A post about a rather pernicious foe to the English-speaking author: punctuation.
Not to say that writers who work in other languages don’t have their own struggles to overcome when creating a story, but English seems notorious at being consistent with only one thing in its rules: being inconsistent. Punctuation alone throws up so many roadblocks, and tends to be one of the technical, grammatical aspects of a given piece of work that separates ineffective storytellers from those who are considered masters.
What inspired me to write about this topic, was coming across a publisher (I won’t name names here) that seemed like a potential place for one of my friends to submit a manuscript to. Upon further review of their (in my opinion, outlandish) editorial and submission guidelines, I came across one thing I never thought I’d see. Said publisher said that semi-colons should never be used in fiction. You’ll perhaps understand, I hope, why that made the logic center of my brain temporarily short-circuit. What, so a common piece of punctuation is okay to use if I’m writing my autobiography, but if I fictionalize it and call it a piece of creative fiction, the semi-colon is off the table?
If I may borrow a term from across the Atlantic for this occasion: bollocks.
I’m going to act for a second like a first year college student in English 101 and start this next point with a direct quote from a dictionary:
The punctuation mark (;) is used to indicate a major division in a sentence where a more distinct separation is felt between clauses or items on a list than is indicated by a comma, as between the two clauses of a compound sentence.
Further, Donald Westlake elaborates on this definition with the following:
“I point out in that definition the phrase “is felt,” and I suggest that the individual doing the feeling is presumed to be the writer. I point out the phrase “more distinct separation,” and I suggest that the purpose of the semicolon is at least in part rhythmic.”
Sometimes, writing is about feeling. And this doesn’t have to be necessarily all about emotion. Feeling, in this context, can also be rhythmic, the way a musician can “feel out” a part when playing. Writing is similar to music in this regard. Certain patterns, rhythms, beats, whatever you want to call them, simply “feel” right. Stories have momentum; punctuation is one of the tools in a writer’s kit that, used well, can aid in the creation and sustaining of said momentum. Blind adherence to grammatical hyperaccuracy (which in English, can be as subjective as an untrained dog’s attention span) is not always the right choice when determining use of words and punctuation.
Punctuation is especially tricky because of subjectivity. The comma is generally meant to indicate a pause for the reader, albeit not as deliberate a pause as with a period. It’s like comparing the Yield traffic sign to the Stop sign. But commas also set off certain nouns or phrases, provide emphasis, or simulate the rhythm of a particular speech pattern. I used to overuse the comma in my writing, because I was trying to emulate the way I intended certain things to be read aloud, as though to mimic the way I would speak it, but I found out that to most readers’ eyes (and later my own) this created the wrong impression. Similarly, the exclamation point, something I overutilized in earlier writing, was a tool I intended to express excitement or enthusiasm (especially sudden peaks in the latter), but I found out that subjectively, some readers interpreted this as my characters yelling at each other constantly. Whoops.
I also hate the hyphen. Have I said that before? Maybe hate is too strong a word. But I do think it is often misused, or at least overused. English is a Germanic language, and I find it more pleasing to the eye and easier to read longer words that are simply smashed together as they would be in German, instead of inserting that ugly hyphen. I realize it has its place, but oh how I do wish its use would be toned down.
But you see what I mean? In the above paragraph, an equal argument can be made for or against my opinion. Unless you’re using a hyphen in a way that is unflinchingly wrong, that is, it destroys the meaning of the sentence or phrase it is trying to modify, then it does come down to a great deal of subjectivity, does it not?
So there’s my little discourse, and insight into how adjusting my use of two pieces of common punctuation managed to change the way I express myself and my characters, in seemingly subtle but ultimately dramatic ways. Writing is a funny thing, and I’m always learning something new and interesting.
Until next week.