Here’s a book about cringing at misplaced apostrophes and commas, about being sticklers, about Aldus Manutius the Elder (1449-1515) and his innovative printing standards, about raw potential energies of semicolons and colons, about the high duty of a writer to her audience, about itches and sensibilities — in short, a book about punctuation.
I bet, if physically able, you have a suspended eyebrow. Yes, you’ve read that correctly: a book about punctuation. What’s more, it’s an entertaining book about punctuation. Please, try to suppress your laughter of disbelief. This is serious business; this is the craft and art of writing.
Punctuation is a craft because “there are simple rights and wrongs,” but it’s also an art because “one must apply a good ear to good sense” (27). At minimum, the writer must be clear and lucid; at best, the writer is engaging, engrossing, and riveting. Often, however, the writer’s art stretches, bends, and pushes against the simple rights and wrongs of punctuation. But from this, the smelting pot of craft and art, her unique prose rises.
Proper punctuation is “both the sign and the cause of clear thinking” (202). Clear thinking here is twofold: clear to the writer and clear to the reader. The writer must know what she is writing — at minimum, it has to make sense to her. She must, in other words, be clear. Clear writing generates clear readership — at minimum, it has to make sense to readers. And the honey between is proper punctuation. It is “a courtesy designed to help readers to understand a story without stumbling” (7). Thomas McCormack puts it altogether so well:
Punctuation to the writer is like anatomy to the artist: He learns the rules so he can knowledgeably and controlledly [sic] depart from the as art requires. Punctuation is a means, and its end is: helping the reader to hear, to follow. (Thomas McCormack, The Fiction Editor, the Novel, and the Novelist, 1989, referenced in 202)
In other words, the rules — the rights and wrongs — are learned to be bested in all the more wonderful ways “as art requires.” Punctuation is its own beauty along with the beauty of her function — of making sense to readers.
Two chapters I most enjoyed — “That’ll Do, Comma” and “Airs and Grace” — correspond to my two favorite punctuation marks: comma and semicolon (and colon). Oh, the comma, what elusive yet pervasive role you play. You are the jack-of-all-trade, or you’ve at least mastered multi-tasking. You sneak up, sometimes uninvited, and play around with word-order, cadence, and clauses. People argue about you a lot: one side says the more the merrier, the other the less the fairer. To be honest, I don’t know where I’m at all the time. But I do know this: you shine in the most unobtrusive and inconspicuous way, just like in this story:
Thurber was once asked by a correspondent: “Why did you have a comma in the sentence, ‘After dinner, the men went into the living-room’?” And his answer was probably one of the loveliest things ever said about punctuation. “This particular comma,” Thurber explained, “was Ross’s way of giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up.” (70)
How lovely is that? Albeit, I didn’t notice you at first, but once I did, I cannot unsee it, and smile (wow — four commas in the previous sentence).
The semicolon and colon, such raw potential for energetic prose. You two are almost always preferences. Your grammatical functions can be fulfilled by the period (or what the Brits call full-stop) or comma + conjunction, except the colon’s unique role of introducing at list. But don’t fret! You two are the hidden gems of punctuation’s gala: once people realize who you are and what you can do, they would want to dance the night away with you. But because you two live in the limbo of artistic preference, it’s hard to clearly define you. But this helps:
Expectation is what these stops are about; expectation and elastic energy…. while the semicolon lightly propels you in any direction related to the foregoing (“Whee! Surprise me!”), the colon nudges you along lines already subtly laid down. (114)
You are the body language of writing. When you’re active, people should take notice of you, and be excited.
I think nearly all native English speakers assume one does not need to read any book on punctuation. But just review one’s text messages or emails and reconsider. Or scan ten advertisements or billboards and ask: “Should there be a comma somewhere?” or “is that a misplaced apostrophe?” If one has no response, then one either has perfect English (whatever that means), or one is in need of something like Eats, Shoots and Leaves.
I do have, however, some differences with Lynne Truss, but they mostly fall in the American-English vs. British-English field. For one, I will die on the Oxford-Comma hill.
Linguistically, I’m a bit of a mess. Korean is (technically) my native language, but I am not at all fluent — barely conversational, actually. I’m not a native English speaker either, but I’m goddamn proud of how far my English has come. I remember friends — if I should still classify them as such — ruthlessly dismantling my sentence structures and pronunciation. A good portion of them are American-born Koreans. They probably loathed the fact that someone who looks like them sounds that foreign, an embarrassment to them all. I was 12 years old. I thought then and still struggle here and there now with insecurities about English, more specifically writing. Nevertheless, I write; I write despite and in spite of those nay-sayers; I write because I can only get better; and I write because I love English. Suck it… just kidding.