Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Coming to a Full Stop

Punctuation must have caused more writers mental stress than any other aspect of the game. Spelling’s pretty much a cut and dried affair, unless you’re an American, and grammar has a few rules and regulations to follow. But nobody seems too sure about where you stick the commas, colons and semi-colons in your manuscript. Oscar Wilde once said that he’d spent the morning agonising over where to put a comma – and after lunch, took it out. And Somerset Maugham remarked, gloomily (well he was a bit), that his new editor did nothing but remove commas.

I must say commas don’t bother me too much. It’s the semi-colon I have a problem with. It seems so indecisive. “Hello,” it says, “need to have a bit of a break here – don’t want to halt ‘em in their tracks, just let ‘em have a pause.” And in goes the semi-colon and, to my mind, ruins the whole flow of eloquence. I think the semi-colon is lacking in character – even its name doesn’t have the ring of confidence, who would want to be semi anything?

In contrast, the colon is a full blooded, masculine piece of punctuation. No half measures here. It tells the world that what’s coming up needs to be taken seriously, statistics or perhaps a quotation of some sort.

About the only way I can tell if a comma is in the right place is to read the piece with an observer’s eye. The idea is to clarify the meaning of the words and if it doesn’t you either need to take it out or perhaps add a few more until the words do make sense.

I recently received a manuscript whose author must have belonged to a society that had foresworn the use of punctuation in their lives. The economy with the use of commas and even full stops made it something of a challenge to interpret.

A couple of years back, Lyn Truss, a journalist, tried to put things in perspective with her book, “Eats, Shoots and Leaves.” It’s a pretty good effort – but it still leaves you a bit on your own when it comes to punctuating your MS.

But never fear, however you do it, it’s a sure thing that your editor will put you right on the subject – and probably delete a few commas or semi-colons!


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