Punctuation Marks – 3

The first thing that impressed me about the Harry Potter novels was the story; the second thing that impressed me was J.K. Rowling’s use of semicolons. I was happy to see her punctuate closely related independent clauses with a semicolon. 

And I have found, when reading some mystery fiction, more semicolons than one would normally encounter in a novel. The first question I ask myself is: Was the author an attorney? Quite often the answer is Yes. Perhaps the legal mind is attracted to the fine distinctions made by semicolons. 

Moby_Dick_final_chaseThe semicolon has four major uses, as follows:

1  To link two closely related independent clauses

    Jason sailed the Argos; Ahab sailed the Pequod.

2  To link clauses connected by conjunctions such as however, as a result

    Ahab was consumed with the idea of vengeance against Moby Dick; as a result, he smuggled five Parsee harpooners aboard the Pequod.

3  To separate items in a list, when items within each part of the list contain commas.

    The author kept her manuscript in three forms: as an electronic file, which she stored on her computer or, sometimes, on two different computers; as a paper file, which she kept in her locked file cabinet; and as a digital file, which she kept on her flash drive, which was with her at all times, even when she slept.

4  To link lengthy clauses that also contain commas, so as to distinguish between clauses.

   The gardener turned the soil over twice a year, using a spade, a pitchfork, a hoe, and, finally, a rake; but she planted seeds only once, after the first turning-over.   

Just as the semicolon seems a bit formal, so, too, do parentheses. As Karen Elizabeth Gordon explains in The New Well-Tempered Sentence, parentheses are meant to include additional information within a sentence — not the main information, but additional info. “They make for a softer interruption than the abrupt snapping or daring that dashes do. . . .” she explains. (Note the abruptness of that dash two sentences ago? Note the softness of this additional information?)

Punctuation-MarksGordon’s book (one of my favorite of all grammar books) is full of examples of parentheses usage. As you can see in the previous sentence, I have placed additional information within parentheses. Wisecracks, asides, insults (!), and even punctuation marks that reveal a writer’s attitude (Attitude with a capital A?) are usually placed within parentheses. 

Brackets are called square brackets in some English-speaking countries, but in the US they’re simply called brackets. I learned about brackets in high school, probably when I was learning how to write a research paper, and I can recall using them in college papers, too. But then I began writing adult fiction and nonfiction and children’s fiction and nonfiction and also children’s activity books and filmstrips and such — and brackets disappeared from my writing.

RN3Only to resurface again in 2010 when I wrote Research Notes for Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball, Volume 1. Ditto for Volume 2, which was published in 2013, and ditto for Volume 3, published in 2015.

The reason that brackets resurfaced in my writing is that one of their main uses is to enclose material added by someone other than the original author. In Research Notes I quoted a lot of original material (mainly newspaper articles from 1875-1923), and in many cases I needed to add explanatory material or indicate that something was incorrectly spelled.

In the first example below, I add the information that the Hartford referred to is in Michigan. In the second example I add a sic to indicate that the incorrectly-spelled word preceding the sic was there in the original newspaper text.

“Manager Olson has arranged for a game with Hartford [Michigan] for Friday afternoon, May 11, at the Hartford ball grounds.”

“The season has been a disasterous [sic] one to many carnivals and circuses, and with no encouraging outlook for the present season, the wise and conservative showmen will probably be in winter quarters not later than the early part of October.”

In an earlier blog I wrote that I think the apostrophe will disappear from American English sooner or later, because people simply do not understand its use to show possession. Another punctuation mark in grave danger of disappearance — it has practically vanished — is the hyphen. I often find myself confused by a billboard or ad slogan that, after three or four readings I finally figure out. Had words been properly hyphenated, I would have understood instantly. For example:

a third best vacation

a third-best vacation

The first two or three times I read the top line (which is how it appeared on a billboard), I thought somebody had taken three best vacations. Frankly, I didn’t see how that was possible. The vacations could have been good, better, best, but all three of them could not have been best. Finally I figured out that the writer meant to sneer at a particular vacation, calling it third-best. When the hyphen is missing, it takes a couple of readings to figure out exactly what is meant. (See my poem blog on the hyphen, Goodbye Hyphen, Hello Confusion.)

Importance-Hyphen1

Here’s another example of  how a missing hyphen — which is meant to join words that need to be understood as belonging together — can cause a reader to stumble.

Twice now I’ve seen the cover of a book that is titled:

BLUE EYED STRANGER

So each time I’ve seen this, I’ve read it as a blue stranger who happens to be “eyed,” and that strikes me as hilarious. The ridiculousness of the situation makes me realize that the cover designer means this to be a

BLUE-EYED STRANGER

Upon looking this book up online, I see that text descriptions (i.e., not the cover, but words) call it Blue-Eyed Stranger. So apparently it’s just the cover that is wrong. Either that, or the write-ups about the book have corrected the poor punctuation because they just couldn’t stand it! 

Which is why I do not carry a pen with me.

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Barbara Gregorich loved using both the colon and a comma in one of her book titles — Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.

Punctuation Marks: 1

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.

punctuation-marks--magnetic-display-accents

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.

KindleCover-SOFOver 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.

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Think of the time you’ll save reading the fewer-commas version of She’s on First.

Goodbye Hyphen, Hello Confusion

I love punctuation marks. Not just the inventiveness behind them (squiggles, slants, dashes, dots), but the way they work. Punctuation marks help the reader know what the writer of a sentence is trying to say.

So I’m very sad to see the fading-away of the hyphen as a mark that helps the reader understand the writer’s intent. Ad writers are particularly guilty of ignoring this punctuation mark: perhaps they think the hyphen is too tiny to convey anything of importance. They are oh so wrong.

One day several years ago I was hit by two unrelated ads (the “sex party” was in a newsletter, the “never” was on a shopping bag) which I read the wrong way.

fd562f24db534173974835132c9f8e1c-jpg
     The Tie That Binds

     The hyphen once connected
     what hadn’t yet coalesced,

     protected words from prematurely
     bumping or stubbornly jumping back

     to apartness. Base ball bounced
     into base-ball before it reached home;

     to day grooved into to-day before becoming
     current. But few seek connections these days,

     except for the kind that rack up
     unearned favors or lead to higher-

     paying jobs — not the kind that help patch
     cracks in thinking. Sex party for twenty

     three year olds. She holds you
     in her arms and you feel never

     before love. Tidal waves
     of separation

     drown ember glows
     of punctuation.

____________________

This poem appears in Barbara Gregorich’s Crossing the Skyway: Poems.