At some point in my third-grade year, I realized that I loved punctuation — it helped me make clear the meaning of whatever I was writing. All those little marks (!, ?, -, —, and ,) were like codes that others could read. And only those who understood the code could understand the sentence! I was very into mysteries and secret codes, so punctuation marks fit right into my way of thinking.
Which, for a seven-year-old, wasn’t far off the mark: punctuation marks exist not to trip up the writer (who must choose to place or not place these squiggles), but to aid the reader in understanding the “secret” meaning of the sentence. With punctuation marks, the meaning is revealed. Without punctuation marks, the meaning can be ambiguous or simply unclear.
The first punctuation marks children are introduced to are the period, the question mark, and the exclamation point. These are all end punctuation marks and thus easy for children (and adults) to understand. The period marks the end of a declarative or an imperative sentence.
In times past the period could also come after a single word. Love. Hunger. Catastrophe. The same is true today, especially in informal writing such as on Facebook and blogs, where the use of the period to emphasis each individual word of a short thought is prevalent. This. Is. The. End.
As the example above shows, punctuation marks can help convey a writer’s tone, inflection, attitude, and meaning.
The real question about the question mark is, when does it go inside quotation marks, and when does it go outside quotation marks? It goes inside the quotation marks when it is/was the punctuation for what is being quoted. “Who has seen the wind?” asked Christina Rossetti in her famous poem.
At all other times, the question mark goes outside the quotation marks. Aren’t you tired of the ad, “Things Go Better With Coke”?
Exclamation marks are used to show surprise, downright astonishment, or just great excitement. In writing for publication, the exclamation mark should be used sparingly. In informal writing, such as that in personal letters, on Twitter, Facebook, or other social media, the exclamation mark can be used (and is used) more often. Feel free to use it! Often!! As often as you like!!! A zillion times, if you want!!!!!!!!!
And speaking of quotation marks, as I was two paragraphs ago, I remember the first time I encountered French quotation marks. >>Well, knock me over with a feather!<< I exclaimed. >> What are these weird-looking marks?<< They were so different from anything I had ever seen that I wondered if maybe they were typos. Later I encountered the same type of quotation marks in Russian.
I must say, these are very assertive quotation marks, unlikely to get lost to a reader who is merely glancing at text. On the other hand, because they’re not very subtle, I wonder if they’re too intrusive for somebody reading fiction: they seem to call attention to themselves and thus take the reader out of the novel for a moment or two.
If you read a lot of British novels, you must have noticed that the system in the UK is opposite that in the US. Where we start off with double quotes, and then switch to single quotation marks for a quote within a quote, the British start off with a single quotation marks and then, if there’s a quote within a quote, they switch to double quotation marks.
Most people exhibit no fear of periods, question marks, or exclamation points. And maybe not even of quotation marks. But when it comes to commas, some people start to tremble.
While a period indicates a full stop (meaning that one thought or piece of information has been completed), the comma represents not a full stop, but an ever-so-slight pause. In spoken language this pause conveys meaning: pieces of information are being slightly separated. In writing, the comma conveys the same meaning: pieces of information are being slightly separated, to help the reader better understand what is being said.
When she wrote fiction she avoided commas, which she felt slowed down sentences, but when she wrote nonfiction she tossed in hundreds of the little squiggles.
In the example, the clause that is slightly separated conveys additional information. That this information is additional is conveyed by the two commas. Without the additional information, the sentence would read: When she wrote fiction she avoided commas, but when she wrote nonfiction she tossed in hundreds of the little squiggles. Commas are like friendly orange traffic cones: they make clear the path the reader is to follow.
Over the centuries, English and American writers have used the comma less and less. Twentieth-century writers used far fewer commas than did nineteenth-century writers. Presumably twenty-first century-writers will use fewer commas than did twentieth-century writers. I actually experienced this first-hand with one of my own works. When I wrote She’s on First, back in the late 1970s, I used what I thought was the minimal number of commas. That is, I wanted to make meaning clear, but I didn’t want to over-qualify things with commas. In 2010 I decided to bring She’s on First back into print. As part of that process I re-read the manuscript, page by page. To my chagrin, I was very surprised by all the commas I had used . . . twenty-five years earlier. I ended up taking many of them out, mostly those that came after introductory phrases at the beginning of sentences.
Punctuation marks are guides, and people living in different time periods may need more guides, or fewer guides.
Think of the time you’ll save reading the fewer-commas version of She’s on First.