What is Punctuation?

A Few Thoughts on a Big Subject

By Annette Rey

Punctuation – what is it? It is the marks on paper or screen that represent what our physical bodies would be doing at the time we would be saying the words verbally. What do I mean by that? Well, for instance, I can write “She sang the song.” Or “She sang the song!” Or “She sang the song.” Or “She sang the song.” Or “She sang the song.” Or “She sang The Song.” Verbally, I would put inflected sounds of my voice on the italicized words. Additionally, I might use hand gestures, grimaces (if the singing was poor), lifted eyebrows, jumping up and down if enthused, and clapping my hands! All of these movements and inflections would punctuate my verbal story to you.

You have known these facts all along, but giving them a good look can be helpful when you are translating thought to page. You ask yourself, how can I make my reader see what I see, what I want him to know? It all starts with a few rules so a writer’s work can be fairly consistent with other written works.

Many professionals differ on some points of punctuation. It is wise to read every guideline and follow a publisher’s wishes for that submission. Some do mention punctuation. In other cases, use manuals like The Chicago Manual of Style, and The Associated Press Stylebook. Use reputable internet sites, like http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/home.html.

To start, let’s look at a few examples:

If I had not included a comma after to start in the above sentence, the reader would have read without pause – To start let’s – a brief second in time will have passed but the reader’s mind is moving forward beyond those words already. To start let’s makes no sense. And so the mind falters a moment, long enough to have to re-pace itself and even begin the sentence again. We don’t want our reader to trip. We want our writing to take the reader into another world, flawlessly. So a comma is needed after the first two words, the introduction, of that sentence. The comma is also there because the two introductory words are really not necessary in the sentence as the rest of the words – let’s look at a few examples – can stand alone as a complete sentence.

All of this may seem very basic and you are beyond that level. I understand. But it never hurts to review what we need to know.

So the use of the comma to set off an introduction is generally known. But how about knowing a less used and, perhaps, less known rule related to capitalization? Look at these names. Guy de Maupassant. Leonardo da Vinci. The article (de, da) is not capitalized because the first name of the person precedes it. When a person is referenced only by his last name, the article is capitalized. De Maupassant. Da Vinci. Chances are, you didn’t know that. I have included this example to point out there are things you may not know. And you may take for granted that what you wrote is correct when, in fact, it is not. You must check everything before you submit. If you take short cuts, you will look like a rookie. Your work could end in a rejection. On the other hand, being meticulous shows you respect what you have written, and reflects your professionalism.

Some people find punctuation in dialogue quite tricky. I found an interesting article written by Liz Bureman (http://sumo.ly/ryaw) on this subject. She referenced the queen of crime writers, Dame Agatha Christie, who used extensive dialogue in her stories. Click on the link to further your knowledge in this area.

Correcting your work can be a daunting task. I suggest you isolate areas where you regularly have problems, look for it in your editing process, and conquer that particular item. Once conquered, focus on the next area that consistently gives you problems. All of this work is not just to please convention but to provide clarity for your readers. Punctuation is your friend. And your readers should rank first as you create your piece.
















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