I’ve heard a lot of strange comments in my writing workshops. Someone once told me they thought from my writing that I wished I was a boy. Someone else questioned why I write more about Greek identity than Swedish identity. I expect all sorts of reactions to the content of my essays and that I’ll get criticism in regard to structure. It comes with the territory.
What I never suspected was that I’d get feedback on my punctuation.
I don’t recall ever hearing anyone else in a workshop receive comments on their lack of use of the oxford comma or their split infinitives. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I criticized someone’s use of parentheses. If it’s unimportant enough to place in a parenthetical, it’s not important enough to keep in your book. Edit it out! Of course there are exceptions: for example, definitions of foreign words. The other instance of a workshop debate being generated from punctuation had to do with the use of David-Foster-Wallace-like footnotes. For the most part, though, comments about punctuation—errors in punctuation, that is—are kept to written edits on the writer’s page.
That’s why I found it so curious that at least once a semester, someone raised comments praising my grammar and punctuation. As an editor by profession, punctuation is important to a fault for me. I live by Oscar Wilde’s quote:
I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.
It just never occurred to me that someone might actually notice my punctuation. After all, correct punctuation should be a given. And when punctuation is correct, it generally doesn’t stand out to the reader.
I figured readers maybe noticed my punctuation because I use crazy marks like the semicolon. Who uses the semicolon nowadays?
I’m playing a bit coy, though. I do believe there’s more to punctuation than it just being correct. I don’t intend my punctuation to stand out and grab the reader’s attention. I’m not trying to be a punctuation renegade, experimenting and breaking the rules for purposeful affect. That said, every comma, every em-dash, and yes, every parenthesis conveys subtle meaning.
Think about it. When em-dashes (those long dashes between words) appear in a text, doesn’t it make the work feel more modern and fast-paced than a commonplace comma? And don’t endnotes seem more scholarly than parentheses?
I think punctuation frightens most people. It brings back all this childhood trauma associated with teachers yelling about sentence fragments and marking papers up with green pen. Green is the new red. Green is supposed to be less scary than red, but it isn’t. It means the exact same thing: you made an error.
Don’t let punctuation poison your prose. Get a grip on it and use punctuation just as you use diction as one of your writer’s tools to convey your story to your reader.
Helpful resources for proper punctuation:
The Copyeditor’s Handbook
Grammar class at New York University