The Messages You Send With Your Punctuation

At Kill Zone Blog: Dot…Dot…Dash. The Messages You Send With Your Punctuation

Great topic! Very inviting! And oh, look, the post starts this way:

“If you write properly, you shouldn’t have to punctuate.” — Cormac McCarthy.

That’s really funny! I wonder if he really said that? Apparently he did: Here’s a post about writers who decline to use normal punctuation. Some are remarkably extreme about it. Take a look at the one who doesn’t signal at all when switching from character to character in dialogue. Wow. There’s a guy who doesn’t mind making his readers work hard.

Have any of you read McCarthy’s The Road? Let me see … Okay, here’s an illustrative selection:

They crossed the river by an old concrete bridge and a few miles on they came upon a roadside gas station. They stood in the road and studied it. I think we should check it out, the man said. Take a look. The weeds they forded fell to dust about them. They crossed the broken asphalt apron and found the tank for the pumps. The cap was gone and the man dropped to his elbows to smell the pipe but the odor of gas was only a rumor, faint and stale. He stood and looked over the building. The pumps standing with their hoses oddly still in place. The windows intact. The door to the service bay was open and he went in. A standing metal toolbox against one wall. He went through the drawers but there was nothing there that he could use. Good half-inch drive sockets. A ratchet. He stood looking around the garage. A metal barrel full of trash. He went into the office. Dust and ash everywhere. The boy stood in the door. A metal desk, a cash register. Some old automotive manuals, swollen and sodden. The linoleum was stained and curling from the leaking roof. He crossed to the desk and stood there. Then he picked up the phone and dialed the number of his father’s house in that long ago. The boy watched him. What are you doing? he said.

A quarter mile down the road he stopped and looked back. We’re not thinking, he said. We have to go back. He pushed the cart off the road and tilted it over where it could not be seen and they left their packs and went back to the station. In the service bay he dragged out the steel trash drum and tipped it over and pawed out all the quart plastic oil bottles. Then they sat in the floor decanting them of their dregs one by one, leaving the bottles to stand upside down draining into a pan until at the end they had almost a half quart of motor oil. He screwed down the plastic cap and wiped the bottle off with a rag and hefted it in his hand. Oil for their little slutlamp to light the long gray dusks, the long gray dawns. You can read me a story, the boy said. Cant you, Papa? Yes, he said. I can.

There you go! I don’t suggest most writers try that. I did read The Road all the way through, by the way. I even sort of liked it. It’s extremely dark, but redeemed by a moment of light right at the end. I started to type “a moment of hope,” but I’m not sure I’d go that far. Hope is rather a stretch. But light, yes. I feel compelled to add, one does get used to the lack of quotation marks. Even so, I can’t say I think experimenting with quirky punctuation is a good idea for most of us.

But back to the post! Let’s take a look:

Ah, the author of the post — PJ Parrish — also comments about The Road.

When I first started the book, the lack of punctuation annoyed me. It wasn’t that the narrative was unclear or that I was confused. It just felt pretentious, as if the author were saying he was above all things mundane. And if you believe his quote at the beginning of this post, you’d say he was just being a….well, you fill in the blank. … After a while, I didn’t care about the punctuation. The story sped along, the characters captured me by the throat and by the heart.

I agree, pretty much. I did find the story gripping and I read it fast. I’ll never re-read it, however.

Parrish goes on to discuss Faulkner and then contrasts McCarthy and Faulkner by looking — get this — JUST at the punctuation, with the words removed! Hah! That’s a really neat idea! I love it. Wow, there’s a tremendous difference.

So this post is really about punctuation as part of the author’s voice or style. Interesting! I don’t remember ever seeing a post on this topic before. Parrish says:

I think most of us, myself included, don’t think too much about the punctuation we use. We know the basics of periods, question marks and quotation marks. We get a little confused about commas, and when to use dashes or ellipses. And we have banished the poor semi-colon to the grammar dungeon. We put in the symbols quickly and race on, saving our tsuris for the big issues of plot, characterization and theme. But I’d like to suggest today that we give more thought to [punctuation marks].

I, of course, disagree with absolutely everything in that paragraph other than giving thought to punctuation. I don’t believe I get confused about commas very darn often. Commas are, of course, partly a matter of taste, and I know my tastes have changed over the past however many years and will no doubt change again, but I do know the rules and know what choices I’m making. I know the difference between dashes and ellipses — the difference isn’t even subtle … right? And I love semicolons; so much so that I make an effort to go through and remove about a third of the semicolons I put in to start with. There are still plenty left.

Anyway, a good discussion of punctuation ensues, with examples. I am persuaded by the main point, which is that punctuation is certainly an important element of style and voice; also that punctuation contributes in important ways to pacing, tone, and even genre.

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10 thoughts on “The Messages You Send With Your Punctuation”

  1. It’s kind of upsetting that we have all these great punctuation marks, and yet they’re so undervalued and unappreciated. Just use them appropriately, please! It’s really not that hard. On the other hand, some languages hardly have periods. Punctuation is a fantastic tool in anyone’s repertoire.

    I sometimes see commenters (not here, of course) write paragraphs with nary a capital or a period— not to mention the typos. You have to stare to figure out what starts where, or if that fragment belongs to the previous sentence or the following one.

  2. I agree that punctuation can make a huge difference in tone and style. I was trying to figure out what made a relationship in something I’m reading come off as so obviously heading downhill fast, and a lot of it seemed to be punctuation, the rhythm of the dialogue and narrative enforced by it.

  3. Obviously one can manage without it because people did for millennia. Evenwithoutthatmarkwedontusuallyconsideronebutthelackofwhichyouprobablynoticenow.

    But they’re useful.

  4. And yes, I saw what you were doing there! Got a good chuckle out of it. I’ll even throw in a couple of quotation marks around what I’m referring to in order to show my disdain for Mr. McCarthy’s approach…

    “Commas are, of course, partly a matter of taste, and I know my tastes have changed over the past however many years and will no doubt change again, but I do know the rules and know what choices I’m making. I know the difference between dashes and ellipses — the difference isn’t even subtle … right? And I love semicolons; so much so that I make an effort to go through and remove about a third of the semicolons I put in to start with.”

  5. What an interesting post! I read Blindness by Saramago, which doesn’t have much in the way of punctuation either, and I hated it, though that was not the only reason. The lack of punctuation does feel very pretentious, very much more than the slighted semicolon. In her post, PJ Parrish says the semicolon has no place in modern fiction! That’s an extreme view. Maybe in some genres of modern fiction, like urban fantasy or thrillers, but certainly not all. I don’t think I could write without the semicolon. Why this desire to reduce our tools? On the other hand, there’s the desire to add more, like the interrobang or the irony punctuation (which I don’t think has every really gotten off the ground) or the things we do on Twitter to express tone — I’m thinking the repurposed forward slash, for example: /sarcasm.

    Living in Thailand, the lack of spaces and punctuation helped defeat my attempts to learn the language. สวัสดี ฉันชื่อราฟาเอลา ฉันอาศัยอยู่ที่กรุงเทพ (According to Google translate that’s “Hi. My name is Rafaela. I live in Bangkok.”) It’s so pretty though. The marks on top are the vowels and everything else is consonants.

  6. Camille McAloney

    I love this post! It’s so fun to see how different people play with language. (And I learned a new word, “tsuris”!) I agree with you that the semicolon is alive and well–especially in scientific writing.

    The topic of punctuation in texting (which I initially thought this post might be about) is a whole other can of worms, with some pretty interesting generational differences.

  7. A thoroughly extreme view, R Morgan; and worse, she’s simply wrong. Even in hard-boiled detective fiction or whatever, there’s more than enough room for semicolons. I’m trying not to say, People who understand how to use semicolons always love them; statements such as “the semicolon has no place in modern fiction” strongly imply a failure to understand the proper use of semicolons. I’d be willing to start with that assertion in a debate, though maaaaaybe someone could persuade me that I’m being too harsh.

    And wow, yes, that Thai sentence looks lovely but unreadable.

  8. Even I have gotten pretty casual about punctuation in texts. Leaving off the period at the end actually seems okay to me. But to me the funniest thing about texts — funny strange, not funny ha ha — is how exclamation points are used to signal, oh, things like ordinary good humor and polite approval and other mild positive emotions. So peculiar. I use them that way too, but I wonder how this expansion of the role of the exclamation point happened.

  9. Semicolons are absolutely essential! (It’s possible I may over-use them, but I can’t imagine anyone getting annoyed at a semicolon; they’re so calm and matter-of-fact.)(I definitely over-use parentheses!)

    Because Internet, by Gretchen McCulloch, does a great job of explaining the evolution of language rules in modern communication mediums. Correct punctuation in texts is seen as passive-aggressive, apparently, so I’ve been trying to leave periods off when I text my children! (I have less trouble with exclamation marks—and apparently you can’t really over-use them, so it’s all fine!)

  10. “Absolutely essential!” does accurately reflect my feelings about semicolons. Also M-dashes. Not parentheses so much! I’ll have to look up Because Internet, because the rapid shift in punctuation in texts is definitely an interesting phenomenon.

    I’ve taken to using ! as a sign of mild approval or whatever, and ! !!! to replace an actual exclamation point. Don’t actually know if that’s standard for texts, but hey, I sometimes want to use an actual exclamation point, so …

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