Because neither you nor I have neither the time nor inclination to cover every minute rule of punctuation in the English language, let’s discuss punctuation as a whole.
Punctuation came into being as a way to represent the tones and inflections of natural speech. It helped recreate what a person spoke into an image that meant to transmit the same meaning to a an observer or reader. Though I don’t know exactly how each and every punctuation mark came into being or into common usage, I have heard that particular marks (period, comma, parentheses) came from grammatical terms for longer pieces of prose that meant the same thing. For example, a “?” used now to show that a certain piece of text is being asked was originally called a “question” instead of a “question mark.” Indeed, the mark, used with enough surrounding context as to make it clear, can be used alone to great effect. Think of the comic strip, and a thought bubble above a character’s head with a “?” in it. You know what it means. Or, when someone taps out an unintelligible text message and sends it to you, you might reply simply with a “?” instead of taking the time to write, “What are you talking about?” The “!” can be used similarly.
According to the modern journalist’s bible, the Chicago Manual of Style (see the Good Reads for Good Writes page), punctuation is “governed by its function, which is to promote the ease of reading.” The CMS goes on to note that although punctuation can be adapted to fit the need of the writer and/ or reader, there are certain rules which we ought to abide by. This is not a surprising message from a book that exists to establish and maintain a standardized use of punctuation, usage, and grammar across multiple publishing entities; it is also a goo reminder of why we bother to learn how to use and read punctuation in the same way. What CMS is trying to say is that without some rules, we might not be able to read or understand another person’s writing if we use whatever marks we feel like using in whatever order seems right at the time. If we all understand that certain marks are used to communicate particular meanings, then we can all read those marks and understand. This is not news to you, I am sure, but in a world where I see all sorts of liberties taken with punctuation, I think it’s worth reminding ourselves why we settled on these rules in the first place.
Without punctuation, a piece of text can run on with hardly any indication of change in tone, meaning, speaker, or idea. Case in point I will use this obnoxious sentence to show how a complete lack off punctuation will make you want to stop reading immediately in fact I am having a hard time even typing this without my fingers instinctively and automatically going right to the keys such as the period and comma that would help break up this long awkward piece of prose.
Arg. That pained me. I think many writers get lazy about punctuation. Because we all learn to speak before we learn to write, we presume that our readers can fill in the missing punctuation marks without our having to actually use them. However, that is not the case. Sure, you may be able to read the sentence, “How are you” and understand from experience that I am asking a question without having to use the “?”, but as Lynne Truss points out in the title of her excellent book on punctuation, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, a comma is all that distinguishes a sentence from being either about a Panda bear or about a hungry gangster.
By learning to use at least the basic punctuation marks correctly, we can communication more effectively with all who read our writing. Furthermore, knowing how to use punctuation correctly can help you smooth out the writing process, and learn new ways to get your meaning across more effectively, which will make the process of writing easier over all.
Though I will, in future posts, probably discuss particular uses of specific punctuation marks, this blog is only promote a little conscientiousness of its use. Punctuation, when you give it a chance, is really a lot of fun, and you will be surprised to see how much meaning can be made with a small dot or line properly placed.