The Punctuation Trap

I was sitting outside of my undergrad adviser’s office one day (English majors for the win!), when I heard this quote. She was advising a fellow writer/English lover at the time:

“You have a very big vocabulary. But I don’t think you should use every word. Because, the thing is, you know the words, but you’re not using them correctly.”

I snickered because I’m a jerk.

This is a really common thing for new writers, but it isn’t limited to words. I see it most often with punctuation. You know which guys I mean:?! … ;

The problem with these grammar marks is not that they’re wrong, but that they’re stealing the show. Everything new writers use them for those first few years–trailing off, adding emphasis, indicating confusion–can and should be better achieved through words and actions. Using them is like using a cliche. It’s cheating. It doesn’t really show a feeling or an emotion, except in the broadest, most ineffective strokes.

New writers reach for them to sound like more experienced writers. Lacking confidence in themselves, they bolster their text (or their feelings) with big words and obscure punctuation. Because hey, if you can use punctilious correctly and throw in a semicolon, you can’t be all bad, right? Not quite. Punctuation marks are the spices of writing. The more obscure spices, like turmeric, paprika, and sage, are great with a light touch, but pour on too much, and the dish is kaput.

The basics will get you by just fine for a very long time. A manuscript that has proper periods, commas, and quotation marks is far more impressive than a manuscript chock full of misplaced semicolons, ellipsis, and whatever you call this: “?!”. When starting out, cull the more obscure punctuation from your writing. Learn to use the standards more effectively. How can a writer indicate confusion without a question mark and exclamation point combo? How can a writer combine thoughts, but still use separate sentences?

Once they’re gone, keep them gone for years. And I mean years. (Unless you’re writing thousands of words a day, then maybe nine months. At least give yourself the amount of time it takes to make a baby.) When it has been programmed into your brain that you do not use those, when you’re so blind to them, you red-pen them without even considering if they’re appropriate, then you may open your eyes to them. When do they work? When do they emphasize instead of scream? When do they give a feeling that is best earned through their use, and not some other word or gesture? When is a semicolon really a better choice than having two sentences? (If you find an example, please share it. Because, really, when?)

There are a few, rare moments when these little guys, the lovable jerks of the grammar world, are appropriate. And when they are, that one time in an entire novel-length manuscript, use them. They can be like swear words, completely effective when used properly, or so over-used, they slip out in front of grandma.

*Edited for an ironic grammar error.


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