Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Punctuation Proclivity

Editing is a necessary evil.  And nothing is more evil than punctuation.  Not that I hate all punctuation, mind you–just punctuation that doesn’t feel natural.

For instance, I used to love commas and always felt that commas should be used any place in the sentence I wanted the reader to pause. Apparently, the rules of punctuation disagree with my inclination to always pause and reflect in the middle of a compound sentence, depending on the type of clause and the order of the clause and other specifics I can’t wrap my head around right now.  I’m not big on rules to begin with, so I now regard commas with some amount of suspicion.

My youngest, aka the little one
I first began deeply contemplating punctuation two years ago, when my youngest, then in sixth grade, came home from school and asked, “Do you know what I love?” I was expecting the answer to be pie, or chocolate ice cream, praying for any answer other than boys.  “The Oxford comma,” she replied with a sigh.  “The song by Vampire Weekend?” I had asked, assuming I was right. She had given me a Look and an eye-roll before answering. “The punctuation.”

Taken aback, mainly because I had forgotten exactly which comma she was referring to, as well as the fact that commas actually had names, I said, “That’s so sweet,” and hurriedly ran to my laptop to Google the comma called Oxford.  (In my defense, I’m on the wrong side of 40 and often forget the names of my own kids, but I digress.)

As soon as I realized what an Oxford comma was, I realized I was not as big a fan of it as my daughter was. (While I understand its importance for clarity in some sentences, the second comma seems extraneous to me in some cases.)

My oldest, aka the big one
I then decided to dissect my own punctuation predilections and discovered that I have made a habit of rewriting sentences to avoid the entire issue of comma placement as much as possible. I’ll rewrite a compound sentence into two short sentences, often making for terseness I hadn’t anticipated. I’ll take out a clause or a word, or add a word, or switch my subject and my predicate around until that comma no longer has a home in the sentence.

During the process, I have discovered that one of my substitutions for commas, the em dash, is actually one of my favorites of all punctuation. It’s whimsical, a sort of pithy aside that creates a feeling or mood you just don’t get with a comma. (Some may wish to set out an argument for the parenthesis as well, but the parenthesis–which I only use to set off unimportant sentences that could be ignored–has NOTHING on the em dash.)

Perhaps the only punctuation I admire more than the em dash is the ellipsis–without a doubt, the sexiest of all the punctuation. The ellipsis signifies that there’s more to come, the unknown or uncertain. Perhaps even something mysterious and life-altering waits around the bend, at a time and place where that ellipsis comes to fruition...

Ellipsis. Gotta love them.

Next week.  The big no-no. Fragments. Another way to avoid punctuation. And make a statement.

Further evidence that just because I know the rules doesn’t mean I have to follow them.

Holli Castillo
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Nancy LiPetri said...

Too true...(means I'm thinking or second guessing myself or want to hold you in suspense) punctuation can add so much drama, beyond clarifying the writer's intentions; I love it. And I crack myself up ;) Fun post, Holli! (There's that over-used exclamation, but then, social media communication is not the same as that in a novel.)

Doug Seaver said...

Wonderful post. When is a question not a question and hence shouldn't end with a ? is one of my frequent arguments with copy editors.

Amy Bennett said...

Now you've done it.... You know, Billie was going to insist I enroll in a 12-step program to get my ellipses addiction under control... I told her I could quit any time I wanted to... she finally had to threaten to raise my books' cover price in order to pay for the extra pages... and I was doing so well....

Holli Castillo said...

For full disclosure, I couldn't find the proper em dash on Blogger, so my em dashes are not actually true em dashes in the post.

Thanks for commenting, Nancy, Doug, and Amy. I don't think non-writers contemplate punctuation the way we do.

Lorna Collins - Author said...

Sorry, I'm an editor and obsessed with punctuation. Like your daughter, I LOVE the Oxford comma.

John M. Wills said...

I love the ellipsis, too. Beautiful children!


Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

I'm do what my editor tells me most of the time. However, I too loved ellipsis but used far too many and now don't hardly ever use any. Your daughter is beautiful, by the way--and I know the other is too because I see them on Facebook from time to time.

Billie Johnson said...

What a fun post, Holli! Thanks for giving us the punctuation rundown!

Eileen Obser said...

I love the ellipsis . . . and the comma, but I also love the em dash -- I use them all in my writing, my editing and my teaching. Thanks for a great post, Holli.

Nancy Jacoby said...

I am an editor as well and love (love!) the Oxford comma. Tell your daughter that loving this comma is a fine choice. The Oxford comma will never let her down. :) I tend to use ellipses only in dialogue and even then only sparingly. If I overuse anything, it's em dashes. They are so handy, so elegant.

This is a great post, Holli. Thanks for contributing to the blog!

Holli Castillo said...

I"m noticing a trend with the em dash--probably because we speak in em dashes all day long. Most people don't speak in properly punctuated sentences, so it feels familiar and natural in our writing. To me, it often reads less choppy.

As much as I love ellipsis, I also use them sparingly. That idea of something to come or something to be continued is too delicious and tantalizing to throw around with abandon. I feel if I use them too much, I lose some of the mystery.