January 5, 2013

A non-boring guide to punctuation

I already see your eyes glazing over. But hang on. I promise not to bore. Here's the thing: punctuation is about timing. (See? It's easy.) Forget the boring rules (for now) and start to see punctuation as a tool writers use to pace the reader's experience. It's pretty cool. Here's how it works.

A period is a full stop. "The gull took your sandwich." Big pause (and probably a shriek on the other end). A comma is half as long a stop. "I love you as a person, not because you're wealthy and famous." You're helping your reader to understand your sentence by guiding her through the dance: stop here, pause there.

A semi-colon (;) provides a longer stop than a comma, but not a full stop like a period. "He's a fool; nothing has changed." It ain't quite a period, but almost. (I'm totally ignoring the rules here; there are additional reasons for punctuation, other than timing. But let's just look at it this way for a moment. I think it's helpful.)

A colon (:) guides the reader through a greased sluice, easily and quickly, into another phrase. "This is what you need: a broom that can fly!" Yes, there's a pause but less than if there was a semi-colon. (These days, you'll use an em-dash more often than a colon. I'd show you one but they don't appear consistently on the internet. It might look wrong.)

And yes, I've ignored all the sensible reasons to use punctuation. I just wanted to point out that timing is a big part of the story. This is important to remember if you're a writer. Use punctuation to guide the reader through your prose. And through the use of pacing alone, make your words more understandable.


Artichoke Annie said...

"Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college." ~ Kurt Vonnegu

Hmm, I'm confused.

More on the subject:


writenow said...

A well-used semicolon is downright sexy. And nothing else provides that exact pause. I stand my ground.