An interesting e-mail popped up in my in-box this morning, and it set a train of thought in motion. I hope the sender won’t mind if I riff on it a little.
It’s no secret that I have a bit of a thing about punctuation. OK, a lot of a thing.
And not just because in one of my lives I edit other people’s work. The way a writer uses it can make a huge difference in so many ways. First impressions are often the only ones you get a chance to make when you submit your work to an editor or agent, and punctuation plays a large part in how the work comes across in that all-important first reading.
So you have to get it right.
But, as my e-mail correspondent asked this morning, how do you judge what is ‘right’ when you check out several so-called expert sources and find conflicting views?
That’s the great punctuation conundrum: sometimes there is no definitive right or wrong; it’s all down to making your writing work as you want it to. Sure, there are rules, and every aspiring writer would do well to acquire a firm grasp of the basic principles. But there’s also sentence balance, and rhythm, and pace, and nuance, which all add up to a writer’s unique voice and style. Where you place a comma, semi-colon or dash can play an essential role in creating all of the above. So once you get past those basic principles, it’s not so much a rule book, more a tool box.
This was pretty much the answer I gave to my e-mail correspondent. I doubt it was any more use to him than the other sources he’s been finding so conflicted. He’s probably scratching his head right now, and wondering why he bothered to ask. His particular query related to one item of punctuation, and although he didn’t specify a context, I took an educated guess and answered – kind of – on that basis, but there still wasn’t an unequivocal answer.
And there, of course, is yet another variable. Context. And, to a certain extent, house style is one more, though that can be a vexed question.
I care so much about this that this post could go on, and on, and on, but I won’t let it, because if you get what I’m meandering about you’ll already be thinking, yeah, OK, why does she need to state the obvious? If you don’t get it, well, you just don’t, that’s all, and your life probably isn’t any poorer for it. But if you follow this blog, you’re probably a reader or a writer, so you probably do.