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The power of the period. Or comma. Or colon. Or …

One of the things I stress most over, when writing, is punctuation. (WAIT, WERE THOSE COMMAS RIGHT, JUST NOW? IS THIS PARENTHETICAL OKAY IF IT’S  ITS OWN SENTENCE? OH GOD, AM I SUPPOSED TO PUT THE PERIOD INSIDE OR OUTSIDE THE PARENTHESES IN THIS SITUATION? I’LL JUST WING IT.)

It’s funny, because most of the time I just view punctuation as a banal necessity to make sure your words aren’t misinterpreted (See: either any and all arguments for the serial comma or this amusing article on Buzzfeed). It’s stressful because there is a generally agreed upon right way to do things and if you don’t know the right way to use a particular punctuation mark there’s the absolute horror of being called out on it at some point and coming up blank. I’m mostly sure I know when and why to use a semi-colon, but please, don’t ask me to explain in front of anyone.

I still remember the day I learned the difference between and em-dash and an en-dash (and to a lesser extent, the hyphen, only included because it’s visually similar) and it changed my world. The em-dash is now, I think, my absolute favorite punctuation, to the point where I actually have to go back and edit some of them out of things I’ve written so as not to overwhelm.

Vulture posted an article by Kathryn Schulz yesterday, “The 5 Best Punctuation Marks in Literature” that I just loved and that really got the wheels turning in my head. Of course, I suppose I’d always been aware of punctuation as a literary device, just as much as anything else, but because it’s something used in even the most ordinary of sentences, it’s never stuck out as particularly powerful to me before. After reading this, however, not only am I convinced, but I’ve started noticing the punctuation in everything I read—and write, which is bound to get distracting eventually, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

I think my favorite of the examples that Schulz presents are Nabokov’s parenthetical and Dickens’ colon—both are masterful and truly do change the sentiment and takeaway from each passage in which they appear. Reading through the comments, I notice someone lit upon just what I myself had been thinking of as I read—what about the lack of proper punctuation, or heck, punctuation at all to bring home a point or strengthen an emotion? One commenter referenced Molly Bloom’s monologue at the very end of Joyce’s Ulysses and her rushed, hurried, full of sensation, devoid of thought “and yes I said yes I will Yes” has always been one of my favorite closing lines in literature and it couldn’t have been as perfect as it was if there had been even a single comma betwixt the words—I’ll go on record saying that.

What about you? Any particular mark of punctuation just really not do it for you? Elude you in the proper way it’s meant to be used? Do you have any more literary references for its excellent use? I’d love to hear them.

7 Responses to The power of the period. Or comma. Or colon. Or …

  1. Punctuation is so complicated and fascinating! For me, I never use parentheses. Never. I’m not sure if it’s because I don’t think they’re necessary, or because I don’t know how to use them!

    Jennifer

  2. Lynn says:

    Omg, Rachel, I loved both your links! And thank you for the laughs about commas. The last one, #22, had me laughing so hard, tears were running down my face, my stomach was hurting—well, you get the picture!!! Thanks again! (Em-dash, right? Yeah!)

  3. EDWARD says:

    The BUZZFEED piece was funny, but the writer sabotaged the work in several different ways. First, using obscene language isn’t funny. Second, the idea of presenting 22 examples (rather than the top ten, say) is arbitrary. Lastly, the writer further proved amateurish by using the list format at all. It would have been funnier had the writer adopted a snob persona and wrote, in prose, a short comment of indignation, a feigned complaint of yet another assault from the philistine class.

    • Emily says:

      hmmm…

      I wonder if you meant:

      “It would have been funnier had the writer adopted a snob persona and wrote [written?], in prose, a short comment of indignation, a feigned complaint of yet another assault from the philistine class.”

      ?????????????????? :)

  4. Patrick says:

    IMHO the ellipses is the most underused punctuation in literature. According to Grammar Girl, it should only be used to show an omission. I respectfully disagree, and think it can be used in dialogue to show a pause.

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