28 August, 2017

Persnickety Punctuation

This has been interesting summer reading, though it probably wouldn't appeal to everyone! I found the early chapters slow going (history of punctuation), but when it got into the chapters about current punctuation usage, it was much easier to stick with it.

It is more than a dry style manual, it talks about how punctuation has been used and how it currently is being used. 

Something I've never thought about before is that there are two approaches to punctuation: the semantic approach and the pragmatic approach. 

Semantic being that punctuation is all about ensuring the meaning of the words is clear, and results in prescription: i.e. "this is when you use a colon". 

Pragmatic focuses on explaining usage, not just prescribing. The author says that both perspectives are important when evaluating punctuation.
If you find it difficult to understand what someone has written because of the way punctuation has been used, then you're reacting semantically. But if you don't like the look of what someone has written—saying, for example, that a page is 'cluttered'—then you're reacting pragmatically.
As an editor and writer it is good to remember both these, especially when we get to debating a tricky situation that has unclear rules attached to it. The history of punctuation also gives a nice longitudinal view to the issue which helps one to realise that the current trends are merely that, trends (eg. minimal punctuation) that have been influenced by a wide range of people, including typesetters, designers, writers, copy editors etc.

Another interesting component of the book about the influence that the internet has had on them, how punctuation has taken on a whole lot of different meanings there (and in texting).
What was particularly interesting, and somewhat liberating to me as a writer and editor, were the chapters on semicolons, colons, dashes, and commas. I'm no punctuation expert and often feel a bit at sea when trying to decide between these four marks in a lengthy or complicated sentence. I've therefore been tentative in using them, especially the first three. 

If you've read this far you might be interested in the helpful guidelines this book gave:

  • "Semicolon allows us to join two independent sentences together when we feel they are semantically linked in some way (like an "and")."
  • "The semicolon allows us to see more clearly the structure of a complex sentence, especially one which is packed full of detail. It takes some load off the comma."
  • But the author cautions relying on the semicolon too much, as it can make writing hard to read
  • It can convey an adversative meaning (replacing "but" or "whereas"); a restatement ("that is"); or a result (replacing "as a result")
  • May be replaced by "as follows" (explanation), "namely" (a rephrasing of what's come before).
  • Separates two clauses within a sentence
Dash (em dash):
  • Shows an inclusion in a sentence, alongside commas and brackets (US=round brackets)
  • "[Dashes] are the mark of choice when someone wants to convey a disjointed or chaotic series of thoughts"
  • En dash is used for ranges in dates, times, distances. It also marks contrasting positions, like 3–0 to Australia (soccer) or a coordination a father–son relationship.
  • These are one of the punctuation marks I have most discussions about with myself and my editing team. Sometimes i'ts a matter of meaning, other times it's a matter of opinion. Understanding the latter is very important. If the meaning isn't muddied, I generally have no difficulty with removing or inserting commas if it makes the author (or proofreader) happy.
  • Commas are widely used: to separate clauses, phrases, and words. That makes them slippery elements to tie down and can make things more complex if they are used for different purposes in the same sentence.
  • Serial commas (also known as Oxford comma). The book quoted the best argument I've heard: "because the 'no final comma' principle breaks down now and again through ambiguity, whilst the 'final comma' principle can be followed consistently with less risk of it." (quoted from G V Carey in Mind the Stop)

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