inner critic.

I try to follow Francine Prose’s advice and embrace shitty first drafts, but my insecurities with G&P pounce suddenly like a black panther on a moonless night and the creative process suffers a quick and violent death. I constantly catch myself doubting what I’m writing in spite of knowing how detrimental it is to getting my thoughts down on paper or screen. I’m also fully aware that the function of the second draft is to correct all those issues anyway. I just can’t seem to stop myself from obsessing over what I consider to be major shortcomings, especially punctuation. Grammar is a different and somewhat less intimidating beast to conquer.

I wish there were some G&P programs that I could trust to free up my insecurities, but I haven’t found one yet. The one that comes with MS Word is as good as any, and it’s free, but it makes suggestions that even I can see are obviously wrong. It does help in the sense that I use it to make me take a much closer look at my sentences when I’m editing and revising, so that’s something. I also tried Grammarly, which did pretty much the same thing, but in different areas. Grammarly seemed to have some strange notions about commas that, again, even I found awkward. They are both helpful at pointing out things in different ways, but no miracle cure. I still find myself left largely to my own devices.

Actual editors, as in people, can be invaluable, if you can find and afford a good one. They can become expensive though, especially if, like me, you go through numerous edits and revisions. My revisions are numerous and most are extensive. I can’t afford an editor after each, at least not until I hit the best-seller lists. For now, editors are like water in California, precious and used sparingly.

I’m pretty much resigned to figuring it out as I go along. I’ve always learned best from doing, experience has always been my best teacher and I’ll be relying on her tutelage once again. I’ve always envied those who can pick things up quickly from books and teachers; alas I am not one of those people. That said, I’ll end with one more quote, one that gives me hope for my writing future.

The use of commas cannot be learned by rule. Not only does conventional practice vary from period to period, but good writers of the same period differ among themselves… The correct use of the comma—if there is such a thing as “correct” use—can only be acquired by common sense, observation and taste.

Sir Ernest Gowers


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