Friday, June 20, 2008

Punctuation: Explanation Points


Today I pampered myself. I got a massage and a pedicure, but best of all, I re-read a book about punctuation. I know that does not rank up there on the list of 50 Favorite Hobbies, but I am smitten with commas, semi-colons, and parentheses. And I adore paragraphs.

Consider this: just twenty six letters, organized with periods and question marks, became To Kill a Mockingbird. Good prose is a matter of interior design. A few things I've learned about writing:
  1. Use variety. A sentence can be a long, wordy string of words, with commas breaking things up, like this. It can actually be two sentences; just put a semi-colon in the middle. Do you see how punctuation adds visual interest? It's amazing!
  2. If you want to tell your reader something confidential (like a secret) whisper it in parentheses.
  3. Long paragraphs are intimidating. Without some visual space we get claustrophobic. Compare reading a magazine to reading the little warning sheet that comes inside the Tylenol bottle. The contrast is a reminder to hit the return key often. Short paragraphs make readers feel welcome.
  4. Use your dictionary; spell check can only do so much. A precise word conveys the right meaning. Is your sister erratic or erotic? (The computer doesn't pick up the difference.)
  5. Quote an expert. In Writing With Style, John R. Trimble said, "View your reader as a companionable friend–someone with a warm sense of humor and a love of simple directness. Write like you're actually talking to that friend, but talking with enough leisure to frame your thoughts concisely and interestingly."
  6. WRITING IN ALL CAPS SOUNDS LIKE YOU'RE YELLING.
  7. if you adopt a style for creative purposes, be consistent. you want your readers to know it's intentional.
  8. Unless you're training for a marathon and have to keep going even when you're exhausted remember to put commas in to give your readers a chance to take a breath before they faint.
  9. Ellipses are used to show that you've left a word out of a quotation. Rudolf Flesch said, "Punctuation . . . is the most important single device for making things easier to read." When . . . are used incorrectly . . . we wonder . . . what we are missing . . .
  10. Explanation points! They can be overdone! Use them sparingly!
Any questions?

14 comments:

gab said...

Good tips. I am very annoyed by bad spelling and punctuation. Also all lower case and no paragraphs.

marta said...

yay, mom. i loved this post. thanks. it must run in our blood. but being the black sheep, i love breaking the rules: for creativity's sake. xo.

Tina said...

Thank you! Very valuable information.
Did you teach a continuing Ed writing class for Jordan School District?

SydneyMin said...

Great post! I'm semi-laissez-faire when it comes to spoken language, but in writing if you break a rule you'd better be doing it intentionally to make a point! Otherwise, I may think slightly less of you... I will admit, however, to really overusing commas at times, and ending sentences in prepositions.

Holly said...

That is one of my favorite books. I still refer to it again and again. Great post!

Ashlee said...

I definitely do NOT follow the rule of the ellipses. :0) I use the ... in my casual writing to show I am attempting to pause in my "speech". It's hard to convey some of the sarcastic emotion in writing, so I "pause" with ... to help my readers get my point. In my school writing I do refrain. :0)
Thanks for the tips! :0)

TravelinOma said...

I'm all about breaking rules, especially in casual writing. But knowing the rules helps us choose how to break them wisely.

Keri(th) said...

Oh dear me. I'm afraid I need to read this book before posting again. I use ... and !!!! both consistently and incorrectly. Great, now I'm both paranoid and self-conscious! The therapist is going to cost more than the book. Other than that, great post! (See, can't break away from the !!!!)

Sheri said...

Okay. Thanks for the tips. I've never known the rules, so I obviously break most of them. Now I need to take some classes, or read some books so I can post my blog. I agree with Keri(th). Now I'm paranoid and self-conscious. (More than ever.)

Ink Poison said...

So you really read this book while having a pedicure?

Ms. Ed. said...

Love this review you've given us, Marty! Thanks!

An addendum to #10: If you must use an exclamation point, never use more than one.

And, if I may, another misused punctuation mark is the apostrophe. A quick tip: never use an apostrophe to communicate a plural, it is only used to show possession.

care020 said...

Thanks for the reminders! I, like Joan Didion and Will Smith, firmly believe that the answer to any question begins in a book. Back in February, I was feeling deficient in my writing abilities (Did I mention I was at a writing conference when this happened?) and made a run to Borders to find a book to remedy the problem. Variety was lacking in my writing style, so The Art of Styling Sentences seemed an appropriate choice to address my predicament. Just owning the book has made me feel better! I’m sure that its content will be even more beneficial if I ever go through it from cover to cover.

MasterSparky said...

'Reading' happens to be the #1 most popular hobby. There's no rule on what to read though ;) I guess as long as you eventually read something other than punctuation books you'll be okay ;)

Anonymous said...

I have a question about point #10: How is an explanation point different from an exclamation point? Is this an illustration of point #4?