About a year ago I had to edit some copy a colleague had written for the catalog. It was a thoughtful, well-written piece, and it also happened to run over five hundred words, which was about two and a half times the number of words that would fit into the space we had on the page. The first paragraph itself was a single sentence of roughly a hundred words, enlivened with commas and em-dashes — and none of the punctuation was ill-placed or abused. Nonetheless, the piece had to be edited. For every five words she had written, I could keep maybe two.
We discussed the piece and worked through the edit together. Ultimately, we couldn’t come to an agreement on how to edit the piece; there was simply too much material that had to be discarded. Not just fat, but muscle, ligaments, blood, and even bone. There were ways of getting the piece under 180 words, but it was always at the cost of losing something vital, maybe an important fact, maybe some emotion or depth. We found another place to run a more lightly edited piece.
What I remember most about this experience is not the editing itself but instead the discussion my colleague and I had about punctuation.
Punctuation is part of the rhythm of writing. It shows the reader how the writer’s mind works and how thoughts developed. An ellipsis shows a thought that trails off. A comma is a pause. A semi-colon may be a longer pause, or it may be an indicator of a tangentially related thought. A parenthetical indicates something the reader should know, but it’s something that doesn’t neatly fit into the central flow of the thought.
I have punctuative quirks —
· I’ve never seen a comma I didn’t like.
· F. Scott Fitzgerald taught me everything I need to know about the use — and abuse — of the em-dash.
· The semi-colon is never not stylish.
My work — writting catalog copy — has had an effect on the way I write. I went through a period where everything received an exclamation point because that was the house style. I thought my abuse of the em-dash was Fitzgeraldian, but I was restrained in my em-dash usage compared to the house style. (Over the last few years, I’ve started to pull back from the em-dash edge; in most cases, the em-dash was used where a comma more properly should go.) Where I thought a semi-colon or an ellipsis should go, the house style was to use the em-dash, even though the em-dash isn’t any sort of replacement for either. I found that the house style infested my personal writing, and it is a struggle sometimes to wrest back my control.
(There’s another way the house style has infested my personal writing. I use lots of transition words now. When I write a sentence, I often feel that I need to start the next sentence with a “So” or “Because” or “Then” or “Suddenly.” It’s something I have to watch for, especially in the drafting stage, because transitional words are so difficult to root out once they’re on the page because years of catalog copy that uses them has made me blind to them.)
My fondness for the semi-colon stems from two things — college and computer code.
In college, I took some history courses from Dr. John Rilling at the University of Richmond, and his style was to lecture for an hour, non-step. There was no textbook, just a list of topics he has a classmate write on the chalkboard at the start of class. The only way to keep up was to take notes from beginning to end of the class, and the system I developed was to start writing at the start of class, scribble each thought as it happened, drop a semi-colon, and keep going across the line with the next thought. I would leave class each day with two pages, front and back, of notes from the class which I would then transcribe in my dorm room into something that made sense, that wasn’t as written through with semi-colons. Come exam time, I had essentially written my own textbook for the class based on Dr. Rilling’ lectures.
Computer code, particularly CSS and PHP, uses semi-colons to denote an instructional end-of-line, probably because people don’t ordinarily use the semi-colon. With the work I’ve done in WordPress over the years, it’s no wonder the semi-colon instills me with no terror whatsoever.
I like using strange punctuation, too, like the interrobang, the bastard child of the question mark and the exclamation point. I would use it at work, but our systems are incapable of recongizing it. (Yet, our database interface is perfectly fine with unprintable characters that turn text invisible and inaccessible in our system. I have not figured this one out.) Yet, I dream of the day when I can express myself with interrobangs. Don’t we all‽
I also enjoy parenthetical asides, as you may have noticed by now.
If writing is a roadtrip, words are the destinations of writing and punctuation is the roads and the scenery, the thing that gives the trip its character. Punctuation is the scenic overlook or the rustic gas station with a battered Tab sign from the 1970s hanging from a old pole by the roadside.
Punctuation will take you places. Treat it well, and punctuation will make the journey exciting. Study the writers you love and see how they punctuate their work. Think about how their punctuation makes their words flow. Try adding a comma or linking two sentences with a semi-colon. See how different punctuation can make your prose feel. Find the punctuation that feels right for you.
Remember, the semi-colon is never not stylish.
On a coincidental note, WIRED posted an article today on obscure punctuation and its origins. If you wonder where the hashtag (or, as I prefer to think of it, the pound sign), slash, interrobang, or paragraph mark came from, check out their article.