Peccadilloes of Prose Punctuation

Posted: January 11, 2007 in Grammar, Writing

A writer friend of mine pointed me to a blog post linking to another blog post praising the serial comma. The comments threads on both posts are relatively brief, but I’m struck that none of the commenters really get to what seems to me the underlying wisdom behind focusing one’s attention on the peccadilloes of prose punctuation. Perhaps it will be helpful to digress into a short grammar lesson first (that ought to scare away the readers).

In Standard American English (SAE) — as distinguished from Standard British or Australian English — many areas of grammar are fixed by rules, and just as many areas have great flexibility and even disagreement as to proper form. There is little or no flexibility, for instance, in how to use quotes in SAE, although bloggers, writers, and copy editors get it wrong all the time. (Incidentally, British rules differ, so you can’t use a Harry Potter novel as a model.) To wit, the period and comma always go inside the quote, the colon and semicolon always go outside, and the question mark and exclamation point go either inside or outside depending on whether they are part of the quote. It doesn’t matter whether the rule is sensible or logical; it’s simply a convention borne out of printing practice in the Revolutionary Era that has hardened into a rule.

However, use of the serial comma isn’t bound by a rule, despite what anyone’s eighth grade grammar teacher may have insisted. (Why is it that the nuns are always the least flexible on this?) Rather, it’s a recommendation or preference. Wikipedia has a good discussion of the pros and cons of the serial comma, complete with numerous supporting examples and the recommendations or style guides of various authoritative entities, none of which I’ll reproduce or argue here. Just for the record, though, I prefer to use the serial comma, but I recognize it’s only a preference. Consistency is more important to me than which direction one goes, and if one’s writing lacks clarity with or without the serial comma, that’s incumbent on the writer to fix.

And that’s the whole point: it’s worthwhile to recognize the difference between rules, preferences, and frankly, broken rules and arbitrary or inconsistent preferences. In common speech, no one cares all that much; in formal speech, it matters quite a bit; and in writing, it’s crucial. With all the writing being committed to print or blogs, it is a service to one’s readers to insist upon slavishly correct grammar. While some value may be sought in poetic license, where a bit of language abuse or a broken rule can achieve a calculated effect, there is no value in sloppy writing followed by the rationalization that readers don’t care or should know what is meant anyway. Personally, I find such thinking rather patronizing, as I do care and don’t want to mine for meaning in sloppy prose. Let’s take an example from some short fiction I found on the web — an award winner at that.

First Place Winner: Warning: University Education May Cause Premature Graying — Recent Study Finds by Heather Tucker

At Christmas Charlie came home from university a vegetarian. Being a mother, I took it personally. He reassured me, “Strictly ethical reasons, Mom, nothing to do with your cooking.” I wasn’t convinced. On more than one occasion I had been accused of criminal assault on a rump roast. Now, looking at the condition of the Christmas turkey, I knew he was right. Ultimately this creature had not been treated well; it was missing a head, one wing and was indeed, dead.

This first thing I noticed was the double punctuated title, which really ought to use a comma rather than a double dash. Further, the author punctuated capriciously after the introductory phrases “At Christmas,” “Being a mother,” “On more than one occasion,” “Now,” and “Ultimately.” Although it’s a preference, not a rule (this particular structure has relaxed and changed over time), I would use commas in all instances, not for the second and fourth only. Next, the first sentence is awkward in the usage “came home … a vegetarian.” As a reader, it gave me pause, which good writing really shouldn’t unless attempting to communicate a complicated idea. I would also quibble over the use of the semicolon after “treated well”; a colon would function better. The real insult is the nonsensical punctuation and broken structure in the series “missing a head, one wing and was indeed, dead.” This is what award-winning prose authors get away with?

Part of the problem is that anyone with a word processor, printer, and/or Internet connection may fancy themselves a skilled writer. It was different with the typewriter. The new medium opens the floodgates to seemingly easy revision, which typewriters tend to foreclose (unless one wants to retype full pages and chapters at a time). The same has become true of publishing, or more properly, self-publishing. Whether in traditional print form or on a weblog, the bar to publication is now considerably lower than it used to be. So the necessities of truly learning the craft of writing, of respecting one’s potential audience, and of having something to say (as opposed to merely wanting to say something) are eroded. But writing well is still a skill worth developing, and one of the preliminary steps is getting one’s ducks in a row with respect to punctuation, grammar, and usage.

  1. grasshopper says:

    Great post, Brutus. When I read your opinions, I always wonder, what if everyone thought like you? It would be great.
    One point you made about writing that makes a reader pause calls to mind a similar case for forcing the reader to pay extra attention. A break in the flow may help convey a complicated idea, as you say, but to my mind it is necessary and natural when revealing an emotional breaking point. A slightly unusual word order, a lapse in syntax, or a particular rhythm reminiscent of breathlessness or its opposite, stunned silence, can suggest a world of beauty and loss, love and pain, hope and ultimate resignation, but only if the reader recognizes that the divergence is deliberate. A truncated expression or an occasion for poetic license can not effect a reader who finds similar usage flung heedlessly and frequently for no real purpose.

  2. grasshopper says:

    Sorry, I meant “affect”. My face is red.

  3. Brutus says:

    If everyone thought like me? That would be a recipe for disaster.

  4. Good post (naturally, since you referred and linked to my post!). I cannot disagree. It is a matter of style, really, and not grammar. But one should apply the “rules” with consistency, elan, and good sense. Agree?

  5. Brutus says:

    Pawlie says:

    But one should apply the “rules” with consistency, elan, and good sense. Agree?

    Sure, I agree. But that’s a difficult standard to agree upon.

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