Monday, May 14, 2012

Week 20 - Punctuation

13 May - 19 May: Punctuation Saves Lives!
(A bit behind this week - oops.)

Yes, we all know the moral behind: Let's Eat, Grandma, vs Let's Eat Grandma, right? (Right?)  It's an oldie, but it's such an effective example of the power of punctuation.

In 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer, Roy Peter Clark states simply that punctuation "divides words, phrases and ideas into convenient groupings."

In You Can Write, Eamon Murphy explores in greater depth the basic structure of a sentence, and how punctuation should separate key words and supporting words, but should never be inserted inside a group of key words.  Key words must remain as a unit.

Roy Peter Clark's simple analogy between punctuation and road signals is a good one, I think:
  •  A full-stop or period (depending on which continent you're on), is a stop sign.  The more stop signs, the slower the pace.  This may help with suspense and clarity (in writing, that is, not driving).
  • comma is a speed bump where one needs to slow down, but not stop.
  • semi-colon is a rolling stop where the driver stops and starts up again on the same journey.
  • Parentheses signify a detour; something to be underemphasized.  Clark advises that they are best applied to short, witty phrases within the story.
  • Brackets, on the other hand, i.e. [ ] are used to clarify something by including detail that would otherwise be left out, e.g., 'He [Smith] was found guilty.'
  • colon is a flashing yellow light that alerts of something to come.
  • dash is a tree branch on the road, that is, something that demands attention.  Dashes are usually paired and used for special affect, or used singularly for emphasis at the end of a sentence.
Clark adds that ellipses (...), brackets, exclamation points, and capital letters lend voice, tone, and pitch to the piece.  A writer, afterall, cannot rely on vocal intonation and body language to get a message across.

That pretty much sums up Punctuation 101 in my simple mind, and I feel fairly confident that my understanding of basic punctuation is fair. 

Being far from perfect, however, I still find myself stopping and wondering about the best option, so here are a few random notes and reminders, mainly taken from the Elements of Style by Strunk and White, and You Can Write by Murphy:
  • Ellipses use three dots, or four when it includes a period.
  • Enclose independant supporting expressions, including names, inside two commas, e.g., Well, Tom, it is your responsibility.
  • Be careful when 'who' is used, as this may begin a dependant expression that needs to be grouped with the main subject e.g., The men and women who served in the war, were honoured in the ceremony.
  • The serial comma is that one placed before the joining word [conjunction] in a series, e.g., red, white, and blue.  It is not always used, and is generally dropped in business names. 
  • A run-on sentence is the name given when two independant clauses have no separating punctuation., e.g., She went to the shop her husband stayed home.
  • A comma splice is the name given when two independant clauses are separated with a comma only, e.g., She went to the shop, her husband stayed home.  It is incorrect and a conjunction, or stronger punctuation, such as a semi-colon or period, is needed.
  • Fanboys is a handy acronym for the joining words: for and nor but or yet so. (Ray Bailey, Survival Kit for Writing English, in Eamon Murphy, You Can Write.)
  • Punctuation falls outside parentheses when the expression is within a sentence.  If a parenthetic expression is a sentence by itself, the punctuation falls within the parentheses, e.g., He was fast, (but not fast enough). (He was fast, but not fast enough.)
  • Use a colon in three instances: when something is announced by a complete sentence, e.g., You will need the following: (rather than, You will need:); when the second statement interprets the first, e.g., It was a long process: he picked the fruit, washed it, graded it, boxed it, and labelled it; or when introducing a quotation; e.g., He smiled at the bastard as Oscar Wilde's words came to him: "Always forgive your enemies - nothing annoys them so much." 
  • A comma can be used when quotations are more relaxed, such as, My mother said, "Don't talk to strangers."  No quotation marks are needed when 'that' is used, such as, My mother told me that talking to strangers could lead to dangers.
  • "Use a dash only when a more common mark of punctuation seems inadequate." (Strunk and White, The Elements of Style.)
  • Enclose commas and periods inside quotation marks, e.g., I read "The Pearl," "Of Mice and Men," and "Grapes of Wrath" when I was in hospital
  • "Question marks and exclamation marks are placed inside or outside quoted material depending on whether they apply to the whole sentence or just the quoted portion, but colons and semicolons are always placed outside." (Wikipedia.)
  • Where quotation marks or inverted commas are used for words-as-words, irony, or an implied different meaning, the comma or period falls outside the quotation marks, e.g., She was really 'nice'.

And the list goes on.  While I'm still learning about the quirks of punctuation, if nothing else, I'll try to be consistent, if not totally conventional.

Phew.  I'm not going to do punctuation exercises because they are in every piece of writing I do.  So, here are some fun exercises to lighten things up.

Exercise 39Explain the totally fictional origins of a famous (or not so famous) man-made landmark (e.g., The Great Wall of China was built to ‘keep out rabbits’).

Exercise 40.  Write an account of a point played between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova from the perspective of the tennis ball being played, or, write an account of the moonwalk as first performed by Michael Jackson from the perspective of one of his shoes.


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