|
|
|
The Dansville Online
  • Wood on Words: Here's what punctuation marks do

  • Punctuation marks are signals in writing that substitute for those we use in speech to make meaning clearer. But it isn’t easy to replace vocal variations such as volume, pitch and pace, and facial expressions and other body language.

    • email print
  • Punctuation marks are signals in writing that substitute for those we use in speech to make meaning clearer. But it isn’t easy to replace vocal variations such as volume, pitch and pace, and facial expressions and other body language.
    Punctuation falls into three basic categories: statement enders, statement interrupters and specialists. Most of them have a range of functions and present certain challenges. I’ll explore some of the easier ones first.
    Statement enders
    The “exclamation point” (or “mark”) seems fairly straightforward. It’s used, as Webster’s puts it, “to express surprise, strong emotion, determination, etc.” Of course, one person’s “strong emotion” is another person’s overreaction.
    The use of exclamation points in email and other e-communication is exploding! (Sorry, that should have been a period.) The sheer volume of such messages would indicate that not all of them are earth-shattering, but I may be wrong.
    Here at the newspaper, I try to enforce a one-per-customer rule on exclamation points, and even that single appearance should be for something clearly on a higher emotional scale.
    The “question mark” is another seemingly simple one. For example, such a mark is needed at the end of the following:
    When is a question not a question?
    And the answer is: when it’s an “indirect question” or a “courtesy question,” says “The Chicago Manual of Style.” As examples of the former, it offers:
    “He wondered whether it was worth the risk.”
    “How the two could be reconciled was the question on everyone’s mind.”
    “Courtesy questions” are essentially requests:
    “Would you kindly respond by March 1.”
    “Will the audience please rise.”
    These are “questions” without question marks.
    Statement interrupters
    These are the marks that let readers know where a pause is needed. We have a brief pause (“comma”), stops within a sentence (“semicolon” and “colon”) and the more showy stops (“dashes,” “parentheses” and “ellipses”).
    A classic style disagreement involves the so-called “serial comma,” or “Oxford comma,” or “Harvard comma,” or “Halley’s comma” — sorry, that last one’s a “comet,” not a comma.
    Consider the statement: “My favorite authors are Mark Twain, Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, and Loren Eiseley.” Is the comma before “and” necessary or superfluous?
    The Associated Press Stylebook says omit it; most other authorities favor leaving it in. I have followed AP style for so long, its rule seems natural to me. But there are several exceptions in which the AP advises using such a comma. Why not just adopt the serial comma, then, and eliminate the need to memorize the exceptions? I could learn to do that.
    Some writers just don’t like semicolons — period. Kurt Vonnegut wrote on Page 23 in “A Man Without a Country”:
    Page 2 of 2 - “Here is a lesson in creative writing.
    “First rule: Do not use semicolons.” They represent “absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”
    Then, near the end of the book, on Page 134:
    “And there, I’ve just used a semicolon, which at the outset I told you never to use. It is to make a point that I did it. The point is: Rules only take us so far, even good rules.”
    Next time: The real troublemakers of punctuation.
    Read Barry Wood’s Wood on Words blog at www.rrstar.com/blogs/barrywood.

        calendar