John Scalzi on Punctuation

John Scalzi has an interesting post this morning (well, interesting if you're a writer anyway) about the use of punctuation, prompted by a little battle he is having with the copy editor for his new book. It's interesting to me, at least, because I just had a similar conversation with Lynn last night in the context of discussing Mencken's writing. John writes:

The comma thing does make me aware how much I use punctuation in general and commas specifically for intonation in my writing. Commas are grammatically used today primarily for reading clarity, to separate phrases and clauses from each other in a sentence, to make them all easier to read and comprehend; other marks (like that semi-colon just now, not to mention these parentheses) do much the same thing. But way back, when most words were spoken, not written, commas, semicolons and the like were guides for the speaker to tell him when and how to make pauses in speaking. Small pauses were commas, larger ones were semicolons and colon; and periods of course were the longest pause of all. They still function that way, even mentally (do you or do you not take a quick mental pause when you see a period?), but it's not really the main thrust of punctuation anymore.

Even so, as a writer I find that I'm pretty sensitive to where the commas go in writing, and how they affect the flow of the sentence as it rolls through my brain. More than that, I think how I use my punctuation is part of my writing voice. I am most aware of it when I'm writing dialogue -- change the position of a comma and you can change the emphasis and meaning of what someone is saying -- but I'm also aware of it in other places. Good punctuation use (particularly commas) can make written words feel conversational; bad punctuation use -- even if it's grammatically "correct" -- can make written words hard to read.

I agree wholeheartedly with that last statement. As we were discussing last night, Mencken's writing breaks most of the conventions of writing. An English teacher today would probably leave red marks all over one of his essays, but this is primarily because most English teachers look at writing as a technical exercise, a mere arranging of words to be done according to hard and fast rules. Such a perspective on writing bleeds it of all vitality, reduces it to a form of verbal engineering that looks for the most efficent means of expression as opposed to the most charming or ingratiating or persuasive.

Like John, I tend to use punctuation to indicate where I would pause if I was reading the sentence, or to give a sentence a certain rhythm. I often choose between words on the same basis, where, for example, a 2-syllable word gives a more pleasing cadence to a sentence than a 3-syllable word that means the same thing, or vice versa. It's a mirror image of jazz, I think, where the rhythm and tone communicates images and ideas without words, while in writing you use ideas and words to communicate rhythm and tone. And in each, the real key is having a passion for that expression. I know that's true in my own writing. I think those who read my blog regularly can tell, as Lynn said last night, when I'm writing with passion, when it's something I really feel strongly about, because there is a different tone and rhythm that you can almost hear while you read. The words themselves seem to have more life to them, as if they are carrying more than they otherwise would.

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Good writing _always_ has a voice, with intonation and pauses conveyed by punctuation. I find it difficult to read material written without a noticible voice. It takes forever to figure out what the author is trying to say.

Even when writing a passionless technical paper, I find myself choosing words and punctuation by ear. (Not that I consider myself a good writer, but I do aspire to be a better one, at least.)

Puctuation, like commas for instance, can be mis-interpreted by the reader even when the writer is trying very carefully to convey a certain message.

Just yesterday I wrote to an evolution denier regarding transitional fossil forms, "If you, or any creationist, has a better scientific explanation, then where is it? Now he immediately puffed up and angrily accused me of calling him a creationist. I pointed out that by the way I used those first two commas, I specifically was not necessarily including him in that group, as I did not then know if he was or wasn't one. I even recall while writing the sentence that I had to be careful and not lump him in, even if his statements to that point were clearly indicating his creationist leanings. Obviously my intent to be clear in expression was not fully successful.

You wrote:

"An English teacher today would probably leave red marks all over one of his essays, but this is primarily because most English teachers look at writing as a technical exercise, a mere arranging of words to be done according to hard and fast rules."

You are both right and wrong on this. Yes, of course there are pedants teaching English for whom writing is a technical exercise. But I would be curious to know what evidence you can offer that this constitutes the majority of them. [Implied by that "probably" in your post.] I doubt that is true even at the HS level and I absolutely deny it at the university level. In fact, based on my experience with entering college students, I wish high schools had many more teachers who put more emphasis on the rules and less on what is often a chaotic and incomprehensible "expression of feelings."
When you get to the level of published [or publishing] writers, dueling with press editors over the style manual, you may have a point. Editors vary, as do English teachers. But I'd point out that those who break the conventions to produce distinctive writing... like Mencken perhaps... generally know the rules and conventions of English composition [including those governing punctuation]. They know them backwards and forwards and six ways from Sunday which is WHY [damnit, put something in your comment option that will let me do italics!] they can break those rules and conventions without sacrificing clarity and impact.
Since I deal each term with legions of students who are blissfully ignorant of the basics of English composition and who cannot explain on the page much of anything clearly, much less anything complex, I wish high schools spent a great deal more time, not less, on the rules. Can't tell you how many times I've put the following comment in the margin of a student's paper: "Huh? What does this mean?" --only to have the student come up and explain what it was he thought he had said. It takes me a while, most times, to make them see that what they in fact said not only was not what they thought they had said, but it in fact said nothing comprehensible at all.
So go ahead, Ed, and all the budding Mencken's out there... break the rules as you please for effect... but only AFTER you have learned them.

By flatlander100 (not verified) on 13 Jul 2004 #permalink

You are both right and wrong on this. Yes, of course there are pedants teaching English for whom writing is a technical exercise. But I would be curious to know what evidence you can offer that this constitutes the majority of them. [Implied by that "probably" in your post.] I doubt that is true even at the HS level and I absolutely deny it at the university level.

Well, I never took a composition class at the college level, so I'm basing this only on my experience in high school, which was allegedly one of the better public school districts in the state of Michigan. My experience may be atypical, I admit, but my teachers were colossal mediocrities who would not have recognized good writing on a bet. But I accept that this may not represent everyone else's experience.

In fact, based on my experience with entering college students, I wish high schools had many more teachers who put more emphasis on the rules and less on what is often a chaotic and incomprehensible "expression of feelings."

Well I'm certainly not advocating that we teach something as mushy as "expression of feelings" without regard to good writing. And I don't doubt for a moment that you are accurately describing most entering college students. I would say that most people are going to write badly even if they follow all the rules, and I agree with your general point that one must know the rules in order to break them coherently and create something good. I'd say that's true in almost any field. In music, for example, in order to improvise well you have to be very well schooled in the basics first. No argument there at all.

Since I deal each term with legions of students who are blissfully ignorant of the basics of English composition and who cannot explain on the page much of anything clearly, much less anything complex, I wish high schools spent a great deal more time, not less, on the rules. Can't tell you how many times I've put the following comment in the margin of a student's paper: "Huh? What does this mean?" --only to have the student come up and explain what it was he thought he had said. It takes me a while, most times, to make them see that what they in fact said not only was not what they thought they had said, but it in fact said nothing comprehensible at all.

I would be curious to know if that's because they weren't taught the rules of grammar well enough, or because they just don't think clearly, hence can't express it clearly. Don't know how that would be tested, but it's an interesting question. I would say that for most students, the best one can hope for is that they write efficently and follow the basic rules. For students with a talent for thinking and writing, they are more likely to feel constrained by the insistence on form over substance. I know that was my experience.

By the way, you can use normal html code in comments. You can put things in italics, bold, underline, etc with the basic html tags. For italics, simply surround the text you want to be in italics with the following tags:

{i} and {/i}

replacing the } with >